Tech Rescue

Team-Based Palm Tree Rescue

Issue 7 and Volume 8.

In the southwestern United States, palm tree rescues have increased over the years and firefighters have found them both challenging and demanding. Palm tree rescues are so odd that much has been written about them, yet there remains no easy solution to this dangerous rescue problem—until now. In this article, I’ll discuss a new team-based technique used in the Phoenix area to handle this issue, and how to apply it to the Desert Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera).

Want More? Watch a video presentation of the team-based procedure outlined in this article.

Skirt Trouble
Like all palms, the Desert Fan grows from the center. The palm fronds spread out and eventually, individual fronds die, hanging down one on top of the other. These dead fronds form what is referred to as a skirt. Without trimming, the skirt can extend for many feet, giving the tree a classic, tropical look. The skirt can weigh about 100 lbs. per liner foot—and trimming this heavy skirt is what creates the rescue problem.

Most property owners have their Desert Fan Palms trimmed on a regular basis. The most common method of trimming is to climb the tree with the help of a flip line at the waist and climbing gaffs strapped to the feet in a “lineman” style. This activity doesn’t cause many problems when there’s no skirt, but a long, old skirt on this species of palm interlocks around the trunk of the tree, creating a deadly situation. With age, the fronds’ attachment points rot, so a whole mass of fronds may be poised to slip.  

As the trimmer climbs from below, cutting and pulling old fronds, a large section of interlocked fronds above can break free of the trunk. This section of interlocked fronds can slip down the trunk like a sleeve or collar. When this collar of fronds reaches the climbing tree trimmer, it typically pushes them over backwards with hundreds of pounds of force. Asphyxiation is the typical result.

Aerials vs. Ground Ladders
The most common and successful rescue strategy in these situations is to access the victim from above with an aerial platform. Rescuers can literally “unzip” the collar of fronds like unzipping a jacket by using a tool, such as a pike pole, and focusing on one section until the fronds fall away. This is usually Plan A for most departments.

Problems arise when these incidents occur in places where an aerial cannot reach. And without an easy means to access the victim, rescuers find it very difficult to stand below a potentially viable patient and do nothing. As a result, they often deploy ground ladders and climb up from below. Most of the time, this practice puts firefighters in harm’s way while affording them very little ability for them to rescue the patient.

Important: Ground ladders can also be used to block falling fronds and to possibly push up on the skirt to buy time, but rescuers should not climb ground ladders under an unstable skirt.

Watch & Learn
For years, we practiced climbing a Desert Fan Palm with gaffs and a flip line (albeit with no fronds present), and we performed a modified type of pick-off. But to my knowledge, we’ve never attempted this climbing technique on an actual rescue with a victim pinned by fronds. When you think about it, climbing under an unstable, old skirt of fronds that weighs 1,000 lbs. seems a bit sketchy, no matter what the circumstances. Don’t get me wrong—climbing is a great option in certain situations, just not in this case.

A couple of years ago, we started watching arborists shoot a line over the top of fan palms to put a high-directional in place. They pulled themselves up with a type of solo technique in order to safely trim trees that they couldn’t reach with a bucket truck. We thought this technique had potential, so a group from the Glendale (Ariz.) Fire Department put together a similar, team-based procedure. Instructors from the Phoenix region helped polish it, and we put 400 technicians through a training exercise on the procedure this past winter.

You may not have palm trees in your response area, but this procedure was born out of necessity, and if you see possible applications to a rescue problem that you have, or you have other types of trees in your area that are trimmed regularly, keep reading.

Team-Based Palm Tree Rescue
The procedure involves shooting a messenger line over the crown of the palm tree. The messenger line is used to pull two rescue ropes up over the crown to install high-directional pulleys high in the tree. High directionals allow the rescuer to be raised and lowered safely up and around the dangerous skirt by the team from below.

We start by designating a team leader and assigning members to the key roles. For us, a rescue company of four is typically assigned a key role like setting up and managing the working line; three rescue companies are optimal for performing this procedure. The key roles and responsibilities for team-based palm tree rescue include:

  • Team leader
  • Safety
  • High-directionals, which includes the line shooter
  • Working line
  • Belay line
  • Rescuer

Team Leader
The team leader will assign tasks to the group, designate primary anchors and identify any hazards.

A designated safety person is important in any rescue operation. In this instance, they must establish a hot zone around the base of the tree as soon as possible. Rescuers should also limit their time in the hot zone and watch closely for falling debris. We’ve seen big, heavy sections of fronds come down and shake the ground.

The high-directional group will flake out two 150′ or 200′ ropes to be pulled over the tree. The end of each high-directional rope will get a figure 8 on a bight and a pulley.

The high-directional group will then shoot the line over the crown and gently pull all slack up and over until only the end remains with them. To help pass the rope ends through the fronds, we cut the end out of a water bottle, pass it up the messenger line and then clove-hitch it to the two ropes.

Tip: Pull the high-directional lines up to the crown carefully, yet freely to reduce friction. The messenger lines must stay high in the fronds until the ropes pass over. Once the ropes are over, they can be pulled until the high-directional pulleys (with working line and belay line installed) have reached the base of the crown.

Important: The high-directional lines must be anchored; we recommend using a separate tree in line with the main anchor. Apply a commercial anchor strap and connect a descent device (like a brake rack) to it. We anchor the high-directionals to a descent device and tie them off so that they can be lowered off as a back-up plan.

An anchor strap should be placed at the base of the victim’s tree for a low directional for the working line.

The Working Line
The working line group should proceed to their anchor point with their gear. Their first task is to put a pulley with a carabiner on the working line with about 20 feet of tail. They will give the pulley to the high-directional group; the tail is for the rescuer to tie in.

The working line group will complete their anchor and assemble the gear needed to build a mechanical advantage (MA) so they can raise the rescuer to the victim. We use an 8-mm three-wrap prusik on the main line as the progress capture (or ratchet) with a prusik-minding pulley. As a general rule, we gang a 5:1 MA on the working line to raise and lower.

Tip: Do not add the ratchet prusik onto the working line until the high-directionals are pulled up into position. This allows the main line to be pulled out freely.

The Belay Line
Just like the working line group, the belay group will add a pulley to the belay line with a tail. They can then complete their anchor and stand by for the high- directionals to be pulled into position. Note: The belay is either a standard tandem prusik belay or the CMC Rescue multi-purpose device, which is ideal for this type of procedure.

If there’s time, the working line and belay line members can help the rescuer tie in and get rigged.

The Rescuer
The rescuer dons a harness and ties into the working line and the belay line with a doubled long-tail bowline. This rigging is identical to a team-based, supported pick-off.

Note: The rescuer should have a tag line and should be prepared to put a harness on the victim, because it’s common for tree trimmers to only use a chain for a flip line with no harness.

Once the rescuer is rigged and the rest of the system is complete, the team leader will call for a safety check and then a pre-tension. The working line and belay line are tensioned, and the rescuer can sit down on the system for a final safety check. Once the final safety check is passed, the rescuer is hauled up into position. This set-up should be accomplished in about 20 minutes.

The Rescue Operation
The rescuer is faced with several challenges. We’ve seen victims completely hidden as they hugged the tree, but more commonly, we’ve seen victims bent over backwards at the waist with the weight of the skirt resting on top of them. In that situation, the fronds have slipped so they’re not bonded to the tree. The rescuers can therefore straddle the victim’s location and try to pull fronds one at a time from directly above the victim. When doing this, you can use both hands by bracing your feet against the trunk and pulling quickly. Unzip the fronds from the victim upward. Tip: Use your tag line to pull up tools, such as a closet pike pole, which is effective at pulling and ripping fronds. Time is a critical factor, so try whatever works best to pull fronds.

As soon as you remove some of the weight from the victim, connect the belay line to their harness. If they don’t have a harness, connect the waist loop of the rescue harness around their waist to achieve victim capture. Continue pulling fronds in a vertical line. Focus on this line like a zipper. At some point, big sections of the skirt will fall away, exposing the victim.

Complete connections and harness leg loops as needed. Once the victim is connected, pull them up just a bit to allow for the removal of their flip line. Note: You may need to pull up some bolt cutters if this is a chain. Once the flip line is off, advise the team leader that the victim is free and you’re ready for lower.

The Lower
It’s a simple matter to lower both rescuer and victim with the MA haul system that you used to raise the rescuer. First, advise the haul team to prepare to lower, and then instruct them to free the ratchet. When the person minding the ratchet prusik reports that the ratchet is free, advise the haul team to lower slowly. The ratchet person should mind the ratchet prusik with two fingers so that it’s easy to let the ratchet set in an emergency.

A Solid Method
Team-based palm tree rescue is one example of our ability to adapt familiar rescue tools and procedures to special problems. Team-based palm tree rescue is a Plan B procedure, but it’s a solid method to safely reach a trapped tree trimmer. Even if you don’t have palm trees in your area, you can see how strategically placed high-directional anchors can open up new opportunities to safely perform high-angle rescue.

SIDEBAR: Shooting the Line
The key to shooting a messenger line over the crown of the palm tree is using the right line-throwing device. We worked with the Lucky Line Launcher by Cascade Toboggan (it’s a modified dog training tool), and the Big Shot Line Launcher by Sherrill Tree.

Both devices worked well, but firefighters favored the Lucky Line Launcher, which uses a .22-caliber power load. I think the firearm-like device gave more accurate and consistent results. The Big Shot is essentially a slingshot mounted to a 6-foot-long hot stick. The advantages of using the Big Shot is that it doesn’t jam and you don’t need power loads.

Whichever device you choose, the line must be strong enough to pull at least one (or two) rescue ropes up and over the tree. The American Arborist Supply sells 2.2-mm, urethane-coated Dyneema, which is a strong, slick line that is easy to pull over the tree.

Practice shooting the line to get proficient at the technique. The goal is to get the line over the center of the crown; the key to doing that is keeping the line high in the fronds until the rope is over the top and in the hands of the haulers on the other side. If the messenger line pulls down into the base of the crown before the rope makes it over, the attempt will be unsuccessful. If that’s the case, it’s best to abort and set up for another shot. You’ll know it when you’re at that point.