Between 2017 and 2018 I was fortunate to be awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship allowing me to travel to areas in North America known for their technical and challenging terrain both in the urban and geological arenas. The emergency services involved in the rescues in such areas are some of the most experienced in the world.
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service has its fair share of technical rescues, albeit of a differing nature to those of the metropolitan brigades. Unsurprisingly our rescues quite often involve mine shafts, cliffs and animal rescues both large and small. It goes without saying that the service attends incidents involving casualties that require rescuing from structures as well as the ever-increasing demand to perform bariatric rescues. These rescues are more often than not happening alongside organisations such as HART, HMCG and volunteer organisations such as Search and Rescue Teams as well as smaller organisations that have no affiliation with the emergency services but nonetheless have performed a variety of rescues in the past.
This misalignment and lack of appreciation between organisations got me thinking about how other services throughout the world align and manage volunteers involved in rescue. This further opened up into areas that link into the work we do, such as incident command, equipment, mobilising and health and wellbeing to name a few. As I thought more about the issues and investigated this viewpoint nationally it became clear that organisations up and down the country are witnessing similar situations. I wanted to investigate how other fire departments and rescue organisations managed their interoperability and capabilities; so, following the successful fellowship of one of my colleagues, I applied to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is the living legacy of Sir Winston following his death in 1965. The premise of the trust is to fund individuals to travel and learn from the world and return to benefit the UK. To date, the trust has funded over 5,500 people to travel the world with a view of returning to make a difference. The application process consists of an initial outline application followed by a more detailed costings application and then lastly a panel interview in London. After my successful application to the trust and obtaining the funding required to travel to the USA and Canada I was now empowered to research and immerse myself in alternative ways of working to improve the UK’s approach to rescue.
Rescue in urban areas
In 2017 and 2018 I visited San Francisco, Ventura County, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle Fire Departments. Collectively these departments attend over 420,000 calls per year with around 40–50% of those calls being medical. The technical rescue teams within these departments generally specialise and respond to specific calls which can vary between departments. These skills generally include high-angle rope rescue, confined space, cliff rescue, heavy rescue, USAR, SCUBA, extended duration BA and in some cases HAZMAT.
Rope-rescue equipment varied between departments and in some cases I found very little equipment that would benefit UK FRS rescue teams over what we currently use other than the CMC MPD (Multi-Purpose Device) and the use of vehicle-mounted capstan winches and power-driven ‘Sky Hooks’. The MPD is widely used by North American Fire and Rescue Services in dual systems and is favoured due to its increased safe working load as well as the ability to act as a pulley, belay and descent control device without the need to switch out for additional equipment. When discussing the MPD with a ‘Ropes that Rescue’ instructor, I also wanted to outline why many North American fire services now retrieve on both lines rather than the one, whilst the second is managed through the belay device. The answer is quite simple and is becoming more commonplace in the UK – in the event of the hauling line failing, the dynamic event that would take place on the shared system would be limited in comparison to what would occur to the belay line if it were being hauled on one line. These new and common ways of working are due to fire departments and rescue organisations being exposed and involved in the great work that is being performed by individuals such as Kirk Mauthner and Reed Thorne –especially in regard to modern textiles and associated destruction testing. Almost all of the departments I visited had members that also instructed for Reed on a regular basis – this up-to-date knowledge in textiles and hardware testing seemed to prove invaluable.
Calgary Fire Department has recently created a new technical rescue team that covers all aspects as detailed previously. They have received extensive funding and personnel, creating a robust team answering all technical, USAR and heavy-rescue calls in an ever-expanding city. Having completed a week’s input of USAR and heavy rescue, I was interested to learn of the differences in equipment, especially in regard to heavy rescue. Calgary Fire Department has extensive capabilities to be able to perform heavy-vehicle lifts and stabilisation. This equipment is similar to that deployed by the Canadian Task Force – Canada’s national asset response to disaster areas such as the fires seen in Fort McMurray in 2016. The evolution that I was part of was lifting a petrol tanker that had rolled onto an SUV with a person trapped inside. As a crew, we lifted the tanker using a Paratech Hydra-Fusion lifting strut with an underslung chain cradle and chased using Paratech stabilisation and wooden cribbing. The equipment was highly effective and controlled in releasing the casualty whilst remaining safe. It is worth noting here that it was everyone’s collective opinion that on make-up of the equipment a crane would be used to release tension on the system to ensure safety is maintained throughout and complete the righting of the vehicle. My thoughts transferred to how my specific service, and arguably other services throughout the UK, would deal with a situation similar to this – and I am not confident we could. I appreciate that some services may be able to but certainly not all. These methods and equipment could certainly be investigated to feature in the tool kits of UK Fire and Rescue Services in response to the risks that we could very well experience.
Ventura County Technical Rescue Team had vehicle mounting points to attach capstan winch retrieval devices which routed through a high deviation (also mounted on the vehicle) as well as a third mounting point for the second line to be quickly attached. Due to the location of Ventura County neighbouring Los Padres National Forest and Highway 33 it was common that vehicles left the road and ended up in deep ravines or perched in precarious positions on cliff faces. The adapted rescue vehicle with quick-attaching anchor points and deviations proves very useful when time is of the essence.
Seattle Fire Department use a very clever and useful device called the Sky Hook. This device can be deployed as a ‘floating’ capstan winch, which can be anchored using backstays/steel strops or rope anchors and operates using a power tool such as a battery-powered wrench or impact gun and will retrieve the load in confined spaces such as lift shafts. Seattle statistically is one of the safest places to suffer a cardiac arrest – between Dublin Fire Service and Seattle the survival rate is over 50%. This has been attributed to uninterrupted CPR coupled with the vast response network between Seattle Fire Department and Medical First Responders.
A point of interest from Seattle Fire Department is their medical screening for their staff – if a member of staff experiences a heart-related illness within 24 hours of an incident, full medical and financial support will be made available to that individual. Furthermore, if an individual develops certain types of cancer, this will automatically be attributed as a vocational disease and attracts the same level as support as mentioned previously.
These organisations are by and large the one-stop-shop rescue organisations. They can provide rescue options to resolve an incident without the reliance on any other organisation which undoubtedly reduces the need for interoperability in the technical-rescue attributes of an incident. Maintenance of skills in urban fire departments is generally comprehensive due to the nature of their specialisms, the selection processes and the lack of requirement to ‘jump crew’ other resources. It was clear to me that firefighters enjoyed an increased level of medical protection in comparison to that of their UK counterparts as well as an average pay that was commonly over three times that of a competent UK wholetime firefighter.
Rescues in rural areas and geographically challenging terrains
Having visited Yosemite Search and Rescue, Rocky SAR and Edmonton RCMP Detachment, I had a comprehensive idea on how rescues are undertaken in extreme environments. It was evident that in these areas a lot of expertise and methodology is borne out of the climbing world and the regard for using dual-line systems is limited to non-existent. That said, I had a great interest as eluded to previously regarding textile performance. The organisations have some of the world’s most informed professionals comfortably perform rescues with minimal kit whilst remaining effective and efficient. Helicopters play a massive part in performing rescues in areas such as Yosemite and specifically off of big walls such as El Capitan. They have honed their methodology to minimise downforce when performing long-line rescues. Long-line rescues are commonplace in the USA and are the first choice of rescue off of the big walls in Yosemite.
My host John Dill is something of a climbing and SAR legend. John first came to the park in the 1970s on a climbing vacation and then became a SAR Siter (see below) helping out with rescues before any sort of SAR team was created. Since then he has been instrumental in some of the biggest and most challenging rescues the park has ever seen, many of which predated the now YOSAR – as it is widely known. A quick Google search of John will throw up some amazing background information on him. Notably, he almost single-handedly invented the long-line helicopter techniques used today. In a nutshell a weighted nylon line thrown from the helicopter to stranded climbers enables them to hook themselves on to the long line, or ferry supplies if rescue isn’t an option. This method is useful as the helicopter stays away from the wall edge and minimises Downforce to the climber. John, now in his late 70s shared some fantastic stories with me and was at the time of my visit studying satellite imagery to try and figure out the crash site of an unlocated aircraft in South America.
My main interest in areas with vast wilderness was how volunteers were engaged and utilised in emergency situations. In Yosemite specifically, YOSAR employed seasonal ‘SAR Siters’ – usually avid climbers that stayed in the national park for free but had to give up their time when needed for SAR emergencies – which is paid for. This gives the SAR teams a wealth of knowledge in rescue, medical and firefighting owing to the fact that these SAR Siters have varied backgrounds. Before becoming a SAR Siter, it is a prerequisite that these individuals complete the ICS100 qualification. This basic Incident Command qualification affords the holder the ability to know how ICS works along with the dos and don’ts within an incident. It can be completed online and through my travels I witnessed a wide variety of people holding this qualification both in and outside of rescue organisations. This, in my opinion is an obvious omission in what the UK currently has – with communities becoming more self-sufficient in emergency recovery and organisations, as previously mentioned, working hand in hand with first responders; a base level of ICS would be massively advantageous.
Preventative Search and Rescue is another tool in the arsenal of many a National Park in North America. This preventative education of how to keep safe and what to do in the event of an emergency has seen massive benefits in reducing emergency calls and increasing the number of lives saved through taking the correct action. This information is made available through notice boards, literature, school trips and in person through rangers etc. although this list is far from exhaustive. Again, in my observations I feel that low-level survival techniques and what we all should be doing and not doing when visiting our parks in the UK is missing. I am aware that we do not have the wilderness that exists in Canada and the US but educating within schools and in geographical specific locations could be a way forward to reducing casualty numbers and strain on our emergency services. Something as simple as hydration or the correct footwear could be the difference between a good day and good day turned bad.
My last point and by no means any less important is the way that a large number of rescue organisations are audited. In Canada the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) will reimburse the SAR organisation for services rendered in the event of a rescue. As this is mainly the only other organisation outside of the Fire Departments that will perform rescues, the RCMP or local police will ask the Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC) to audit their registered SAR organisations. The audit will look at equipment, structure, ICS, suitability of individuals working on behalf of a law-enforcement agency and finances. This undoubtedly aligns the standards, equipment and interoperability of all SAR groups to what the OFC stipulate. Ultimately this produces a more efficient and effective service with improved interoperability between organisations.
This standardisation would be very useful in the UK for organisations that are involved in technical rescue. Just as team typing in water rescue under NFCC/DEFRA guidance, respective fire services could audit local rescue groups to check for alignment of equipment, understanding of ICS and to check levels of training. Being fully aware of the strain being felt by UK FRSs, I am aware of the efficacy of this recommendation. But from a government perspective in a bid to align this capability into the FRS’s arena and unify ICS across these smaller organisations, and for the safety of all, it would be an effective use of Fire and Rescue Service’s abilities moving forward.
In closing, there is a great deal I have learnt from my host organisations and have plenty more to write about in areas such as USAR and Canadian Task Force, but in answer to my primary concerns regarding joint working and equipment I believe lessons can be learnt from my fellowship. Up-to-date thinking from passionate, well-placed and informed individuals, tried and tested methods, alternative equipment and the reliance and management of volunteer organisations make for an effective rescue capability in what are some of the most challenging terrains in the world. Anyone in technical rescue will tell you that there is always another way to achieve the desired goal, and these ways may already be happening in parts of the UK along with some of the equipment I have detailed.
However, if you feel that this is food for thought for your organisation then I have achieved the purpose of my fellowship. Further to this, I will be discussing my findings with the NFCC Working at Height Group and HMCG in due course. Please feel free to contact me regarding what I have detailed or if you have any questions.
My full report can be viewed at https://www.wcmt.org.uk/fellows/reports/exploring-line-rescue-techniques-challenging-parts-world
For more information, go to www.wcmt.org.uk