By Dustin Gladwell
After a couple of cave rescues within several months of each other, I had a conversation with some local rescue team leaders concerning the lack of training regarding caves. I was trying to propose that technical rescue teams get specialized training in cave rescue, as almost none of the teams in my area have legitimate training in this discipline. The answer I received was very concerning and made me examine how other technical rescue and urban search and rescue based teams would mitigate a cave rescue. The response I got was: “We don’t need training on cave rescue because we will treat it as a confined space, and we obviously have training in that.” While most rescues are just locating the lost person in a novice cave or helping someone who has a sprained ankle, this is not the case with all caves. There are some that require very specialized skills that include rock climbing, cave diving (specialized scuba), and modified rope techniques.
This “we already know it “approach is prevalent in many departments. You are probably thinking, “Well, it technically is a confined space, isn’t it?” You would be correct in that it is a confined space, and some techniques will transfer over to the cave world. However, there are many that do not, and you might find yourself in way over your head if you attempt to do the rescue without the specialized training. In this article, I will take an in depth look at some critical differences between the two disciplines and present a few questions that you should ask yourself, your team, and your department before you decide to take your skill set to a subterranean danger zone.
The first consideration is whether you have caves in your jurisdiction. In my response area, there are some world-class caves that most people or technical rescue teams have no idea about. These caves are located on private land, and the typical weekend warrior may not know about them. How can you find out where and how many there are? Identify your resources: Talk to cavers or local cave rescue teams or find out if you have a grotto (caving group) close to you. This should put you on the right track!
Suggestion: If you don’t know the group, you may want to be careful how you approach the members. There is an old saying in caving, “Cavers rescue cavers, not the fire department.” The reason is because in the past, fire/rescue teams have showed up to a cave rescue without much training and pretty much “winged” it. There have also been cases where there were qualified cave rescue personnel there who were trained in rescue, had a map of the cave, and knew that specific cave like the back of their hand, and fire-rescue personnel wanted nothing to do with them. This may sound a bit extreme, but I have seen it in action.
This may not be the case with your jurisdiction or local caving group, but if you are going to get information and form a good working relationship, it is essential that you start by being respectful. Most cave rescue groups have or have access to maps of the caves you are interested in. This can be critical when going in to make a rescue. They can also teach you how to read the maps and identify key landmarks. Most cavers who do mapping have a pretty elaborate setup with multiple data layers and sometimes overlays on Google maps. Not only does this show you the cave, it also will show you where the cave is in relation to the surface. This can be important if you need to deploy mine rescue techniques such as making a new entrance into the cave or creating a tunnel to evacuate a victim.
Are You Capable?
The second consideration you should honestly ask yourself is: Are you or your team capable of performing a rescue in a cave? This question may not be easily answered because, unlike most rescue situations, depending on the cave it could take days or as much as a week to safely get someone out. Are you logistically set up for an underground operation like that? Do you have specialized communications such as military-style hard wired communication devices to establish a network for crews working underground to relay information to the surface? Is there going to be rope work involved? Can your crew ascend hundreds of feet of rope? Are you planning on rigging your own rope, if required? Is your rescue gear going to fit in the space? What if your crews get wet? This last question may sound crazy, but if you are wet in temperatures of 50°F for hours on end with no sunlight, you may have some cases of rescuer hypothermia in addition to the victim’s needs.
Some caves may require water rescue or cave diving skill sets because of running water, waterfalls, or portions of a cave that sump. While a lot of these issues exist in confined space rescue, you will normally not deal with them for an extended period. Your umbilicals and coms are not going to reach miles into a cave, which may be what it takes to reach your patient. While bad air can exist in caves, they will usually breathe (circulate air) and there is airflow that will usually eliminate the need for supplied air, making it different from confined spaces. However, with that being said, you should have atmospheric monitoring available should it be needed.
The third consideration that you must answer is: Can you bend your normal tactics or operate from a completely different playbook? What I mean by this is that with most curriculum the rope rescue techniques taught may not be the best idea in caves. Are you okay with single line rope work, single anchors, ceiling mounted anchor bolts, retrievable anchors in some cases, counter balance systems, and working off a rebelay system? If none of the above makes sense to you, then you might want to reevaluate the confined space theory or take a pass on the cave rescue altogether.
Caves that involve rope work could be the most dynamic rescue you have had to deal with because space and weight are going to be issues. Cavers are generally using nine- to 11-millimeter rope and most cave rescue teams are using 11-millimeter rope for their rope work for that very reason. Often the fire service would not want to part with the traditional 12.5-millimeter (½-inch) systems. Some modern rope classes within the fire service have addressed this by teaching some of these techniques, but from what I see most rescuers would not be comfortable on this equipment. Another factor you need to evaluate is that hauling in tremendous amounts of gear, food, etc., can be time consuming and exhausting for crews. A basecamp may need to be established for gear storage, rehab, and sleep. This is where those modified techniques are essential.
The final consideration that I want to address is the need for conservation. We seldom enter a confined space and think to ourselves, “Let’s be careful not to damage something that took thousands of years to be created.” It is important to distinguish certain features in a cave and try not to touch, break, or disturb things, as often they are irreplaceable. You may in fact not be going to rescue someone who shouldn’t have been in the cave; you might be going in for a project caver who is working on science projects within that cave. These people are highly intelligent; are experienced; and usually, if they have been unable to rescue themselves, it’s because things are bad. You can assume in this case that you are not going to just march in there and save the day! Gather as much information from witnesses or other local cavers as possible before you formulate a game plan.
I hope that you will take the information from this article and evaluate your cave rescue capabilities. I hope you also understand that as much as they resemble a confined space, caves cannot be approached the same way. If there is a chance that you will respond to a cave rescue, you need to decide if you are going to use a local cave rescue team or if you’re going to be an integral part of the cave rescue system.
Even if you don’t have a local cave rescue team, you still need to become partners with local cavers. The National Speleological Society offers some great information on caves and caving and is a great resource to put you in contact with cavers from your area. The National Cave Rescue Commission offers cave rescue training and has information on cave-related accidents, classes, and more.
Dustin Gladwell is a firefighter with the Staunton (VA) Fire Department and is assigned to a ladder company. He also works part time for Rockingham County Fire and Rescue Department and Massanutten Ski Patrol. Gladwell is a rescue squad officer and technical search specialist for the Division 2 State USAR Technical Rescue Team. He was a SWAT medic attached to the Rockingham County Sheriff’s office for five years through Rockingham County Fire Rescue. Gladwell was also a volunteer at the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad for 11 years, holding the positions of special operations captain and deputy chief. He spends a lot of time as a state technical rescue instructor and has recently been a part of creating a Machinery Rescue Class that will be offered to technical rescue personnel throughout Virginia. Gladwell also teaches for the Technical Rescue Association of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Rescue Suppliers, the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, the Virginia Association of Volunteer Rescue Squads, the National Ski Patrol, and the Virginia Office of EMS operations section, among others.