On the Line

Every shift, we begin with confirmation that our equipment is ready for use. We open every compartment, look in every bag, and turn every knob. We check our personal protective equipment (PPE) and stage it for any call. The goal: When the horn goes off, we drop our fork, pencil, or chamois … and go.

The highlighted report this month covers a crew finding the wire rope on a winch tangled. The officer was apprehensive, but because one of the firefighters has experience with this type of winch, the maintenance began as soon as possible. While reading the event, consider how your crew would have addressed the repairs.

The Event

Just arriving for a duty shift, our crew put their gear on the trucks and began rig and equipment checks. While conducting the walk-around, we noticed the wire rope on the winch was in serious need of rewinding. The front of the truck looked like a bird had taken up residence on the winch drum. This equipment isn’t used very often, but we are responsible for making sure it works, so the drum would need respooling to be serviceable.

The morning routine went as expected. Physical fitness, the morning meal, and daily drill were behind us. Now, time to get the winch back in service. Just after noon, we began moving equipment for this repair. The challenge is to unwind the rope and rewind it as close and neat as possible. Keeping the coils tight against each other with tension on the drum will prevent the rope from slipping between and snaring during use.

We began by parking the vehicle on a slight incline behind the station. Next, we secured the hook end to a dead weight mechanism. The full length of the rope was almost off the drum, so we needed tension. We released the brake and allowed the vehicle to roll back away from the anchor point. It seemed like it would be enough to keep the coils tight.

There were a few coils still on the drum, and the officer in charge was reluctant to unwind the entire length of rope. However, because the firefighter completing the task had experience with these winches, he allowed the repairs to progress. We heard the officer say, “Put your gloves on before handling that rope.” However, our other protective clothing was left on the hook. As the winch reversed to unwind the remaining coils, the truck slowly rolled back, maintaining tension on the drum.

All at once, the wire rope’s end sleeve detached from the anchor on the drum. The stored energy snapped the sleeve back toward the hook end, flailed through the firefighter’s gloved hands, and brushed by his leg as it whipped past. While his immediate concern was the wire rope as it recoiled toward the station, his next action was to look over his shoulder at the vehicle that was now rolling backward unattended. When the rope detached from the winch, there was nothing holding the vehicle from rolling. Although the grade was slight, the acceleration was steady until it came to an abrupt stop against the front grille of a crew member’s personally owned vehicle.

On realizing the magnitude of the full event, the officer first confirmed there were no injuries and then began to assess the damage. This could have been so much worse.

Lessons to Share

Apparatus and equipment checks are an important part of being ready; checking every piece of equipment is necessary. When a tool or appliance is not ready, it is removed from service for repair. Recognizing the winch rope was not ready for use was a concern.

The operator in this report notified all affected personnel that the winch was down for repair. Part of the shared results from this report included how a winch operation is a dangerous but low-frequency event in most departments. We know that extra attention is warranted when performing tasks with this equipment because the wire rope used in these tools can have a fatal amount of stored energy.

This Near Miss Report includes wearing all PPE during any winch operation. When the rope zipped past the firefighter, a single frayed wire could have caused a laceration or the anchor sleeve at the end of the rope could have struck something vital. Gloves were an absolute necessity just to handle a wire rope. Where any tension is involved, required safety gear includes a helmet, safety glasses, and clothing sufficient to protect from cuts and scrapes. It is also important for anyone watching to observe from a safe distance. Avoid being in line with the tension placed on the rope; far out to the side is recommended. Additionally, anytime tension is placed on a winch line, a dampener should be used over the rope; a section of hose or a spare bunker coat is sufficient.

Maintenance on a scheduled basis is listed in the report as important for the use and care of this equipment. We are also reminded to follow our standard procedures and stay within the operational parameters found in the instructions. A minimum of five wraps around the drum spindle is required to hold tension on the drum and prevent the anchor sleeve from detaching.

Finally, the property damage from this event was determined to be preventable. The reporter cited situational awareness and decision making as two of the factors that contributed to this event. Having an uninvolved observer who maintains situational awareness by seeing the whole event is listed as a best practice that could have prevented this event. Additionally included, having a certified driver behind the wheel would have kept the apparatus from rolling into the other vehicle and could have been an extra resource of situational awareness. Extra eyes that help recognize unexpected occurrences in the chain of events are positive attributes during low-frequency activities.

Points to Consider

• Look at the winch equipment you use in your department. Discuss the operational characteristics and limitations. How much loss in power is experienced with each layer of coils?

• When was the last time you used the equipment? Do you carry recovery gear with the winch? Are you familiar with using this gear?

• How much do you know about the recovery gear issued with the equipment? What are the ratings for the strap materials? Do you have all the items necessary to complete assembly of a haul system?

• Discuss and complete the steps necessary for assembling a 2:1 mechanical advantage haul system. How does this improve your winch operation? Do you have enough recovery gear to establish this system? This activity will be rewarding to practice.

There are many moving parts to any winch operation. Keeping in mind that the winch itself is an integral part, the recovery gear needed for most of these functions requires regular inspection and maintenance as well. Learning how to rig up a haul system and secure absolute anchors for these tasks is essential. If you have had an experience with a winch where any valuable lesson was shared or reinforced, take a moment to give your experience to the rest of the nation’s firefighters. Tell your story at www.firefighternearmiss.com, and help the next shift have a safer shift.

The full report, Cable Releases from Winch During Use (Aug. 2017), can be found at http://firefighternearmiss.com/Reports?id=9680.

Additional resource

“Recovering Stuck Fire Apparatus” (Feb. 2017) by Chris Daly, found online at www.fireapparatusmagazine.com/articles/print/volume-22/issue-2/features/recovering-stuck-fire-apparatus.html.

By Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay, MPA, CFO, has been a member of the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department since 1984. He has worked through each level of the operational fire service and has been a battalion chief for the past 15 years. Lindsay has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma and Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He has been with the Firefighter Near Miss reporting team since March 2005. You can reach Lindsay at Lindsayokc@cox.net.