While working on a ladder company years ago, I was dispatched to a report of two window washers who had become trapped 16 stories up after their platform’s motor stalled, causing the platform to slant at an angle. Fortunately, both workers were wearing Class III harnesses with shock absorbing lanyards (SALs); however, as Murphy’s Law often plays a large part in these scenarios, it was a windy winter night. So I ask you:
- How would you access these two workers?
- Are they in immediate danger?
- What resources are available?
- How would you respond if they were hanging by the dorsal connection on their harness from the bottom of their work platform?
- Are there setbacks below the rooftop on which to land or does the side of the structure drop straight down to the street?
Actually, there are many ways to rescue these window washers. Note: No matter which way you choose, you must manage the scene and keep the area below the workers clear in case tools or equipment fall from the platform. Hopefully barricades were placed prior to the start of the window-cleaning operation.
In this article I’ll discuss one rescue method that utilizes the rescuer’s own anchors, rope and equipment to build a lowering system. This technique is referred to as the Solo Rope Rescue Technique (SRRT).
Pick-Off vs. Lower Method
The SRRT can actually be performed as either a lowering operation or as a pick-off. The pick-off is a fine technique used by many agencies; however, it has two major limitations: 1) The rescuer descends on a multi-friction device (a brake rack is most commonly used); and 2) the patient ends up dangling just below the rescuer during the journey to the ground.
The pick-off is the method of choice when you need close control of the patient and no one is below to receive the patient. (Note: Although many agencies use a rescue eight to perform a rappel pick-off, it’s not recommended because additional friction can’t be added once it’s put into use. The rescue eight may be double-wrapped for additional friction prior to the start of the rappel, but this makes for a bumpy descent and a lock-off/tie-off that’s difficult to perform. If you find yourself rappelling to perform a patient rescue on an eight plate, consider using the lowering method.)
On the other hand, if the drop is vertical and personnel are below to receive the patient, the lower method is best because it allows for a rapid, smooth descent. Rescuers may even use a tag line if needed to pull the patient away from a structural component of a building or natural vegetation. The lowering method is also ideal for multiple patients hanging from a scaffold or stranded on a rock ledge and for rescuing highly agitated patients, because it keeps the patient away from the rescuer.
As stated in the beginning of this article, the SRRT utilizes the rescuer’s own equipment to create a lowering system. To reduce the amount of time you and the patient remain on rope for the operation, pre-rig your equipment. I use a gear sling (or long prusik loop) and rack all the equipment needed on the sling so it’s easy to access and lined up in the order that I’ll use it.
What else do you need?
- Descent control device (DCD);
- Guides Rappel Backup cord (For more information on the Guides Rappel Backup, see the November issue, p. 92);
- Seven locking carabiners (one should be pear-shaped for the Munter hitch);
- Short personal prusik loop;
- Pick-off strap, daisy chain or length of webbing with a bite tied in each end;
- 15 feet of excess rope on the ground (your rope or theirs); and
- Anchor software to secure your rope to a bombproof anchor.
Note: The SRRT may be performed with one rope or two. The photos in this article show this technique without a belay line. When using one rope, build your anchor so it can support a two-person load, as both your weight and the weight of the patient will be on the system.
SRRT in Action
To perform the SRRT successfully, complete the following steps:
- Make visual and verbal contact with the patient.
- Assess the severity of their situation. Is the patient hanging on a poorly rigged system or suffering from critical injuries? Are they wearing a harness or are they simply stranded in a location from which they can’t self-rescue? Patients in imminent danger must be rescued immediately. The SRRT is ideal for those situations because a team-based pick-off would take more time and personnel.
- Pre-rig equipment needed on a gear sling or gear loop.
- Establish an anchor and rappel off to one side of the patient.
- Attach the pick-off (PO) strap to the DCD so you’re ready for deployment.
- Rappel so that your hips are even with the patient’s head, and tie off the DCD.
- Attach the pre-rigged PO strap to the main attachment point (MAP) on the patient’s harness. Note: If the patient has no harness, pre-rig a patient harness to the end of the PO strap.
- Apply a short prusik above your tied-off DCD and attach a pear-shaped carabiner.
- Pull up the end of your rope, place a figure-eight-on-a-bite at the end and attach it to the patient’s harness MAP.
- Create a Munter hitch with the portion of the rope that goes to the patient’s harness and add a backup carabiner as seen in Photo 4 above.
- Attach a GRB cord from your leg loop to the control side of the rope that runs through the Munter hitch using a helical hitch (this functions as a brake).
- Pull out all the slack in both strands. Raise your leg to assist in tensioning the line and then lower your leg.
- Remove the PO strap from the patient.
- Untie, disconnect or cut whatever the patient is hanging on, if applicable.
- Lower the patient to the ground or other safe area below.
Tip: When accessing a patient, avoid rappelling directly over them. Equipment or debris could accidentally fall on them or they could grab your rappel line and bring you to a stop by giving you an unintentional bottom belay. To avoid this, consider rappelling out of a bag attached to your DCD or harness.
Points to Remember
When performing the SRRT, it’s important to keep in mind that patients hanging by the dorsal connection of a Class III harness must have their weight transferred to their pelvic area as soon as possible. (Try hanging from the dorsal connection for 15 minutes and you’ll see what I mean.) Many Class III harnesses don’t have a MAP at the waist. If that’s the case then apply a patient harness as soon as possible and perform a pick-off or line transfer immediately.
If you’ve got an unconscious or exhausted patient, they may end up hanging upside down or sideways as they are no longer able to hold themselves upright, so you’ll need to place them in an upright position. To do this you can use a 12' length of 1" webbing to make an improvised chest harness. You can then use either a prusik loop or a connector strap to attach the chest harness to the main line.
Additional points to keep in mind:
- You must have 15 feet of rope on the ground (or available in your bag) to allow your patient to get to the ground.
- Don’t pull the PO strap so tight that you’re unable to disconnect it once the system is weighted.
- Ensure you’ve made a proper Munter hitch for the lowering system.
- Avoid getting caught in the bite of your line as the patient is lowered and the rope is running through the Munter hitch. To do this, pay attention to the rope that’s moving below you so you don’t end up with the rope between your legs.
- Consider the use of a backup carabiner. Note: If the prusik used to support the Munter hitch lowering system is a worn personal prusik that’s of questionable history, then consider adding a backup carabiner as shown in photo 6. If the prusik fails, the Munter hitch slides to the top of your DCD.
So what happened to the two guys hanging out on the scaffold on the 16th floor? Although the emergency service officers wanted to rappel down from higher up on the building (the 30-something floor), perform a pick-off and continue to the street, they chose in the end to remove a window and pull them in to the safety of some poor unfortunate’s 16th-floor office.
Was it the best technique? Maybe. The entire operation took more than an hour to complete. Tip: Don’t underestimate the length of time it takes to “safely” remove a window in a high-rise building. In our case we had to “special call” a rescue company and several ladder companies in order to gather enough suction cups to manage the window when we pulled it into the office. It was a time-consuming operation that left plywood on both the inside and outside of the building for several days.
The operation was also performed by members of both the police and fire departments. For this type of rescue to be successful and safe, a unified command between the agencies is essential.
To ensure your crew understands how to perform the SRRT, incorporate it into your training regimen. It’s a great technique for rescuers to practice not only because it makes the user perform so many rigging tasks in one evolution, but also because it’s one more way to save a life.
Who & When
Which patients are best suited for the SRRT lower method?
- Critically injured patients who must get to the ground for immediate care
- Slightly injured patients
- Stranded patients
Which situations are best suited for the SRRT?
- Lack of radios
- Limited equipment
- Limited manpower and/or trained personnel
- Patient in imminent need of rescue
- The only equipment you have is on your harness