Consider this scenario: Dispatch receives a report from the FAA indicating that a small plane has crashed in your response area during stormy weather. The downed plane is somewhere south of the local airfield, but the occupants don’t know exactly where they are. Fire departments searching for the aircraft eventually find it, with the three occupants still inside—80 feet above the ground in a large evergreen tree.
An uncommon scenario? Yes, but it did happen. I listened to the story unfold while I was on duty one night many years ago. Could this happen in your response area? Absolutely.
In this article, I’ll describe the tree-rescue discipline and the tools and techniques needed to rescue victims stuck in trees.
There are certain groups of people that will likely constitute our tree-rescue victims:
Tree workers: Certified arborists aren’t the only people who work in trees, and these people may or may not have proper safety equipment or even formal tree-climbing experience. If something goes wrong—the worker experiences a medical issue or a traumatic injury—there’s often no emergency action plan other than to have someone call 911. Note: If the worker is trapped under the limb of a tree, you may need to stabilize the branch prior to moving the victim.
Children: It’s always easier to climb up than down, as many children have discovered over the years. Mom or dad may not be willing or able to climb into the tree to perform their own rescue, and will instead call 911 (likely the smart thing to do to avoid a second person becoming stuck in the tree).
Parachutists: No parachutist plans to land in a tree, but plans often change—especially when you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and winds shift suddenly. Smokejumpers are trained and equipped for this type of event; recreational parachutists are not. Further, the parachutist may have extremity injuries that need immediate attention. Note: If there’s a military air base in your area, “parachutist in tree” may be a common call.
Random person in tree: Every once in a while, you may be called to rescue a person who’s simply sitting in a tree and can’t (or won’t) get down. There may be alcohol, drugs or emotional issues that have driven the person to climb the tree. As such, you must be cautious when approaching these people. Unlike the injured worker or child that has climbed too high, this person does not want to come down from the tree. Treat these situations just as you would a potential jumper on a bridge or building. Local law enforcement should respond, while fire/rescue/EMS stages until the area is secure.
Animals: Most department SOPs specify that their personnel will not rescue animals from trees due to the number of serious accidents and fatalities that have occurred while attempting such rescues. As your agency will get calls to perform this service, it’s a good idea to have the contact information of a certified arborist readily available.
Certified arborists must have 3 years of field experience prior to testing for certification and must meet mandatory continuing education requirements. In addition to training on the care and maintenance of trees, they train on techniques to ascend and descend from trees (including extensive self-rescue training). And many certified arborists perform animal rescues as part of their services. Let them handle the non-emergency, potentially high-risk service calls.
PPE for the Tree
To safely tackle a tree rescue, you need the proper PPE and other gear specifically made for tree climbing and difficult rescue scenarios. Your PPE should protect you from injury, such as lacerations from tree branches, and is just as crucial to overall safety as structural firefighting gear is on the fireground. The critical elements of tree-rescue PPE are as follows:
- Helmet: A traditional fire service helmet will be too heavy and difficult to maneuver through a tree with many limbs. A smaller rescue helmet with a chin strap works best.
- Eye protection: Pine needles, bark, insects and plenty else can poke or scratch an eye during a tree rescue, so wear safety glasses with a strap for protection.
- Gloves: For these situations, I prefer a glove with exposed fingertips. They can be purchased that way or you can cut the ends off yourself, but if you do this, the seams may start to unravel. (If this happens, apply a dab of Super Glue to them.) Fingerless gloves will allow you to easily tie knots and rig gear. You don’t want to waste time donning and doffing gloves while in a tree. The leather palms will protect your hand while running a lowering system or a belay line.
- Boots: If you’re going to be using climbing spurs you’ll want to wear above-the-ankle, 8" or taller leather boots with a shank and a lugged sole. Fire department duty boots are one good example of this type of boot.
- Climbing spurs: If the tree lacks good branches to climb and you can’t reach a branch with a throw weight, you’re going to have to climb the tree with spurs. Climbing spurs strap around your legs. There are many models and sets that range in price from $200 to $400. Look for a padded T-pad and tree gaffs, and talk to a local certified arborist for recommendations. Note: Practice climbing with spurs on dead trees, as the spurs will damage trees.
- Outerwear: Long pants are a must. Long sleeves will depend on the type of tree you’re climbing. Is there a lot of pitch or sharp branches? If so, you may want long sleeves.
There are three major pieces of equipment that you’ll need when performing a tree rescue. The first is a flip line, aka a buck strap. As a flip line, it’s an adjustable strap that you wrap around the shaft of a tree. To use, lean forward to slack it and shimmy it up as you climb with spurs. As a buck strap, it secures the rescuer to anchors and can easily be adjusted with one hand when the user’s weight is lifted off of it slightly.
Arborists’ flip lines are made from a stiffer rope, which makes it easier to toss around the tree. A steel cable inside the rope increases stiffness and protects against nicks with a chainsaw. Tip: If you’re going to use a saw while also using flip lines, wrap a wire-core rope or a length of chain around the tree to protect you from falling.
The second piece of gear you’ll need is a split-tail system, which consists of rescue rope, a carabiner or steel-locking rope clip, a friction hitch and a Prusik-minding pulley.
Specifically, you should carry a 100–200' length of 12.5-mm rescue rope with a carabiner or steel-locking rope clip tied to one end. To use, throw or pull the rope over an overhead branch and attach it to a friction hitch and a Prusik-minding pulley. Both ends attach to your harness’ middle D-ring. This is also an essential tool, as it allows the user to quickly descend from the tree.
hird, you’ll need a throw line. Carry 80–100 feet of 1.75-mm throw line weight-tested to 400 lbs. with an 8–12-oz. lead shot pouch. Note: It’s a lot easier to toss a 1.75-mm line over a high-reaching branch than a 12.5-mm rescue rope.
The throw line, or pilot cord, is used to hoist the larger rescue rope, which is used for the split-tail system, over branches. Tip: Keep a minimum of two shot pouches in your kit.
In addition, you’ll need a harness with side-positioning rings so you can attach your buck strap or flip line; a 13" arborists’ hand saw for removing branches at the base and as you climb; a belt-sheathed hatchet for “sounding” trees and cutting branches that will interfere with climbing and/or rigging; and wasp or hornet spray (which is a no-brainer if you’ve spent any time at all in the woods).
Let the Climbing Begin
If the victim is beyond the reach of your ground ladders and you can’t use your aerial ladder, you’re going to have to climb the tree.
So how will you get up there? Ideally, you should use a portable ladder to access some lower limbs. From there, you can begin to climb the branches and use a flip line or a split-tail to protect you as you wrap the shaft of the tree or overhead branches.
If there are branches that you can use for climbing, then use them. As you climb, toss the split-tail system over the branches above you so you can “self belay” as you ascend. You can also use the flip line to secure yourself to a branch when positioning yourself for work.
But even with a ladder, you may not be able to access any branches. If this is the case, use your throw bag kit to toss a small-diameter pilot cord over an overhead branch. Remove the weight bag, and tie the cord to the end of a 12.5-mm rescue rope. Then pull the rope up and over the branch to make a split-tail climbing system.
If you’re unable to access any branches, even with a throw bag, you’ll need to break out the climbing spurs, but you’ll still use a flip line and carry a split-tail up with you.
As you climb the tree, you’ll want to have both a flip line (buck strap) and a split-tail system on your harness so you can exit the tree rapidly if needed (such as in a hornet or raccoon attack), using the split-tail as a descending system.
Remember: There are no rules to climbing trees, but there are some useful guidelines: Use the branches when available, and use your legs as much as possible. Avoid “free climbing”—establish an attachment point other than your hands, since falling would probably result in injury. Use the split-tail technique, as you can toss the carabiner or steel-locking rope clip above you and tension the rope as you ascend. For longer spans between branches, you can hoist yourself up.
Tree rescue techniques take a lot of practice, but you don’t need to be 50 feet up a tree to drill on them. To get started, talk to arborists in your area, ask to look at their rope systems and familiarize yourself with how they rig their systems. Find out which local arborist would make a good resource for your rescue team. And of course, practice climbing trees in your response area.
So what happened to the plane that landed in the tree years ago? A volunteer firefighter, who worked for the phone company as a pole climber, left the scene to retrieve his former climbing gear. Upon reaching the incident location, he climbed the tree and secured the aircraft to the tree with a rope. Then he examined, treated and lowered the victims to the ground one by one. When all passengers were safely on the ground, he descended the tree and went home.
Over the years, I’ve asked that firefighter to retell that story several times. He relates the story as if it were just another day at the phone company. No big thing. With no formal rope-rescue training, he used his prior tree-climbing skills, common sense and a professional attitude to get the job done.
The author would like to thank Shane Noble, certified arborist and lifetime friend, for his assistance with this article.
For More Info
Want more information on tree-climbing tools and techniques? Check out the following references:
- “The Tree Climber’s Companion, 2nd Edition” by Jeff Jepson
- Wes Spur Equipment Catalog
- Sherrill Tree Equipment Catalog
Prior to attempting to climb a tree, perform a hazard assessment. What are you looking for?
- Overhead wires
- Unstable, overhead limbs
- Victim(s) who could fall/jump from the tree
- Rot at the base
- Stinging insects
- Vines (they may mask rot)
- Poison ivy
- Present tenants (i.e., rodents, birds)