Aerial rescue is something we practice but hope to never have to use. Over the years, there have been many advances in climbing gadgets and different equipment used in the field, but aerial-rescue principles and processes have pretty much remained the same. There are definitely a number of things to take into consideration before and during the process, but at its most basic, you can define aerial rescue in a few steps:
- Recognize there is an injured person in a tree.
- Inspect for hazards, i.e., electrical, technical or biological hazards that might put the rescuer at risk of becoming a second victim. If there is a hazard present, we must mitigate it before we can attempt a rescue.
- Proceed with the rescue.
An unexpected rescue
In August 2021, we conducted an aerial-rescue demonstration at an annual redwoods recreational climb in Crescent City, California. We were getting ready to settle in for an evening of socializing and camping under the majestic redwoods when we were approached by a fellow camper. They asked if we could assist in a rescue just down the road in an area along Elk Creek.
The victim was getting out of his kayak to take a picture and slipped on the sharp, steep bank and broke his ankle. This area is very steep and difficult to get in and out of, and he couldn’t get back into his kayak to continue down the river. Helicopter rescue was out of the question, because all the helicopters in the area were fighting the wildfires that were rampant in the state at that time.
The local sheriff heard about the arborist gathering and saw a few people with climbing gear coming out of the woods, so he asked if they could assist. Jamie “Jay” Butler, an East Coast arborist, ran back to camp and asked for help in assembling a team to attempt a rescue.
Our team that had put on the rescue demo were the first approached. We asked for a few other volunteers and extra equipment and headed to the area of the incident.
Assess the scene
The first step is confirmation of a victim and an incident. In this step, you need to understand or process what you saw, what someone has reported to you or what you stumbled upon. This is one of the most important moments, minutes or seconds of the rescue. In these moments, you first have to remain calm. This is crucial, because if you are not calm and levelheaded, you could compromise the rescue or become a victim yourself.
Assess the situation and the area for hazards and determine if you can proceed with a rescue attempt. The most important hazards to look for are electrical and anything else that could harm you and potentially turn you into a second victim. If no hazards are present, you can proceed with evaluating the scene and what happened. At this moment, you are determining how to approach the rescue, creating a plan for access or entry into the tree or incident zone and getting equipment ready.
A lot of this was covered by our friend who made the initial contact with the sheriff and his team. They had provided us with the location and briefed us on the incident, site hazards and terrain of the area. The victim was a couple hundred feet down and another few hundred feet across the river from our entry/exit point. When we started asking questions, we discovered we were a bit under-equipped. The gear we had was good, but we needed a powered/motorized lift ascender. Fortunately, the sheriff’s rescue brigade had one with them.
We had a quick legal discussion with the sheriff about how we were offering our voluntary, or Good Samaritan, services. He approved our commitment and swore us in to his posse for the day, figuratively speaking.
There was a brigade of volunteer rescue personnel from the community and a few forest-service technicians on site, but they had minimal training in these scenarios and were older folks with limited physical capabilities. But with their years of experience and equipment, we were able to work together to proceed with a rescue attempt.
The victim was 200 feet down the embankment and 300 feet across the river, so access was difficult.
Support and teamwork
This brings us to an important point. It is extremely important to have training in the areas of rescue and support. Notice this word “support.” There will be times when you may not be able to do a rescue or even attempt one, but you should always be able to support in the rescue of a victim. You can do this by accessing the victim and staying in the tree until paramedics arrive. Once you have accessed the victim and evaluated or assessed their condition, you can then provide information and or support, or assist the medical-care professionals in the rescue.
Often, those attempting a rescue have become second victims, dying or being more severely injured in their attempts than the victim they were trying to help.
Every one of the arborists who assisted in this rescue had formal training in aerial rescue. None of us had worked together in this kind of setting or in tree work before, but as we got there, our training kicked in. We conducted a job safety analysis (JSA) and did a job briefing to come up with a plan that could have a high probability of success. Once the plan was established, we went to work cutting through thick brush to have a better visual of the area.
One arborist got a throw line across the river. We then used the ropes from the rescue brigade, which were 600 feet long, to get across 300 feet of river and 200 feet down the bank to where our injured victim was.
As one of the groups got the line across, another group started to set anchor points for life ropes and mechanical-advantage devices, i.e., a Good Rigging Control System (GRCS), so we could pull the person through a high-line system we’d set up. One of our fellow arborists made a dry run to make sure everything worked.
Every one of the arborists who assisted in this rescue had formal training in aerial rescue. None of us had worked together in this kind of setting or in tree work before, but as we got there, our training kicked in.
Proceed with the rescue
At that point, we had gone through a few steps. First, we had learned of the situation with the injured person. Second, we had assessed and evaluated the situation to ensure it could be done safely, without anyone becoming a second victim. We had asked ourselves, “Do we have the knowledge and training to do this?” When all checked out, we proceeded with the rescue.
As we had set up and established communication with the sheriff and the incident commander, we found out that a group of forest-service technicians had accessed the victim by descending the embankment across the river. They updated us on his condition. His broken ankle was a non-life-threatening injury, but there was definitely no other way out than up.
With the high line in place, our first-contact arborist reached the victim. That arborist began to communicate with the personnel on the ground. They strapped the victim into a harness and snapped on carabiners, and we began to crank on the mechanical-advantage mechanisms to pull up slack in the high line. The injured person began to lift off when suddenly the line sagged, and the person dropped a few feet. Our hearts sank.
Again, if the person had had a head, neck or back injury, we would not have attempted the rescue due to the higher risk of additional injury. Since it was an ankle injury, we were able to take on this risk, because there was less chance of aggravating the initial injury.
The high line had broken a small branch and settled into the crotch and anchor point, and this caused the line to sag a bit. After catching our collective breath, we tightened the high line a bit more, then pulled our victim across the river to safe ground. We all then muscled together to carry the stretcher and our victim up a few feet of steep terrain to the hands of paramedics.
More to do
As we high-fived and cheered each other, we heard the incident commander over the radio, and his words hit us like a ton of bricks. “Great job gentlemen, but we have a slight problem.”
“Oh no,” we thought, “what now?”
It turned out that the forest-service technicians at the site of the injury couldn’t get back up the steep terrain they’d descended to reach the victim. It was easy for them to get down, but they did not take into consideration the difficulty they would encounter getting back up and out.
This brings us back to the number-one and most important rule of any rescue: Don’t become a second, or, in this case, third, fourth, fifth or sixth victim. At the end of the night, and after grueling hours of cranking the GRCS for what seemed like a million times, we had all the forest-service techs on our side of the river.
The probability of something failing or going awry was high, and that day we not only had to save one person, but six, putting everyone else in danger for longer than necessary. But that day we all learned a very valuable lesson. We put our skills into practice and worked as a team, and I believe that day changed all our lives forever.
Volunteers who helped with the rescue the night before brought doughnuts and shared them with the arborists as they all debriefed the successful rescue the next day.
Remember, once you know about the situation and find an injured person, first call 911. Have as much information for them as possible about what happened, where you are located, the type of injury and access to the victim. Specify that it’s a high-angle rescue and whether there are power lines involved, so they can have power shut off.
Evaluate the scene for electrical or other potential hazards. Don’t become a second victim. If electrical or other life-threating hazards exist, wait for help to arrive and stand by to support and assist medical technicians if possible. You won’t always be able to be the hero of the story, so don’t think you have to perform an aerial rescue every time.
If no other hazards exist and you can reach the injured person, access the victim and assess their injuries. If the injuries are minor or the person is not breathing and you can safely get them to the ground, proceed with an aerial rescue. But if the person has neck or back injuries or is conscious and breathing, stay in the tree to help them stay calm. Perform first aid and comfort them until paramedics arrive. The paramedics will let you know if you can support or assist, or if they can take over from there and you can come to the ground while they perform rescue.
This aerial-rescue outline is not all encompassing. Each scenario will have its own set of circumstances to be evaluated. Education and practice are the best ways to prepare for these situations and to be compliant with OSHA and ANSI. As arborists, we need to be trained in rescue scenarios related to the type of work we are performing.
I again want to thank all of those involved in the rescue described here. Every single one of you is an awesome arborist, and that day you were all heroes. For their parts in the rescue, special shout-outs to Danielle Melisse, Ryan Michael Swederski, CTSP, James Clarke, Solomon Shumaker, Brice G. Davis, Brian Dawson and Jamie Butler.
Eric Navarro Palacios, CTSP, is a TCIA-approved instructor and independent trainer based in Magalia, California. He travels the world training and educating arborists while sharing his passion for people and trees wherever he goes.
This article was based on his presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.