The Science of Tower Rescue and the Art of Multiple Agency Cooperation

In the very best of scenarios, tower rescue for the professional can be a daunting task. But the obvious dangers of extreme height, high voltage, microwave radiation, radio-frequency exposure and gusting winds pale in comparison to what many responders deem the hardest aspect of most tower...


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In the very best of scenarios, tower rescue for the professional can be a daunting task. But the obvious dangers of extreme height, high voltage, microwave radiation, radio-frequency exposure and gusting winds pale in comparison to what many responders deem the hardest aspect of most tower rescues: interagency cooperation on what is often a mutual aid call.

"It's a difficult pill to swallow when someone else shows up to your response area for a tower rescue," said West Metro Fire District Firefighter Sean Calocci. One of the coordinators for a recent training hosted by the Foothills Fire Protection District for potential tower rescue responders in Jefferson County, CO, Calocci admitted that the very nature of tower rescue, coupled with the remote locations of the towers, begs for a new way to approach mutual aid response. Six different agencies attended the meeting/training, which was held in September.

"Getting the right people involved in the pre-planning aspect of tower rescue can save someone's life," he adds.

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?

With the ever-increasing demand for cell coverage (there are currently 190,000 cell sites in the U.S. and that number is expected to nearly double in the next five years, according to www.WirelessEstimator.com), the telecom industry is installing cell towers in more and more remote areas. This demand for expanded coverage is putting more towers into rural areas and even mountaintop sites in the backcountry, in a rush to fill in all those dreaded "dead spots."

With the encroachment of more towers away from densely populated areas, it follows that there is an increasing likelihood that both career and non-paid rescuers might be called upon to assist in what was once considered a strictly urban/industrial rescue scenario: a fallen tower worker hanging suspended from a lanyard high above the ground.

An extreme example of this situation occurred in rural Nebraska in 2002. A tower worker was injured at the 1,200-foot level of a tower while installing cable. By the time his lifeless body reached the ground, nearly 12 hours had elapsed since the initial 911 call was made and now even the National Guard had become part of the rescue effort. Rescuers were hampered by the fact that the tower had no pre-installed safety climb system, and they had to use multiple anchors on the tower for the lowering since they only had a 400-foot rope to work with.

Smaller, less-equipped departments are being forced to rely on bigger, better-funded metro rescue teams to help them meet the challenge that rural tower rescue presents. Agencies in the past that would never have had to work side by side are now relying on each other and becoming intimately familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses in regards to tower rescue.

In the past, most calls to tower accidents were recoveries, because tower workers had more of a cowboy attitude and often free-climbed to get the job done quickly. A fall meant almost certain death. According to the annual statistics compiled by www.wirelessestimator.com, telecom tower climbing is "America's most lethal job," beating out loggers, coal miners and offshore fisherman in per capita deaths per 100,000 workers (in comparison with the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Eighteen tower workers were killed on the job in 2008, and several tower workers perished in work-related accidents in 2009. But Ed Dennis, Senior Safety Consultant for Com-Tech Services, said that the actual number of fatalities could be four times that number if the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) figured in self-employed contractor and ham-radio tower fatalities. In an effort to buck this trend, more companies (and OSHA) are stressing 100% tie offs for workers in the telecom industry. Falls these days frequently result in the worker hanging suspended, unable to self-rescue. Even a worker who falls without sustaining any injuries at all can perish from the effects of Suspension Intolerance (sometimes as quickly as within five minutes) if left hanging from their dorsal attachment point on their full-body harness.

Dennis believes that RF exposure plays a bigger role in tower accidents than most people realize. He cited a case that took place in Frankfurt, IN in March 2006. A self-employed tower worker, suffering from the sudden onset of flu-like symptoms (likely caused by RF exposure), fell off the tower onto his fall arrest lanyard and was too weak to self-rescue. The rescue took three departments over 17 hours. Though he survived, Dennis estimated that the worker was dosed with 600% of the Maximum Permissible Exposure (MPE) of RF the entire 17 hours that the rescue was taking place from a height of 170 feet.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

A tower rescue is a very real possibility for Jefferson County (population 538,323). Jeffco, as it is often called, is a critical communications gateway on the eastern side of the Rockies that links the east and west over the continental divide. Though it is a county of roughly 774 square miles, nearly 655 of those square miles are unincorporated. In addition, it borders more counties (10) than any other county in the state. Its rugged and remote foothills (some approaching 10,000 feet above sea level) are spiked with dozens of towers perched atop them, and more are going up all the time.

And to further complicate the situation, it is also very likely that a tower rescue might not just be for someone who had a really bad day at work. These same foothills, less than 30 minutes from Denver, are chock full of Para gliders, hang gliders, BASE jumpers and a whole assortment of adrenaline junkies looking for something to either climb up or jump off. Eco-terrorists like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), who have been sabotaging towers in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, have a presence in Colorado. Desperate copper thieves are also scaling towers in search of cable to cut and resell.

So given the eclectic nature of both the response area and the responders (Jeffco has more than 30 emergency response agencies), many local rescuers believe a tower rescue call requiring multiple agencies in Jefferson County is not a question of if, but when.

CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

To address this growing concern, several agencies decided to take a proactive approach to the possibility of a rescue at Lake Cedar, a local "tower farm." Located on the side of nearby Lookout Mountain, the Lake Cedar site had more than half a dozen towers clustered together. The tallest, a new digital TV antenna, is more than 600 feet tall, and has steel guy wires spiderwebbing hundreds of feet out from the red-and-white striped behemoth.

Attended by both paid and volunteer rescuers, it was the first meeting of its kind for JeffCo. Host Foothills Fire Protection District, West Metro Fire, Golden Fire, Genesee Fire, Highland Rescue Team Ambulance and the local CBS KCNC-TV affiliate tower site technicians all met for both a classroom chalk-talk and field rescue demonstration by members of West Metro. An accredited Mountain Rescue Association team (the Alpine Rescue Team of Evergreen, CO) was even thrown into the mix, as a winter tower rescue in Colorado would likely entail the use of snowmobiles or snowcats for access, and by chance the all-volunteer team had members with tower rescue training experience in its ranks. But the 800-pound gorilla in the room that no one wanted to discuss was not the dilemma of coping with dwindling training budgets, not the expense of gearing up with tower rescue specific gear and not even the varying opinions on tower rescue techniques. It was the prospect of coordinating several very different organizations' response to a tower rescue call that remained the most complex and bewildering — yet least openly discussed — subject of the day.

"If you don't have the resources to do the rescue, you should at least have a game plan on who to call," concluded Foothills Fire Protection District Business Manager and Volunteer Firefighter Jeanette Kehoe after the meeting. Though Foothills responds to 400–500 calls a year, most of those are car accidents and vehicle extrications, according to Kehoe. A six-year veteran, she said that even though the Foothills FPD has one site (Lake Cedar) with several tall telecommunications and DTV antennas, they do not have the training or resources to safely conduct a tower rescue alone. She added that though the site falls squarely in their jurisdiction, they opted instead to adopt a multiple agency, team-based approach to a possible rescue at the site.

Kehoe explained that they had already met with the tower owners and site technicians to establish first-on-scene protocols at the Lake Cedar site. Foothills would work to get a lockout/tagout situation initiated, assess the scene, get the appropriate vehicles in place for anchors, and then defer the actual rescue to West Metro Fire, a nearby urban fire department with more than 300 paid firefighters and paramedics manning 15 stations.

"I give a lot of credit to Foothills for stepping up and initiating this," said West Metro Captain Jeremy Metz. "We all need to work together. The goal here is not to get another plaque on your wall, or get your photo in the newspaper. The goal is to rescue someone in need, and get all your rescuers home safely—whether it takes four agencies on a call or 10."

HISTORY LESSON

History is doomed to be repeated by those who don't learn from it. After the meeting, some veteran rescuers expressed their frank opinions about past attempts at inter-agency cooperation (or the lack thereof) on mutual aid calls.

"First of all, the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) must agree upon who responds to an incident," said Alpine Rescue Team Member Herb Dorn. "It can be a monumental battle to overcome the jurisdictional politics of who responds to what territory regardless of what skills an agency possesses," he said. Dorn is intimately familiar with both sides of the house—paid and volunteer. He is a Qualified Rescue Rank member of Alpine Rescue and a Lieutenant Paramedic with the Longmont, CO Fire Department with more than a decade of experience.

Both Metz and Calocci of West Metro admitted it is often an uphill battle. "There is so much pride involved. Sometimes when you come into another department's area, you are greeted with suspicion, not open arms," said Calocci.

Metz, a 12-year veteran and Technical Rescue Team Manager concurred. "Most of us are pretty aggressive alpha types."

Dorn believes that some of the standard tactics employed in other rescue situations simply don't work with a tower rescue. "It's a specialized arena, and all responding agencies would be better served if only a small number of people trained for it. You can't effectively train a lot people in something this specialized and expect them to retain it," he said. "You need a core group that train together if you want to excel at this."

"Tower rescue is a high-risk, low frequency event," Dorn said, comparing tower rescue training to confined space rescue training.

Consultant Dennis agreed that the relative rarity of tower rescues makes them difficult to justify the time and expense needed to equip and train rescue teams. "It's as expensive as hell, and there's a very real chance that they will never use it," he said. "And besides, you can't take the Reader's Digest version of tower rescue and expect to retain it for a year. Our guys work on towers every day, and even they have a hard time with that. You can't just look to the NFPA to address the appropriate tower rescue gear. You have to look to ANSI Z359-2007 to find a standard that addresses rescue gear for the workplace."

One point that all who attended the tower rescue meeting agreed upon was the importance of shared trainings.

"If you want to win someone's trust, train with them," Calocci concluded.

And just as most successful tower rescues are carried out from the top-down, so it goes for establishing a culture of mutual respect and cooperation on multiple agency callouts for tower rescue, according to Alpine Rescue Team member Mike Everist.

"Sometimes we've had the wrong guy at the top," he said of past mutual aid calls. "We've walked on some toes, and when you do that, naturally people will push back. The people at the top of each organization owe it to their own agencies to cut through their own BS. I include our own agency in that statement."

He added that newer members on any rescue team or fire department often form their initial opinions of their neighboring agencies based on what they are told by senior members, and this can add years of strained relations from events that transpired long ago.

Damon Brown, of the Highlands Rescue Team (the agency that would provide the ALS ambulance service in the event of a tower rescue at the Lake Cedar site), was optimistic about the future of mutual aid tower rescue calls in Jeffco, and had similar thoughts on the necessity for mutual respect on mutual aid. "We should always focus our priorities on what is right for both the community and the patient."

NEVER SAY NEVER

To the best of anyone's recollection, there has never been a tower rescue in Jeffco. But as if to confirm the value of shared tower rescue trainings, less than a week after the first tower rescue meeting, Foothills Fire was notified by a passing motorist that a hang glider had become entangled in the guy wires of the 600-foot-tall KCNC-TV antenna at the Lake Cedar site.

West Metro was promptly notified by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department Dispatcher of the call, but was stood down when a member of Foothills Fire concluded that the motorist had been mistaken. The hang glider was actually several hundred feet away from the tower, "treading" a thermal that held him aloft and made it appear from a distance as if he was caught midair.

"It was a false alarm," said Foothills Fire member Kehoe, "but what a great drill!"

With tower rescue, most of the unknowns can be engineered out of the equation with basic pre-planning. There are not many types of calls in which you can be guaranteed of the incident happening where you have trained for it. Tower rescue is one of those types of calls.

Visit the site with the rescuers who would respond to the call. Coordinate the visit with the tower owner. Get gate codes or keys, so that the bolt cutters can stay on the rig. If the tower owner is in compliance with ANSI Z359 2007 requirements for rescue pre-planning, they should probably have your agency listed on their rescue plan anyway. If the tower is not in your primary response area, be sure to include the agencies that will be first on scene in your rescue pre-plan process. This is critical, as the decisions made in the first 15 minutes on scene usually dictate the tone for the rest of the call.

Make certain that the vehicles needed onsite can make the drive to the base of the tower year round.

The tower owner or site technician should have a list of all the antennas on the tower and the owners contact information for each antenna. Once this list is obtained, it should be kept on the rig that would be responding to that location, and updated yearly. This is a critical piece of information when it comes to lock-out/tag-out procedures during a rescue.

Think of tower rescue as an aerial hazmat situation. Tower workers use very specialized tools for climbing towers, and it follows that the tools to rescue them should be specialized for tower rescue as well. Twin lanyards, autolocking descent devices rated for a two-person load, cable grabs and RF monitors are a must.

Due to the extreme height of some towers, the rope needed to affect a rescue may be hundreds of feet longer than your longest rope. Plan or purchase accordingly.

When choosing a technical system to conduct the rescue, simplify, simplify, simplify and practice, practice, practice. A system that takes a dozen rescuers more than an hour to set up is probably too complicated. Remember that the longer a subject is hanging suspended, the more likely it is they could suffer the fatal effects of Suspension Intolerance. To save precious minutes, use a prepackaged rescue solution that is used only for tower rescue.

Don't swarm up the tower like an army of rescuing ants. Two or three highly trained and fit rescuers can accomplish more in half an hour than a dozen could in five hours.

If in doubt about the objective dangers associated with tower rescue (like microwave and RF exposure, high voltage from inductive current near AM Radio towers), consult with the same companies that the telecommunications companies use for safety training.

If resources allow, set up a staging area for the press in a safe area, and allow law enforcement to restrict access to the base of the tower. The guy with the gun and badge trumps the guy with the camera and press pass every time.

Don't assume that when the victim reaches the ground that they are out of danger. Treat them for Suspension Intolerance by making certain that they are not laid down prone and strapped to a backboard. If at all possible, they should remain seated, with their legs slightly bent until blood work can be done to determine if the oxygen-starved blood pooling in the legs has become toxic.

Tom Wood has a bachelor's degree in photojournalism from Kent State University, and also served as a combat photographer for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He is the Program Manager and an industrial rescue at height instructor for Vertical Rescue Solutions by PMI. An 11-year veteran of the Alpine Rescue Team in Evergreen, CO, he has served as the team's New Member Director, Equipment Director and ATV Director. During the Columbia Shuttle Recovery Effort in 2003, he served as a division SAR superintendent. Wood is a Level II Avalanche Technician and HeloTech II. He is also a certified tower climber and IRATA-certified Rope Access Technician. A past presenter for the Mountain Rescue Association, National Association of Search and Rescue, International Technical Rescue Symposium (ITRS) and the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, his extracurricular activities include mountaineering, writing, ice climbing, rock climbing, caving and trail running.

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