Winch Operations, Part 1

Sometimes it takes a near miss to get you thinking just how close you came or just how little you know about something that could kill you.


SUBJECT:Winch Operations At Rescue Scenes

TOPIC:"Red Flag" Moments During Winch Operations

OBJECTIVE:Understand conditions and situations during winch operations that indicate unsafe acts and/or diminished safety exists. These are referred to as "Red Flag" moments.

TASK: Based upon study of a real-world cable failure incidents and past experiences, create a list of potential "red flag" moments that can exist at any winch line operation. Develop operational winch guidelines to insure safe and efficient winch line operations at incident scenes.


Sometimes it takes a near miss to get you thinking just how close you came or just how little you know about something that could kill you. Such is the case after a tow truck winch cable failure occurred at a truck crash scene recently. In this situation, the cable failed violently and could have killed two people right before our very eyes. By relating this story to you, it is hoped that the next time you are present at a scene where a winch cable is being used under load, you'll remember this story, set up a safe scene, and avoid a near miss like we had.

The vehicle that crashed was a 10-wheel truck outfitted with a tank to haul waste grease and oils from food establishments. At an on-ramp to an expressway, the driver lost control, rolled the vehicle onto its' roof, and slid to a halt in a ditch at the side of the road. Citizens removed the injured driver just as the first FD units were arriving on scene. There was a small spill of fluids from the truck itself that were quickly contained by fire department personnel. The tank remained intact although it was almost completely dislodged from the truck chassis.

A local wrecker company was summoned by the police to recover the overturned truck. Rather than off-load the tanker, the tow truck operator decided to upright the loaded unit with a low angle, dual line pull off their heavy duty wrecker while fire department personnel stood by. In the process, one tow cable suddenly snapped in two and violently whipped around the scene, narrowly missing two tow truck company employees. The following images tell the story of what happened and the lessons learned.

The challenge to fire and rescue personnel who many times are standing by during these recovery operations, is to analyze these images and identify the telltale "Red Flags" moments that were completely overlooked or not respected by tow company personnel. Once you know where the dangers lie at the scene of a winch line recovery operation, decide what your course of action will be for your fire/rescue personnel.

Photo 1 This is how first-due fire/rescue personnel found the scene upon their arrival. The injured driver was being pulled from the cab through the open door by motorists who had stopped at the crash scene. Note that the chassis of the 10-wheeler appears intact.

Red Flag: The norm for this type of recovery is to pump-off the liquid, called off-loading, to minimize the possibility of a spill of any liquids into the nearby storm drain during vehicle recovery. If nothing is leaking from the tank now, then nothing should be leaking from the tank once it is finally removed from the scene.

Photo 2 A view from the rear shows the waste tank almost completely torn away from the chassis of the truck. The waste oil tank did not leak; only fluids from the truck itself had to be dealt with by fire/rescue personnel.

Red Flag: Note that the tank is resting on a short but relatively steep downhill slope. An uphill pull to recover this fully loaded tank and truck will require greater effort and place more strain on the pulling system.

Photo 3 The heavy duty tow truck operators placed their 16-ton capacity unit at a 90-degree angle to the overturned truck. They hooked one winch line high on the front axle and a second line to the rear tandem axle and began pulling the loaded tanker. This image was taken just as the second winch line was being placed in service.

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