High-Rise Rescue

Joseph V. Brocato describes how with the advent of high-rise construction, fire departments have created teams for challenging fires and rescues.


Las Vegas; Nov. 21, 1980; 7:16 A.M. Fire Control: "Yes, MGM." Caller: "You want to come in entrance 2, the Flamingo Road casino entrance, we need the fire department." Fire Control: "What's wrong, ma'am?" Caller: "We have a fire in the deli." Fire Control: "You have a fire in the...


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Photo by John Kisser
Team member Lieutenant Jeff Segal gives a hand signal to the helicopter pilot, indicating he is 10 feet from the deck.

Original operations consisted of a Vietnam-era Bell UH1B Huey aircraft, a rappel master from the Maryland State Police State Tactical Assault Team Element (S.T.A.T.E.) and H.E.A.T. members. Team members would rappel from the helicopter skids four at a time, under the direction of the rappel master, using doubled half-inch kernmantle rope. The rappel master, in communication with the pilot, would direct him into final position. As the roof needed to be directly below the helicopter, the pilot would be unable to see his objective once in final position. He would need to hold a hover under direct conditions caused by factors such as weather and shifts in weight caused be rappelers and equipment. Teamwork by all those involved was critical. Consequently, only several pilots were qualified for H.E.A.T. operations.

Once on the roof, victims would don special harnesses that team members brought with them. Victims would then be connected to the ends of the rappel ropes and lifted from the roof to the ground. They would dangle approximately 150 feet below the helicopter throughout the rescue process. Additional victims could be removed by way of a slideline rope, which could be set between two buildings or the building involved and the ground. Members could also rappel down the building, picking up a victim, then continuing to the ground or aerial platform.

As H.E.A.T. became operational, one problem was apparent: with only one helicopter and several pilots available, operational readiness could be compromised should one or the other be unavailable. Likewise, only certain Maryland State Police personnel were trained as rappel masters.

In 1987, the Maryland State Police decided to buy new helicopters to replace its fleet of Bell Jet Rangers (used for medevac missions). The new aircraft would have twin engines and hoist capabilities. The fleet would now consist of 11 Dauphine aircraft in all deployed, as before, statewide, giving the Maryland State Police the largest non-military fleet of helicopters in North America. With the addition of these new aircraft and the retirement of "our" Huey we needed to rethink our operations.

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Photo by John Kisser
A "Billy Pugh" net is lowered by helicopter winch cable to the roof.

Meetings were conducted between H.E.A.T. leaders and the Maryland State Police Aviation Division. The result of these meetings was a radical change in mission operations. No longer would members rappel four at a time. Two members would now be inserted by hoist using a special strap attached to the hoist hook. Victims would then be extracted (winched into the helicopter) using a basket device known as a "Billy Pugh" net, which each new helicopter would carry. It was decided to train all pilots and flight medics on hoisting and H.E.A.T. operations, alleviating the concern for operational readiness. Any helicopter in the state could, on request, be pressed into service with trained personnel.

As what became known as "technical rescue" evolved, H.E.A.T. was itself changing. Besides helicopter rescue, we began to address other forms of high angle rescue and incorporating pig rig systems, Z rigs, tyroleans and the like into our operations. The team members trained in other areas of technical rescue such as swift water and confined space (both of which are based on a thorough knowledge of rope work) and structural and trench collapse.

In 1993, the Baltimore City Fire Department changed the name of its portion of the team to reflect the changing role. The Baltimore County Fire Department had previously changed the name of its unit to Advanced Tactical Rescue Team (ATR). Anne Arundel County has chosen to keep the H.E.A.T. name. It was decided by each jurisdiction's team leaders to continue to use the term H.E.A.T. to refer to helicopter rescue operations. In effect, H.E.A.T. had become a sub-group.