Elevated Safety, LLC

Tower rescue: first-in operations and the IAP

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Courtesy of Elevated Safety, LLC

Across the country “tower” type rescues are becoming more and more common.  Accordingly, there is a growing need for local rescuers to be aware of these sites in their response areas, pre-plan for different rescue scenarios, and train their specialized rescue personnel to the appropriate level in order to facilitate the rescue in a safe manner.  Tower rescues have become so prevalent, that when the NFPA published the latest version of the 1670 standard, it included Tower Rescue Awareness, Operations, and Technician level requirements.  Still the big question for all of us who work in high angle rescue is; How many departments and rescue teams across the country are truly trained and equipped to carry out these demanding types of rescues?

The first thing we need to define when talking about tower rescue is the tower itself. What exactly is a tower?  NFPA 1670 states “the requirements of this chapter shall apply to organizations that provide varying degrees of response to emergencies involving guyed, self-supporting, monopoles and non-standard tower structures.”

The terms guyed, self-supporting, and monopoles refer to varying types of cell towers.  Non-standard tower structures are ones such as transmission towers, water tower, cranes, smoke stacks, and possibly bridges.  In this article we will discuss first-in operations for a cell tower incident, but the majority of what is discussed can also be relevant for these non-standard tower structures as well. It should be noted here that we are not discussing rescues from energized power transmission towers or broadcast towers that have additional hazards.

We consider “tower” type rescues to be any in which you are doing a “bottom-up” style rescue.  Traditional fire service classes and curriculum focus on “top-down” style rescues such as  window washer rescue, slope evacuations, victim on the side of a cliff or a rescue of someone trapped in a high rise.  In these situations the rescue crew comes into the scene above the victim and either rappels down or lowers someone down from an elevated area.  This rigging area is usually fairly large, many personnel are able to access it, and anchors are available or can be moved as needed.

A “bottom-up” style tower rescue is one in which you arrive on scene and the victim is above you.  Unless you have the luxury of a helicopter with an external hoist at your disposal, you must access the victim from below on the structure. You will need to  climb up past the subject, set up high point anchors with limited equipment, and facilitate a usually much more complex rescue scenario with only 1 or 2 fit and well-trained rescue personnel doing all the work and sharing all the responsibility.

Regardless of whether you opt for a top-down or bottom-up rescue, all rescuers on the tower must be tied off 100% of the time with no exceptions.

The first order of business  for any crew arriving on scene is to gather information and to control the area.

Gathering information

Is this a compliant (worker) subject or a non-compliant (non-authorized climber) subject that needs rescue?

  • Compliant Worker:If the subject is a properly trained and equipped tower climber, find his coworkers and figure out  exactly why a rescue is needed.  At-height workers on these types of sites are not permitted to work alone, and  should be working in teams of 2 or more at all times.  These workers may also be trained in rescue and should be utilized for their knowledge and skills as much as possible.
    • What is the problem?  Is it a medical issue or did they fall on their fall protection and are now hanging in free space?  If the victim for some reason is hanging in their harness and unconscious this is a time-sensitive problem and you must set your rescue plan into immediate action because of the real risk of suspension trauma.
    • Other common reasons for rescue include: heat exhaustion in the summer; cold issues in the winter; heart problems; falling objects causing injury, falling onto fall protection and unable to self-rescue.  There could be any number of other health or access problems with your victim so it is critical that you find out exactly what the issue is so your rescue team can begin to build their Incident Action Plan (IAP).
  • Non-compliant climber: Most non-compliant climbers are alone, which will make it difficult or impossible to get any information on the ground.  Often times with a non-compliant climber the first question to ask is, “Are they dead or alive?”
    • If they are deceased, which is a real probability on transmission towers, then your rescue just turned into a recovery.
    • If they are alive, some common reasons that they need rescue are:
      • climbed the tower but they are too scared to climb down
      • despondent/suicidal or are either drugged/intoxicated
      • adrenaline seekers trapped up top,
      • BASE jumpers or even paragliders tangled up in guy wires.

In these situations, it is imperative that the Incident Commander take a good hard look at the risks versus rewards prior to sending up rescuers.

Other important information:

  • Exact subject location and at what height.
  • Is the subject on the structure clinging, sitting, laying or standing with or without a harness?
  • Estimation of height is also critical, as this will most likely be a deciding factor on where you place your rigging control as well as the type of rescue you choose.

Controlling the site:

  • Set up your standard Hot, Warm, and Cold Zones as you do for any special rescue incident.
  • Lock out/ tag out of any power sources and all RF emitting equipment. RF or Radio Frequencies are a real hazard and should be treated with caution.  If it is a compliant climber then most likely they have secured all the RF in the area they are at.  You will need to confirm with the other worker on scene what his lock-out/ tag-out procedures are.  If it is a non-compliant climber then you will need to determine the FCC number (usually found on signage at the compound entry),  determine the number of carriers, locate emergency numbers and locate the site designation number.  Call EACH number and request immediate shutdown of all RF transmissions from the site.  Even with all of the equipment powered down, personal Radio Frequency (RF) monitors used by trained and certified rescuers are a must. These monitors clip to the harness of the rescuer/worker as they climb and will alert if they encounter dangerous level of RF radiation.

Sample Tower Signage

Once the area is secured and you have an understanding of what needs to be accomplished, it is time for your rescuers to develop the Incident Action Plan (IAP).


How will you access the patient?  The first option is of course is setting up your tower ladder and picking them off.  But if the Subject is out of reach of the ladder truck, then you will need to climb.  If a climb is called for , you will need to determine how to access them vertically as well as horizontally.

  • Is there a fall protection system in place that you can utilize as a safety while climbing? These will usually be in the form of a cable, rail, or notched pipe safety system.  Are the safety grabs at the site or do you have the proper one on your rescue squad to utilize?  If the answer is no, then you will need to utilize twin lanyards, some sort of advance-placed fall protection, or lead climbing techniques in order to maintain two points of contact while accessing the victim.
  • In all these cases an option for the first rescuer up is to trail a rope and either secure it to the structure and the next up can utilize a fall arrest rope grab (eg the Petzl ASAP or similar self-belay device) as his backup safety system while climbing or the first rescuer can set up a belay system and belay the second rescuer up as they climb.
  • Most likely the victim will not be right in line with your climbing path, which means that you will need to access them by climbing horizontally at some point. This means you will need to come off the installed safety system and use twin lanyards or a combination of work positioning devices in order to maintain 2 points of contact throughout your transitions.

Tower Control versus Ground Control:

Where will you set up the rigging control for the operation?  There are some advantages and disadvantages to both of these techniques.

Tower Control relies on 1 or 2 rescuers climbing the structure with everything they need to facilitate the rescue up top.

  • Team Selection: Tower rescue is not for everyone. It is both physically and mentally demanding.  Being on top of a 200 foot tall rooftop is a completely different feeling than being up even 60 feet on a fully exposed cell tower leg (like being on a ship at sea, towers MOVE under your feet).  Your selection should be the two most highly trained members you have that are physically capable of climbing up the tower loaded down with the necessary equipment. Climbing is strenuous and burns a lot of calories, so rescuers should have food and water with them.
  • Rigging: All rigging should be prepared/setup on the ground as much as possible and kept as simple as possible. The two scenarios for tower rescue are:
    • Pick-off style rescue: Rescuers set up two static lines above the victim.  One rescuer rappels down and performs a standard pick-off style rescue to the ground.
    • Top lower: Rescuers set up a two-rope system above the Subject, then make connections to victim and lower and belay from up top to the ground.
    • Rope Length: At least the height of the rescue, with some to spare. This is usually a determining factor to if you will do a tower control or ground control rescue.  If the victim is at 180ft and all you have is 300ft long rescue ropes your choices are to do a tower control rescue or a ground control and pass knots.
  • Advantages: Fast, small rescue team (if they are highly trained), less rope and equipment needed.
  • Disadvantages: Small rescue team has all the responsibility, not for severe trauma patients, limited ability to offset away from structure.

Ground Control relies on establishing a fixed brake on the ground rather than on the tower.

  • Team Selection: Two most highly trained members to climb tower to establish high point change of direction pulleys and to package victim. Because the control is on the ground the rescuers climbing have less responsibility than on a tower based rescue.
  • Rigging: Two rescue climbers will climb up utilizing a bag carry, end carry, or bight carry technique. They will establish high point change of direction pulleys, package patient if that is possible, and make appropriate connections.  Ground will establish a lowering or raising system. Autolocking, rescue-rated descent control or progress capture devices (eg the Petzl I’D or CMC MPD) work best in this kind of scenario.
    • Rope Length: At least two-and-half times the height of your rescue.  This will also vary based on the type of system is setup.
  • Advantages: Offset options to bring package away from structure, responsibility is spread among more members, space to run rigging for haul and lower as needed
  • Disadvantages: more rope needed, more complicated, slower, more equipment needed, larger rescue team needed, solid communication is essential

Patient Packaging

  • Compliant worker will already have on a tower harness with a sternal and dorsal attachment areas to connect to.
    • What is the mechanism of injury? Will they need spinal immobilization at height prior to lowering?  Are they just stuck and need to be lowered to the ground via their harness? Typically, unless there is a life threatening injury to the subject that can be resolved quickly while the subject is suspended, you will be able to provide the best medical care to the subject AFTER they have been safely lowered to the ground.
  • Non-compliant, un-harnessed climber will need some sort of patient packaging, be it webbing, a rescue harness, or other. A PMI Hasty Harness is ideal for these situations, and take special care when dealing with panicked or combative subjects
  • Communications: Portable radios will need to be utilized for clear communications between the rescuers on the tower and on the ground.  Many harnesses do not have harness attachments to hold radios, so make certain that your radio is affixed so that it cannot be dropped.

This is a quick rundown of some first-in considerations for a cell tower rescue.  There are of course hundreds of other factors that can come into play in any given tower rescue. The importance of training with the tools and techniques used by tower climbers cannot be overstated. If you the the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), it is up to you to pre-plan for rescues on the structures in your response areas.

  • Study available information on tower rescues.
  • Seek out competent tower rescue training.
  • Take that information and practice tower rescue techniques on unexposed locations to drive the fundamentals home.
  • Once rescuers are comfortable using the tools and techniques for tower rescue, get out on some actual telecommunications towers and train on them as well.

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