Rope Rescue Risk Management

Rope Rescue Risk Management

Rope Rescue involves risk. Rope skills are technical and if not performed properly can result in serious injury or death. Risk also comes from environmental conditions such as bad weather and low visibility. Rescue requires an immediacy in order to save a life which can cloud judgement. How can this risk be managed?

Rope Rescue Highline
A patient is packaged into a litter in preparation for being attached to a rope rescue highline.

Rope Access Technicians use planning to help manage risk. Before a job is performed hazards are identified and ways found to mitigate the dangers. This pre-planning is done by an experienced senior technician and Jobs are scheduled in advance which allows this to be done before the actual work begins.

Each year the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA), publishes the Work And Safety Analysis. This publication collects employment information and rope incident reports including causes of accidents and injuries. According to these statistics, the major cause of accidents can be directly attributed to human error. Rope Access Technicians perform repetitive tasks which allow them to gain proficiency and perform them on a frequent basis which helps to retain those skills. Even so, accidents routinely take place.

How does this relate to Rope Rescue Technicians? Rope rescue is performed with much less frequency than rope access. Because the skills are used less frequently, accidents should be expected to occur at a higher rate than in rope access work. How can these risks be minimized?

Procedures have been developed to manage rope rescue risks and this starts with teamwork. Ideally the most experienced members of a rope rescue team act as the team leader and safety officer. They focus on the big picture instead of individual tasks such as rigging. The second most experienced team members act as heads of rigging teams. They are in charge of directing the setting up ropes and other equipment such an artificial high directional (AHD). The junior members of the teams take orders from the rigging team leaders and work under their supervision. This allows a mentoring process where learning can take place and mistakes can be corrected while having a minimal impact on safety. As members gain experience they move up to positions of more responsibility allowing new junior members to join the team.

A buddy check is conducted before a rope rescue operation is begun. This gives another layer of safety to help reduce the chance of human error.

While this model works great for training, real search and rescue (SAR) incidents aren’t as structured requiring a broader approach. This requires all members of the team to be able to access a patient with minimal to no team support and only the personal equipment they have with them. The first rescuers on scene might need to gain access to the patient without the benefit of a more senior rescuer or safety officer being present. Safety must still be a primary concern.

In addition to on the job mentoring, safety can be improved by minimizing the use of improvised equipment. Properly designed equipment minimizes the potential for human error. The manufacturer has already tested the devices under a wide range of conditions and the instructions that are included with the equipment details the correct, and incorrect, ways to use it.

A lanyard with a sewn termination reduces the chances for human error and is stronger than a lanyard made with knotted rope.

We strongly believe systems that are overly dependent on knots should be avoided whenever possible. It is impossible to guarantee one will remember to tie a knot properly under stress when one hasn’t practiced for an extended period of time. Even when tied properly they might not work as intended, especially in the case of friction hitches which are dependent on the compatibility between different rope diameters and materials. Best case this causes a delay and worst case this can create a very dangerous situation which is easily avoided through the use of more suitable equipment.

You Can’t Improvise Safety

While many pieces of equipment can be improvised this should be considered an advanced skill. To ensure everything functions as intended it must be tested. While this testing doesn’t have to be extensive, it must at a minimum verify everything works as intended. Given the nature of rescue, that it is not a scheduled event, will the appropriate amount of time be devoted to testing function at an incident? Probably not. Is this time better spent rapidly setting up equipment and accessing a patient who might be in critical condition? We believe so.

Reducing risk in rope rescue must be done through a holistic approach to safety. This comes from good equipment, good training, and good team work. Together this allows rope rescuers to focus on the task of helping those in need to receive the best care possible.

Special thank you to VTC Training for their input on this article.

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