By Tom Vines
Published Friday, November 25, 2011
An Aug. 16 rescue of two cliffed-out teens by the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) went off like clockwork, due in part to a thorough size-up by the first crew on scene.
Figuring Out What Went Wrong
The response to the incident originated from a still alarm, a phone call to Station 96 in the area of the incident. The caller first reported the situation as a lost hiker at Stoney Point, a municipal park popular with hikers and rock climbers.
Light Force 96 responded to Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Santa Susana Pass Road, arriving on scene at 1904 HRS. After assessing the situation, the Light Force 96 crew was able to determine that the situation involved two hikers stranded on a ledge on a cliff face approximately 200 feet above the ground. The hikers appeared to have been free-climbing without ropes or harnesses. They seemed to be in a fairly safe position but were afraid to try to maneuver either up or down the cliff face.
It was later determined that the two hikers were local teens—both 18 years old—who had become separated from a group of friends in the rugged terrain. They unwisely chose a path that led them to be trapped at dusk in a narrow and rocky recess.
Light Force 96 then called for the balance of the technical assignment, and at 1926 HRS, LAFD dispatched Battalion 15 (incident command); Engine 70 (command post company); Battalion 17 (rescue group); UR 88 (technical safety and edge rescue); Engine 89 (two firefighters used as rescuers on line); Light Force 88 (to assist with set up and system operation; Heavy Rescue 56 (stand by); EMS 17 (medical); RA 107 (medical); RA 70 (medical); Engine 107 (to assist with bringing the patients from the base of the cliff after rescue to medical); Fire 1 helicopter (an AgustaWestland 139, and one of the newer helicopters in the fleet); and Fire 6 helicopter (a JetRanger). (Both helicopters were Nightsun-equipped.)
Selecting a Rescue Plan
The two LAFD helicopters arrived at the site and sized up the potential for a hoist rescue. The helo crews concluded that a hoist was not a viable operation. The teens were secure in their position on the ledge, and the helo crews were concerned that rotor wash might dislodge debris that could injure the two or cause them to lose their footing. So the helo crews backed off but stayed in the area. They orbited the area, and as it got darker, provided lighting.
The Light Force 96 crew focused on getting a rescuer on the ledge to reassure and stabilize the hikers. The plan was to then use two, two-line lowerings to safely get each teen to the ground. All companies, including Light Force 96, carry a two-line system, and are capable of rigging for a two-line rope lower.
To reach a position above the teens and set up for the rescue, the rescuers hiked five minutes up a trail to the site, hand-carrying all the rope and hardware.
The rigging crew at the top of the cliff found a gigantic boulder that could serve as a central anchor point. They tied the end of a half-inch rope around the boulder in a tensionless hitch (aka, “no knot” hitch) and also tied a butterfly knot to which they attached a belay line.
The two-line lowering system consisted of a main line controlled by a brake-bar rack, a belay line controlled by tandem Prusiks, and a load-releasing hitch.
A rescuer from Light Force 96 descended to the duo on the ledge. With his belay controlled from the top, he rappelled on a brake-bar rack and carried a CMC victim harness. Initially there was limited staffing, so the rescuer decided to rappel from the top, rather than being lowered.
Upon reaching the teens, the rescuer placed a harness on one victim in preparation for the lowering operation.
As the other responding units arrived on scene and made their way to the top, a second rescuer was lowered with the two-line system. This rescuer took with him a victim harness that the first rescuer could place on the second victim. Additionally, the second rescuer attached the first teen’s harness to the lowering and belay lines via Prusiks, which were pre-attached to the lines before lowering. A crew was waiting at the bottom to receive both victims.
In lowering the first teen, the rescuer maneuvered him in front of him, facing the cliff so the teen could use his feet to help maneuver away from the rock. Once the rescuer and the first teen were at the bottom and off-rope, the topside crew then lowered another rescuer to perform the same procedure with the second teen.
The second teen proved to be a more difficult rescue. He was so frightened that he clung to the rescuer in a bear-hug fashion. He was lowered facing the rescuer, with his arms and legs wrapped around the rescuer.
The teens were evaluated but not transported—and they were later greeted by a very angry mother.
The rescue was complete at roughly 2030 HRS. The companies on scene had picked up, hiked out and completed an after-action report by 2120 HRS.
Sources: LAFD Captain Craig White provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from a report on the incident in The Los Angeles Times.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced:
Captain White provides the following observations:
“The first-in companies provided an accurate and complete size-up, and this gave the tech rescue team an accurate view of the situation, which saved time in setting up the rescue.
“It was a good call by helo crew not to engage with the victims in a potentially precarious situation. Rescuers may want to use helicopters as a first option, but they should first consider the effects of the rotor wash, as it can potentially dislodge debris or cause victims to lose their footing. However, the helo crews did provide a critical support role by lighting the area.
“As is common with so many responders, there initially was a lot of radio chatter, so we got a second channel that was committed just for the technical aspect. This made things a lot cleaner. For example, at one point during the lower, the rescuer and victim went under a ledge out of sight of the edge tender. But a bottom rescuer could see them and provided directions for the lowering crew.
“We don’t do this type a rescue often, but this one went really well, in part because of good communication and an accurate size-up.”
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