By Author(s): Tom Vines 
Published Monday, February 27, 2012
As every parent of a teenager will confirm, kids can get into all kinds of situations that they shouldn’t. This is exactly what happened in Phoenix on Dec. 19, when two teenagers got into some trouble that required a major fire department response involving advanced high-angle rescue skills.
The response began with a 9-1-1 cell phone call reporting two teenagers in trouble on Camelback Mountain, so named because its profile resembles the hump and head of a kneeling camel. The mountain, a Phoenix city park, features rugged terrain that has been the site of many rescues; however, this rescue proved to be more challenging and complex than most.
At 1408 HRS the department dispatched technical rescue team units Engine 12, Ladder 12, Engine 8, Squad 8 and Battalion Chief 2. Engine 45 and Car 957 North were later added to the response.
The 9-1-1 caller reported that two young males were stuck on the mountain about 30 feet from the top of Echo Canyon. Department responders questioned the report, though, believing it to be unlikely that individuals 30 feet from the top of Echo Canyon could not find their way down. The department’s alarm room ran a check of the cell phone location and found that the cell phone’s “ping” came from an area on the south side of what is known as the “head” (of the camel) and in an area above a water tank.
Units from Station 12 continued on to Echo Canyon while Station 8 units responded to Rockledge Drive on the south side of the mountain. None of the ground units were able to see the young men so responders began hiking up the trails. They still could not make contact, so the battalion chief requested helicopter FB5, an Agusta A119, which quickly launched. (This is one of the helicopters operated by the Phoenix Police Air Support Unit, but when used in a fire department operation, it takes the designation “Fire Bird.”)
At about 1500 HRS, the helo crew spotted the teens and reported that they were in a precarious position on the west side of the “head,” at the top of Boulder Canyon, in a spot inaccessible by any trail. They were stranded on a point of the mountain where rock projects out from a small canyon formed by converging stone formations. The projection is only a few feet wide and is exposed on both sides.
The teens, 13- and 14-year-old cousins, had been hiking with one of their mothers. They went off trail to do some exploring, and before long, they had climbed into a place that they could not get out of.
Now, with this updated information, Engine 12 and Ladder 12 set up to access the head from the south route to the mountain. Engine 8 and Squad 8 reassembled and responded to a gate at Echo Canyon Estates where they could access the west side of the mountain.
Engine 45 established a landing zone (LZ) for the helo on Luke Street, a couple of miles from the mountain. Once the helo arrived, two rescuers went aboard and the helo left to recon the teens’ location. Once over the area, the helo crew saw that the area was too confined to insert a rescuer by helicopter hoist. The operation would have to involve, at least initially, rescuers on the mountain. Over a PA system, rescuers aboard the helo instructed the two teens to stay put and wait for firefighters to arrive.
To begin the rescue, all the rescuers would have to leave their units, hike in and then climb cliffs to reach the area. Some of this would be technical rock-climbing, requiring climbing equipment and skills.
First, Station 8 personnel hiked into Boulder Canyon and then climbed a cliff known as the Yellow Wall, which is approximately 200 feet high. The lead climber, a firefighter/paramedic, climbed in with a dynamic rope attached to his harness and controlled by a belayer at the bottom. As he progressed toward the top, he used intermediate anchors, bolts permanently set in the cliff face by sport climbers and previous department crews. He rigged two “quick draws,” carabiners joined by a short sewn loop of webbing. He clipped one carabiner into a bolt and threaded his belay rope through the other carabiner, thus limiting the length of a possible fall. Once he reached the top, he anchored a belay device and then top-belayed the other crewmembers as they climbed the same route.
On the south approach to the mountain, only the first 50 to 60 feet required technical rock climbing. After that, rescuers could hike over a steep area by using a Prusik safety attached to a fixed rope.
Once at the top of the mountain, personnel from Rescue Sector requested additional equipment. Subsequently, the helo made two flights into a temporary two-skid LZ at August Canyon to deliver the additional equipment, along with three technical rescue team members from Engine 45. The additional personnel met up with Rescue Sector at the top of August Canyon and continued on to the rescue site.
Helicopter FB5 now returned to the hanger to stand by as needed. Although the initial rescue plan did not involve a helicopter hoist, the helo crew decided to rig FB10 (a hoist-capable Agusta A109) just in case the situation changed and a hoist was needed. This turned out to be a wise decision.
At 1601 HRS, the firefighter/paramedic from Engine 8 reached the two stranded teens. They were uninjured but anxious to get down.
The initial rescue plan was to perform a pick-off style operation in which the teens would each be placed in a harness, and then tethered to a rescuer who would rappel with one of them while being belayed by other rescuers. This is how they planned to reach the bottom of Boulder Canyon so that everyone could then hike out. Unfortunately, this plan was not feasible for two reasons: First, there were not enough rescuers at the site to pull this off safely. Second, nightfall was now approaching, increasing the hazardous nature of the operation. So the rescuers revised the plan.
For the new plan, the rescuers would have to get the two teens up to a spot on the mountain where a helicopter hoist operation could be employed. The rescuers placed a harness on each victim (one a pre-made rescue harness and the other an improvised seat harness using tubular webbing). They first attached a rope to one teen and top-belayed him as he climbed up. The second teen attempted to do the same but “ran out of steam,” so to speak, part way up, so rescuers pulled him up by his rope.
The FB10 helicopter rigged for hoisting hovered over the area, and the crew lowered two “screamer suits,” an enveloping fabric bag with integrated harness that holds the victim securely during a hoist. The rescuers then employed a “trail line extraction,” in which an 8-mm rope is attached with a quick-release shackle to each screamer suit—similar to a tagline used in raising a litter. The trail line would help prevent the person on the hoist from spinning in the helo wash and from bumping the aircraft, possibly causing injury or damaging helo components like the antenna. The trail line is easily detached by a crewmember when the person in the screamer suit reaches the aircraft. The trail line system has a built-in safety element to prevent injury or aircraft damage should the trail line get snagged accidentally. Sometimes called a “weak link,” this safety element is a short piece of small-diameter rope that would break before the trail line or the hoist cable. If a snag happens, this link would part and the snagged trail line would fall away, but the person would remain safely on the hoist cable.
Each teen was hoisted separately into the helo, which then flew to them to the Luke Street LZ where they were reunited with their parents. Neither of the teens was injured, so they were not transported.
All crews were off the mountain at 1951 HRS.
Sources: Phoenix Fire Department Fire Captain (and crew chief for this operation) Gary Tigges provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from an account of the incident in Fox10 News, KSAZ-TV.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced:
This rescue operation required high-angle skills not usually found in most departments. But the Phoenix Fire Department had prepared its team members by providing the necessary training and experience in an environment usually only known by recreational rock-climbers.
Captain Tigges makes the following observations:
“The cell phone ‘ping’ is a great tool for determining a person’s location, but in this case, it was slightly off the teens’ location. We have to remember that the system does have a margin of error and is only two-dimensional (latitude-longitude). It could not account for the estimated 300 feet difference in elevation change to the victim location.
“This operation transitioned from what initially appeared to be an easy walk-down scenario for rescuers to a one of ‘Oh hell! This is the big one kind of rescue!’ Rescue personnel had brought sufficient resources with them to begin to access the South Route. Rescue Sector filled in the additional needed equipment and manpower with an air drop. Station 8 easily redeployed to the Boulder Canyon access. I attribute a lot of this to the crew’s familiarity with the mountain and experience in accessing these seldom encountered (but very important) remote areas of Camelback. My thanks to the battalion chiefs who support our training in these locations to help improve the crews’ high-angle skills knowledge of the area.
“When you are on it, the Yellow Wall route in Boulder Canyon does not look that bad and seems very easy. But then, you get to the top and look down and say, ‘Man, that’s pretty exposed!’ It is rated 5.0 and is protected by just a few sport climber bolts. As was done during this operation, proper lead-climbing techniques should be used here with the lead climber protected on belay. We were fortunate to have an experienced lead climber on scene to make access this day. It could have been much slower with inexperienced personnel.
“All rescue technicians should go through their gear and make sure they have the proper personal gear, especially boots that are good for climbing. There is some technical climbing, a sketchy surface and some real pucker factor here.
“Be prepared for a rescue running into the night. Remember, all the really good rescues involve operating at night at some point. Make sure your lights work, and carry back-up and spare batteries in your backpack or on your harness. As a general rule, we do not helicopter-evacuate firefighters or rescue equipment from the rescue scene unless there has been an injury or illness, so you will have to walk down. Be prepared.”
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