Complex Water Tower Rescue in Washington State

Complex Water Tower Rescue in Washington State


On June 21, firefighters in south-central Washington State successfully completed a rescue that combined elements of confined space, as well as high-angle rope-rescue hauling and lowering.

At 0857 HRS, a caller reported that a man had fallen approximately 40 feet into an empty water tank on Manor Drive in the Terrace Heights area of Yakima.

East Valley Fire and Rescue/Yakima County Fire District #4 immediately dispatched Engine 42, Engine 40 and Chief 3. Other units dispatched during the call included ALS 2, ALS 4, ALS 8, Air Supply 40, Air Supply 90, Battalion 91, Chief 240, Chief 29, Chief 40, Engine 229, Engine 42, Engine 85, Engine 95, Rehab 90, Truck 91, Training Officer 295 and Truck 95.

The units first arrived on scene at 0903 HRS and found a 40-foot-tall century-old brick structure, which had originally been used as a water reservoir. It hadn’t been used years. The local government had hired a contractor to evaluate whether it could once again be used to store water. The contractor, along with a utility employee, had gone to the top of the structure and entered through an access port. They were walking across an interior platform when suddenly, a rotten 2 x 4 gave way. The men were unsecured, and the contractor fell approximately 40 feet to the bottom of the structure. The utility employee, who did not fall and was uninjured, called 911.

Engine 42 was first on scene. The officer confirmed that the incident was a permit-required confined-space rescue, and requested dispatch for the Upper Valley Technical Rescue Team. The Upper Valley Technical Rescue Team is an all-risk team consisting of responders from City of Yakima Fire, City of Union Gap Fire, East Valley Fire/Yakima County Fire District #4, and Naches Fire. (Note: The water tower was a permit-required confined space because it had limited or restricted means of entry or exit, it was large enough for an employee to enter and perform assigned work, and it was not designed for continuous occupancy by the employee. In addition, it showed signs of having a potentially hazardous atmosphere or other health hazard. As such, OSHA requires that there be a responder tasked with monitoring entry of the confined space.)

The Engine 42 officer also called for Truck 91 to assist with extrication operations. Engine 40 arrived and assumed command of the incident, with the chief as incident commander (IC). An entry team was assigned, along with an entry supervisor and a safety officer.

Truck 91 accessed the roof, pulled off an entry hatch and identified the team’s haul point for patient extrication. The patient would have to be hauled to the top of the structure, out the hatchway and then lowered first to the roof of an attached one-story structure, and then to the ground. The air monitor readings showed that the air in the structure was free of toxic or hazardous gases and had an oxygen level of 20.8 percent.

The entry team climbed the outside ladder, entered the hatchway and climbed down the interior ladder to the patient. They found the patient conscious and alert but complaining of pain in his back and his lower and upper extremities. Other firefighters at the top then lowered patient-packaging equipment, including a metal basket litter and a Half Back extrication harness.

Firefighters at the top had to enlarge the opening so that the litter, patient and litter tender would fit through during the haul operation. As they were doing the cutting, some debris fell to the bottom, near the other rescuers. No one was injured, but this is another example of how the firefighters must constantly be on the lookout for potential hazards.

The rigging team set a main line and belay line, each running from the ground over a change-of-direction pulley at the upper end of the ladder on Truck 91 and into the tank. A tandem Prusik belay was attached to the safety line and anchored to Technical Rescue Truck (TRT) 95. A 4:1 mechanical advantage (“piggy back”) haul system consisting of pulleys and Prusiks was attached to the main line and anchored to TRT 95. A brake bar rack was attached to a separate anchor point on TRT 95, to be used for lowering the litter once it was out of the space.

The entry team immobilized the patient in the Half Back and placed a C-collar on him. They then placed the patient in the basket litter. For added safety, they placed a hasty harness on the patient and secured it to the head and foot ends of the litter. They then further stabilized the patient by lacing him in with 1′ webbing. They then attached the head end of the litter to the main line and belay line so that it could be hauled and lowered in a vertical configuration. One of the rescuers attached himself to the litter so he could act as litter tender during both the raising and lowering.

Communications was conducted over a dedicated radio frequency and involved only the haul team captain outside on the ground, a spotter at the top of the hatch, and the litter tender.

The most challenging parts of the operation were getting the litter, patient and litter tender though the hatch, and rotating the litter for the lowering operation. These tasks were completed without incident, and the ground crew switched the main line from the hauling system to the brake bar rack for lowering. The ground team then lowered the patient litter and litter tender down the roof of the adjacent one-story structure. They placed the litter onto a prepositioned ground ladder, and at 1124 HRS slid the litter down onto an ambulance gurney.

An ALS unit then transported the patient to Yakima Regional Hospital.

There was a debriefing after the incident. All rigging was left in place so all participants could get a close-up view of the setup.

All units were back in service at 1305 HRS.

Sources: Lt. Trevor Lenseigne, training officer for the Yakima County Fire District #4, provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from an account of the incident by KNDU-TV.

Lt. Lenseigne noted the following lessons learned:

“Good solid teamwork with good communications is essential. Having a dedicated radio frequency for the haul was very helpful in avoiding miscommunication and confusion.

“Make quick identification of lead members for teams, such as entry, rigging and extrication teams, and let them set up their teams. One good thing about this operation was that all participants knew their assignment and they stuck to it, without trying to get involved in any activity they were not assigned to.

“You can never have enough manpower for such incidents, so don’t underestimate the needs when dispatching personnel.

“Be consistent in rope-rescue systems and avoid needless complexity. Our team uses very simple rope systems and they work for everything. This makes any incident run much more smoothly.

“Critique after every incident! Before we break down the rope-rescue systems at the end of the incident, we critique and walk around and have leaders talk about their systems, why they used it and how they worked.”