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  • Writer's pictureRonin

Special Ops – Part Four – Speed vs Safety

Overseas, rescue teams such as the Brigade des sapeurs-pompiers de Paris (BSPP) and Tokyo Fire Brigade, sacrifice a large degree of safety for speed; at least according to a North American (even Western European and Australian) perspective. So I ask, do they have it correct and we have it wrong? Are we too risk adverse in North America? Should we be dumping a line or an anchor? Is our gear “too safe”?

In the fire service we are taught we will risk very little for little gain and we will risk more for greater gain. Has this perspective caused the fire service to become too risk averse in the past 20 years? “Hit it from the yard” was not even in the fire service jargon 10 years ago. Now it is a tactic. In reality, the fire service is not the Military. The fire service is made up of dedicated, brave, reliable and well trained public employees. Is it fair to ask them too risk it all? In the military I signed that blank cheque that said payable to Canada with up to and including my life. The fire service never asked me for that cheque. That makes this a personal decision. Does the motto “So others may live” take a back seat to litigation, insurance payments and OHS regulations?

According to me, maybe no. According to the city who pays upon my death, maybe yes. With competing objectives what is the clear way forward?

When we speak of rescue teams such as Paris and Tokyo, one needs to review the context. The BSPP are serving members of the Military. They have a selection process in order to gain a spot on their rescue team. Tokyo, while not military, are not civilian either. Once again there is a vigorous selection process to become a member of their team. Weigh that against most North American teams. Firefighters choose the rescue team at times to get stationed at a certain hall, obtain the ability to get more overtime or they may just be assigned there. This is two extremes; one group needs to apply, pass selection and train to maintain their spot. The other group is posted in via seniority or in some cases lack thereof.

Now the funny thing about risk aversion is it is very subjective. If I run into a burning building to save a victim and perish, my wife would likely say it was too risky. I should not have gone in. If I don’t go into the structure and the victim dies, the family will likely say I was too risk averse. The Fire Department will likely fence sit. Saying on one hand it is the job of the fire service to protect the citizens of their community, and on the other hand they will quote policy and procedure at the first sign of litigation or OHS Regulators. It is highly unlikely that the philosophy and the policy will jive in that “extreme scenario”.

Specifically, we are speaking here about technical rescue. Teams such as Paris and Tokyo still regularly use single rope techniques (SRT). In the North American Fire Department rope rescue world, this is verboten. Yet we do not have to travel far to find SRT in North America. Helicopters, rock climbing and tactical units use SRT daily. Some mountain rescue teams still use it. SRT is used in these scenarios primarily because someone or more likely some group looked at a risk benefit analysis of using a single line systems and decided that in these cases the risk was worth the benefit. Let’s think about this for a minute. If I rescue someone on a longline system (HETS) from a helicopter is my life worth less, then if I am rescuing them off a bridge downtown? Is the helicopter cost and the crew’s life worth more then mine and the patient? Or on the bridge downtown has it been decided that it is easier to rig a secondary line for safety, therefore we should do it.

I agree, it is easier to rig a secondary safety line on the downtown bridge, however we do sacrifice speed to do this. So what you may ask? How much speed are we really sacrificing? Let’s ask the worker who has the onset of suspension trauma how much speed we are sacrificing. Remember them – the reason we are there. Here is another tangent thought – do we only have recent data on suspension trauma because previously workers just fell? Or did we previously rescue patients quicker in the past? If this “data” is causing us to change our systems, should we not investigate the validity of the data. What about those old school European mountain rescuers with hemp, class two tied harnesses back in the 1800’s? What was the primary cause of death for those rescuers and patients? Those that investigate accidents know there is rarely if ever one “smoking gun” cause, and this is likely the case here as well. Have the current safety regulations made it safer for the rescuer at the cost of the patient?

Now to be clear, <strong>I am NOT saying toss your safety line and go SRT off the bridge downtown</strong>. There is another huge difference between Paris and downtown Canada. They are better than us at rope rescue. I know this hurts (I am one of you). I have seen these firefighters perform. They are faster, more skilled and technically proficient than us. While I have rarely seen an anchor blow and never seen a rope get cut in half on a rescue or training, I have seen and investigated many mainline failures. I am defining a mainline failure here as any time the safety line needed to be engaged. These were all rigging errors; human errors. There are people alive today because their safety line “caught” them. We need to ask ourselves however, is this a SRT issue or a training issue? As well, to be fair, can we ever truly remove the human error element?

In rope rescue our anchors are the foundation of our system. If they fail, it does not matter how strong the rope is or even how many ropes you have. Choose a bad anchor or rig an anchor incorrectly and it has immediate negative consequences. In most rope rescue training the term “Bomb Proof Anchor” is taught or discussed. This is that anchor that would require a “bomb” in order for it to fail. We used to use a bomb proof anchor not only without backing it up, however we would rig both lines to it. I know there are many recently trained rope rescue technicians gasping for air. One anchor? Both lines! Yes, and the majority of the rest of the world still uses this concept. Yes, they will have two lines rigged to two separate anchor straps with separate carabiners – two completely separate systems, however all to that one bomb proof anchor. Is this faster then finding two anchors? In some cases, absolutely. Does this eliminate swing a fall hazard in case of a mainline failure? Yes, it can. Do these benefits outweigh the risk of rigging to a single point? That is for the team leader on the ground to decide. Another thought however, what are we taught when we have one great anchor and one not so great anchor? Rig the mainline to the weaker anchor as it should not see a dynamic load, therefore less force? Why not rig both lines to the same great anchor?

Another item that sets North American technical rope rescue apart from almost all of the rest of the rope world is the mythical 1.4 kN firefighter. That 314-pound beast that roams the firehalls. Yes, with turnouts, air pack, an axe and pockets full my 200-pound frame may weigh in at 270. When was the last time I went over the side of a building, on rope, wearing all of this gear? Never! We need to be agile, we need to be able to climb rope, we have special “intervention” uniforms (as my Belgium friends call them). Is it really necessary to be calculating our safety factors off of this force, that we will likely never see on our systems? If we carry lighter equipment will we be faster getting to our rescue scene. Very likely. Does this make us faster? Does the risk of using lighter gear outweigh the hazards?

Speaking of our static system safety factor (SSSF), is 10:1 the end all be all? One of the Mountain Rescue Teams I have worked with in the US use an 8:1 SSSF. They have weighed the risks of the lesser safety factor against the hazards they are likely to face and the methods they will be using. Are they less safe then my department who uses a 10:1 SSSF? I know they are faster (9mm rope weighs a lot less then 12.5mm). A course I attended recently had a half day scenario that investigated the 10:1 SSSF and questions around it. We used two rescuers suspended with a patient (three-person load) and lowered off a cliff face. That is a 4.2 kN firefighter load, a 3kN “SAR” load however in reality it was about a 2.8kN load. The cliff started around 70 degrees and around 50 feet down went vertical. While there are physics involved that I wont get into here, the enforcer we had in the system never indicated a load over 10:1 SSSF for the system we built (and we were not using the largest, heaviest gear we could find). Does using two rescuers to assist with obstacle passing speed up the rescue? Absolutely! Do the risks of three persons on your system outweigh the hazard of violating the a pre-determined SSSF? That is the question.

Finally, are our techniques in North America too rigid, too procedural based? One of the largest differences I see in rescue teams from Europe over North American rescue teams is the adaptation of rope access skills into European rescue. For instance, a mainland European rescue team will not automatically tether a rescuer to a patient packaging device such as a basket stretcher. Instead the rescuer may ascend and descend their own one or two-line system beside the basket. The thought process seems to have speed in mind. The rescuer is better situated to maneuver the package around obstacles and the “load” the top side team needs to work with is lighter (think hauling). This may not be the “end all be all” for every situation, however this technique is rarely seen in North America.

Perhaps none of these ideas alone will shave off enough time for a team to feel they are worth the risk to take. What about implementing all of them. Lighter gear, one line, increased technical training, lesser SSSF, actual load calculations, different techniques, single anchor point. Would all of these speed up the rescue to the point that the risks out weigh the hazards? Some teams think so.


This article is part 3 of Mark’s 4 part discussion of Special Ops in the Fire Service. The 3 previous articles are included below:

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