Advanced Rescue Devices in Aerial Courses

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After finishing a difficult course on a sunny day last summer, I glanced up and saw someone being “rescued” from an element about 30 feet high. Having worked with almost all types of rescue gear, I was curious to observe the rescuer. It was not pretty: He fumbled with his lifter and descender, took way too much time, and after all that, lowered the participant in erratic spurts to the ground.

As the popularity of aerial courses, especially pay-to-play venues, has grown over the past few years, so have the options for rescue gear. From manual systems that combine several traditional devices in a prepackaged unit to sophisticated—but simple—mechanical devices with controlled descent capabilities, options abound.

All of these systems require somewhat similar techniques, but the mechanical devices, because of their simplicity and inherently increased safety, are much better suited to aerial adventure courses.

Whether on an experiential or a recreational course, participants who need to be lowered safely to the ground generally need an “assist” rather than a “rescue.” Most people who require assistance are still mobile, conscious, and not in a life-threatening scenario. Even so, in this article we will use the term “rescue,” since the techniques and devices covered can be used for both, and rescue is the more inclusive term.

The latest rescue devices to be introduced to our industry have been used for many years in the fire rescue industry. They were developed for use in high-rise buildings, where they are housed in one of those small closets with a “break glass in the event of a fire” sign. The devices are designed to be simple to operate, and the operating instructions aim to minimize human error. Now, these mechanical rescue devices are being used in all types of aerial adventure operations.

To understand the rescue systems that are available in our industry at large, let’s examine what is out there.

Cut-Away Technique

This is a traditional rescue method that requires the use of a cutting implement to disconnect an individual that has fallen and weighted their belay lanyard. This method is often used when no lifting mechanism is on hand to unweight the individual.

How it works. Once a rescuer connects the individual to the rope of a secured non-motorized descender, such as a Petzl I’D, and as the rescue belay lanyard is pulled tight and under stress, the original lanyard must be cut before the person can be lowered to the ground.

There’s always a risk of making a mistake while performing a cut-away, and the pressure to not make a potentially fatal mistake can lead to making a mistake. The mere fact that a sharp cutting implement is being used near loaded lines, where an inadvertent cut could allow someone to fall, is in itself a problem. Because of its safety concerns, every effort should be made to eliminate the use of this technique in an aerial course.

Pulley Systems

These are often a combination of haul and lowering devices, sometimes integrated and at other times two separate pieces of equipment that must be used together as a rescue device. A Petzl JAG Rescue Kit, for example, combines ropes and pulleys to create a 4:1 lifting advantage, attached to an I’D descender.

How it works. The pulley system, with its mechanical advantage, is used to lift (haul) the person to unweight and disconnect his or her lanyard from the original belay line, and the rescuer uses the lowering device (descender) to manually lower the person to the ground.

These systems are widely used in the adventure world, but they require fitness and strength—lifting a person is not an easy task, even with a 4:1 mechanical advantage. Some pulley systems are built to provide a 6:1 advantage, but even that requires a fair amount of strength to lift someone.

Additionally, since the rescuer manually controls the lowering device, the lowering speed can be erratic and may exceed the 2 m/sec maximum allowed per EN standards. Mastering these systems not only requires a thorough initial training, but the method needs regular practice so no mistakes are made when an actual rescue is needed. Also, most “kits” are not designed to be used with shorter lanyards, such as those used on zip lines that require hand braking. In such situations, use of a separate, smaller pulley-system with a separate descender would be needed for a smooth and efficient rescue.

Advanced Mechanical Rescue Devices

Originating out of the fire rescue industry, pre-manufactured mechanical devices such as the Mark Elephant Hub combine an integrated mechanical advantage with controlled speed descending to greatly simplify rescue techniques. These integrated systems make it easier to quickly lift and lower those in need, and with much less risk than other devices or methods. Their all-in-one simplicity makes them easy to learn to use and greatly reduces the chances of human error.

Advanced mechanical rescue devices equipped with a wheel are easy to use, so they require less training. Photo courtesy of Aerial Adventure Academy.

The one disadvantage to these devices? They’re heavier than other systems, weighing as much as 10 pounds, depending on the length of rope on the unit.

How it works. Once attached properly, one end of the device is connected to the primary lifeline (i.e., the zip cable or the lifeline of an aerial course) and the other to the clip-in point of the harness of the person needing rescue. The rescuer can then haul the person using the integrated wheel on the device, disconnect the person’s original belay from the lifeline, and then lower the person to the ground, almost hands-free. The unit’s internal braking system lowers the person at a controlled speed of about 0.8 m/sec., approximately the same speed as standard auto-belay devices such as the TruBlue or Perfect Descent.

These units have several other advantages:

They can be used in a sideways fashion by tilting and connecting an integrated hook on the lifeline. This allows the unit to function very close to the lifeline, to accommodate short zip line lanyards.

They are rated for two people, so the device can be inverted and used for tandem rescues. The end that would normally be attached to the person being rescued is now attached to lifeline, and the unit attached to the rescuer. This allows the rescuer to use the wheel to lower him/herself to the participant, connect the participant to the unit, and the two descend safely to the ground.

They can be used to quickly evacuate participants from platforms on a course in a weather emergency. Since the rope can travel at a controlled speed through the device in both directions, rope on either/both sides can be used for lowering, in a yo-yo fashion.

The integrated wheel can turn the unit into a lift, and allow a course to be easily accessible by someone needing climbing assistance. Some units even have an attachment nut within their handle for attaching a cordless drill, making the wheel turn faster and making lifting easier.

If the rescuer I described in the beginning of this article had used an advanced rescue device, the rescue would have gone more quickly and smoothly—and not just for the rescuer. Participants, when they see a mechanical device being used and feel the confidence that the rescuer emits, feel assured that they are in good hands, with an establishment that trains and equips its staff well. And personally, I feel good that the new devices can help decrease mistakes that lead to accidents. That’s something we should all feel good about.

Regardless of the equipment used, though, all rescue methods entail risk. It’s important to train well and adhere to all relevant precautions for whatever system or systems you use.

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