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Tower Rescue: A Specialty All Its Own

Tower Rescue: A Specialty All Its Own

David Pease, Carolina Fire/Rescue/EMS Journal”

On August 9th through the 12th, the North Carolina Fire Marshall’s Office, Department of Insurance, Fire and Rescue Division, along with the Atlantic Beach Fire Department, hosted the first pilot program for tower rescue. The classroom was held at the main Atlantic Beach Fire station and the practical work was held in Morehead City, at one of their cell tower sites. The 360ft tower was the perfect location for the training that we did. I was fortunate enough, along with several of my Team members, to be able to attend this class.

Along with the Atlantic Beach Fire Department, there were members from the Thomasville Fire Department, Thomasville Rescue Squad, Emerald Isle Fire Department, Gastonia Fire Department, Camp Lejune Fire Department, and the Reds Team. With over 25 in attendance, the class proved to be demanding and educational. The class was based on a program put out by Reed Thorne, now a tower rescue Instructor, who was once an active lineman. The program covered several new techniques and introduced some new equipment to the rescue scene.

Tuesday was all classroom and general discussion on the use of the techniques that lend themselves to tower rescue scenarios. Tuesday also proved to be the easiest day we would have. All the practical work was scheduled Wednesday through Friday, at heights ranging from 60ft to 145ft. Temperatures were in the mid to high nineties, with the heat index hovering above 100 on several days. The Atlantic Beach Fire Department looked after us very well. They supplied several tarped shelters and plenty of fluids the entire time. “It was still hot.”

On Wednesday we practiced lead climbing, which involved setting webbing slings with carabiners on each horizontal piece of frame work. A ground belay was utilized with a 540 belay device, and the climber set each sling, then ran the belay line through each carabiner as they climbed. This would minimize the fall to only about 6ft, should the climber slip. The belay line was dynamic kernmantle. We climbed about 60ft then removed each sling as we returned to the ground. Then we had to climb about 60ft up the tower ladder using a 2 hook ladder system. While on the ladder, one hook had to always be attached to the ladder rung. This was a slow but safe process to climb the tower ladder. We then proceeded to the 145ft platform and rappelled back down.

Thursday was doing a rescue pick off at 60ft from the lattice work and doing a ground based lower practicing the skate block technique at 145ft. The victim pick off was done with a brake bar rack, pick off strap, a 4 to 1 MAS (mechanical advantage system) for lifting the victim from their line, and a top belay with the 540 device. The pick off is a good technique, but I recommend you practice it in order to become efficient. The skate block technique is a pretty neat way to utilize your lowering line as a tag line. This technique allows you to tag your victim out without having a separate tag line. The lowering line used a bottom control system angled from the tower with a change of direction pulley anchored to a rescue truck. The lowering line then traveled back to the base of the tower, picture a right triangle. The lowering or control system was anchored to the tower and utilized a Petzel ID device. This allowed a 3:1 MA to be added to the line from the truck to the tower so the victim could be raised over the lattice structure of the tower before being lowered. The device can then be used as a friction device for lowering your victim to the ground. The pulley is removed from the horizontal line and the lower can take place. A pulley is attached at the victim and the angled lowering line is run through it. This allows the victim to be held away from the tower during the lower.

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Friday proved to be another hot day, but there were several things left to accomplish. We still had to do a stationary pick off and use the skate block system for a basket lower. They set up for the pick off at the 60ft level on the lattice work. This time the rescuer would attach the victim to a lowering line running through a brake bar rack. The rack was anchored above the victim and a 540 belay device was used for the safety belay. The rescuer clipped in their victim to the mainline and secured them to the belay line. A second rescuer handled the belay line, while the main rescuer lowered the victim to the ground with the brake rack.

The skate technique basket rescue was set up at the 145ft level. Again the same lowering system was set up that was used for the victim lower. This time, a 4:1 MA system was attached to the foot of the basket and to the main vertical lowering attachment. This allowed for the basket to be raised at an angle so the victim could be better managed. The same raise / lowering system was utilized with the Petzel ID. We also added a prussik safety at the “rescue truck change of direction point.” The basket was then raised to the victim, and the victim was placed in the basket. The 4:1 MA was used to level the basket once the victim was secured. A pulley was again attached at the basket and the lowering line was run through it. This eliminated the need for a tagline and kept the basket away from the tower as it was lowered.

Several key points to consider when training or performing tower rescues. The first is to train as much as you can. Secondly, when having to climb long distances, you need to keep in mind that things should be kept as simple as possible. The skate block system eliminates the need for a tagline. The Petzel ID served as a friction device as well as a pulley for the 3:1 MA system used. Consider taking an accessory cord up and use it to hoist up the rest of the equipment needed. This puts less strain on your climbers. With all the cell towers going up across the country, there will be a definite increase in accidents and emergencies requiring “tower rescues.”

Remember to train hard, safety comes first, and knowledge is one of the keys to a successful rescue. Feel free to email me with questions or comments.

David has over 27 years experience in the EMS and Rescue field. He is a NC certified ERT Instructor, confined space specialist Instructor, trench rescue specialist Instructor, Rope specialist Instructor, former NC Paramedic and Paramedic Instructor, NC Certified Law Enforcement Instructor, CPR Coordinator and Instructor for Wake Technical Community College, certified diver, teaches with over 7 community colleges, and is Chief of the Reds Team, a technical rescue operations team providing response and training to other agencies and industry. David also writes for Advanced Rescue Technologies magazine. David can be emailed at or visit their website at