Incidents Involving “Jumpers”

Photos and article by Larry Collins

Incidents involving “jumpers” and other emergencies in which the victims are threats to themselves (and others) usually involve locations that are hard to reach, such as bridges, high towers, and rooftops of high-rise buildings. Among the challenges responders face in these events are uncertainty about what the individual (subject) involved is planning or capable of doing, establishing and maintaining communications, and initiating safety precautions and operational plans.

The following scenarios help to illustrate some of the obstacles you might face on these responses and how they might be addressed and ultimately resolved.

In photo 1 below, the male subject has climbed up an electrical tower. Among questions responders must address are the following: Is the electrical grid energized? If so, what is the estimated time of arrival of the power utility representatives, and will they be able to shut down (or bypass) power to the tower? How long would that take?

In the meantime, other hazards must be considered: Is the man armed? Is he lucid and able to communicate? Is he under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Is he suffering from a medical or psychotic emergency or disorder (i.e., diabetes, epilepsy, schizophrenia)? Did he fail to take his prescribed medications?

Is he evading law enforcement because he committed a crime? Is he attempting to provoke a “suicide by cop” situation (incite a responder to kill him)? Is he intent on jumping, or is he signaling to authorities that he is distressed and desires help?

Will rescuers’ attempts at “contact and stabilization” actions provoke a violent reaction or compel him to jump? Is he hungry, tired, hot, thirsty, or otherwise uncomfortable and, therefore, subject to being coaxed down from the tower? If he should fall or jump, will he endanger rescuers?

How would he be affected by fire, police, or news helicopters or other aircraft in the vicinity? Are high-reach aerial platforms available so you can gain better access to him for negotiations, support, or tactical rescue? Are family, friends, counselors, or other acquaintances available who can provide more information on the man?

Are trained crisis negotiators on-site who can negotiate in that environment remotely by cell phone? Is the man physically and mentally capable of descending safely on his own, or will he need a tactical rescue (it’s often easier to climb than it is to descend)?

Should he be armed, does law enforcement have one or more sharp shooters positioned to act if the man produces a weapon during tactical rescue (while your personnel are operating below him)?

After hours of negotiation and observation of the man’s behavior, crisis negotiators decided he might be coaxed into climbing down on his own and was sufficiently docile and compliant for a tactical rescue to be attempted. Firefighters from Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department USAR Task Force 103, accompanied by an experienced power utility lineman and two members of the Sheriff SWAT carefully ascend to make contact with the man, secure him to the tower, and prepare for the tactical rescue (photo 2). A rescue air cushion is deployed below.

Operating on a high tower is not unlike being in a confined space suspended hundred of feet in the air. The space can quicklybecome crowded with rescuers and equipment. It contains a variety of obstructions and safety hazards, there is limited room for conducting operations that might normally require a wider area. Note the uncomfortable footing and the need for constant fall protection measures (especially with a potential mentally unstable, suicidal person up there with you). Personnel from USAR Task Force 103 prepare rope systems for a high-angle evacuation of the man, who has already been harnessed and secured to the tower.

The man (in the red tri-link rescue harness) is secured to the rope system; rescuers are preparing for a directional lowering operation.

In another incident, the “jumper” was on a high-voltage tower and appeared to be under the influence of some foreign substance (photo 5). He refused to communicate with rescuers and negotiators. He was very mobile on the tower and played “cat and mouse” with rescuers for several hours until he was finally convinced to come down.

More on this subject can be found in Larry Collins’ article “Suicide in Progress”.

Larry Collins is a 27-year member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD); a captain; and a USAR specialist and paramedic assigned to USAR Task Force 103, which responds to technical rescues and multialarm fires across Los Angeles County. He is a search team manager for LACoFD’s FEMA/OFDA US&R Task Force for domestic and international response and serves as an US&R specialist on the “Red” FEMA US&R Incident Support Team (with deployments to the Oklahoma City bombing; the 9/11 Pentagon collapse; Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; and several national security events). He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering and is the author of Technical Rescue Operations Volumes I and II (Fire Engineering, 2004, 2005, respectively) and the Rescue chapter of The Fire Chief’s Handbook.

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