Palm Tree Rescues: Hazards for Victims and Responders

BY LARRY COLLINS

Who knew when we first came on the job as firefighters that some of us might someday find ourselves trying to rescue a tree trimmer trapped beneath hundreds of pounds of dead fronds interlocked in a sort of “ring of death” dozens of feet off the ground or that rescues from palm trees could include lethal hazards that would challenge even the most experienced rescuers? After responding to multiple tree-trimmer rescues, some fire departments are being compelled to develop formal procedures to handle these life-threatening situations.

Rescuing a palm tree trimmer may be the last thing on your mind when you show up to start your shift at the fire station, but in some regions where palm trees are ubiquitous, the report of a tree trimmer trapped beneath a “frond ring” in a palm tree is one of those situations where first-arriving firefighters can make a life-saving rescue if they understand the hazards and have a good game plan for immediate action even before the rescue or USAR company arrives.

Firefighters responding to such an incident may be confronted by scenes such as the following:

  • A tree trimmer is bent over backward, pinned to the trunk of a palm by his “flip line” and harness that are caught by a sliding “frond ring” that weighs hundreds of pounds.
  • The victim is possibly beyond the reach of ground and aerial ladders if the tree is in a backyard or another location not accessible to fire department apparatus.
  • The tree trimmer’s boot spikes are dug into the tree at an angle that will necessitate that he first be raised to release the spikes before he is lowered when the rescue reaches that stage of operation.
  • The victim is hidden from sight by a thick “beard” or “petticoat” of dead palm fronds, and the only visible sign of his presence is a chain saw dangling below him; it is still attached to his harness by a lanyard.
  • The chain saw is still running, creating an injury hazard for the victim and rescuers and a possible fire hazard high up in the tree. Anyone who has witnessed a palm tree loaded with dry fronds ignite and burn furiously (often sending large burning brands aloft) understands the immediacy of the life hazard an errant spark can have for the trapped victim and rescuers.
  • Power lines are spotted adjacent to the tree, and it appears that at least one of the lines is partially covered by palm fronds from the falling frond ring.
  • When the frond ring suddenly slid and struck the victim, it blasted him with a huge load of dust, rat’s nest material, bird and rat dung, and other detritus that built up in the palm’s petticoat in the years since the tree was last trimmed.
  • The victim, who is covered from head to toe with the dust and debris, is hidden beneath the fronds. He involuntarily may have inhaled some of the debris, creating a possible asphyxiation hazard if he isn’t taken down in time.
  • To make matters worse, being bent over backward and partially upside down with hundreds of pounds of palm fronds weighing on his chest, the trimmer is also being mechanically and positionally asphyxiated.
  • One of the victim’s colleagues has shimmied up the palm with his flip line and spikes, attempting to get to the man and begin pulling palm fronds off. He is positioned beneath the victim (which places him in danger of being struck and possibly pinned if the frond ring slips again). He may or may not have been trained in “aerial rescue” by a certified arborist. That will be for you to determine, assuming he speaks English or there is a firefighter on the scene who can interpret.
  • A small crowd has gathered, and news media are filming your every move. Eventually, if the rescue doesn’t appear to be going “like clockwork,” people will start looking at their watches and wondering why it’s taking so long to rescue the man. Even if it’s going well, these rescues are often time-consuming, and the incident commander (IC) or the department’s public information officer (PIO) may be asked to estimate how long this rescue might take and what strategy the firefighters will follow.1

 

There’s a good chance that, after the victim has been rescued, he will have to be transported to a trauma center. Therefore, your prehospital care considerations should include expediting transport by helicopter if the trauma center is beyond a certain predetermined distance, which varies from locality to locality.

 

GETTING STARTED

Where do you start when it’s apparent that palm tree rescues are a hazard that necessitates planning, training, equipment, and protocols to safely manage them? Firefighters and other first responders in areas prone to this hazard should be familiar with the dynamics that cause palm frond rings to slide in the first place and the potential for them to slide again, pinning rescuers, and ideally should have received some training on what to do as a first responder to these incidents. Also, it would be helpful if a rescue company or technical rescue team in your jurisdiction can respond with the right equipment, knowledge, and training to get the job done under almost any circumstance. If time is on your side and you have a good game plan, there’s a good chance you’ll make a live rescue.

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(1) This palm frond has slipped, leaving a gap of stripped trunk. [Photos by the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department.]
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(2) Trees inaccessible to aerial apparatus force the use of ground ladders. Note the power lines.

Unfortunately, the first-arriving firefighters don’t always seem to have these advantages, typically because the hazard may not have been recognized as a problem. For most firefighters, this will be a once-in-a-career incident, and most fire departments with the potential for these rescues within their jurisdictions have yet to establish formal protocols and training for them. The fact is, palm tree rescues are relatively infrequent, even where these trees are common. It has only been in the past few years that a series of rescues have prompted a push to formalize the fire department’s approach based on best practices derived from other agencies and the arborist community.

 

CRITICAL FACTORS AND RESCUE OPTIONS

 

 

The Hazard

 

The big problem for tree trimmers—and for us—is that huge amounts of interlaced palm fronds can suddenly slide down the trunk and trap, injure, or kill anyone who may be below.

A heavy palm frond collar is a sort of Sword of Damocles2 for a tree. With the passage of time, some collars are prone to being dislodged and sliding down the trunk with great force. The collar can slip spontaneously or when a stiff wind bows or jolts the tree. The most common rescue scenario occurs when a tree trimmer (working without the benefit of a cherry picker or a personnel basket) shimmies up the tree trunk using a harness and flip lines and spiked boots and begins pulling or sawing fronds, operating beneath the collar.

As indicated, on some species of palm trees, the old fronds, if not removed, develop into an interlaced beard or petticoat that in some cases can extend all the way to the ground.3 Detached palm fronds that would normally fall individually to the ground often get caught up on fronds that are still attached to the trunk. Some have a hook-shaped leaf base that “catches” in the slot between attached fronds and the trunk, which prevents them from falling off the tree. The petiole (the stalk attaching the leaf blade to the stem) typically may have “teeth” or “hooks.” Some palms commonly self-prune: Fronds, groups of fronds, or an entire interlaced frond ring fall to the ground.

The weight of the so-called frond ring (or frond collar) builds up over years or even decades from dead fronds, rat nests, dust, and other debris. By the time it slips, a palm frond ring (collar) can weigh many hundreds or even thousands of pounds. The ring can slide suddenly and without warning. It’s a dramatic event, like an avalanche of frond stalks that hits tree trimmers, bowls them over, and traps them high in the tree. Tree trimmers know them as “widow makers.”

The most dangerous place to be is directly below a heavy petticoat that can self-prune at any time. And that, unfortunately, is where the occasional unlucky tree trimmer is found. A sliding palm collar encountering a trimmer’s flip line can instantly pin him to the tree and bend him over backward under the weight of hundreds of pounds of fronds, unloading a large amount of dust and rat nest material into his airway, in his eyes, and over his body. Now it’s a race against time before he succumbs to asphyxiation.

Making matters worse, rescue operations may be seriously delayed if the tree is in a backyard or some other area that’s not accessible to aerial ladders and if the victim is too high to reach with ground ladders. The conundrum can be further complicated if live electrical wires are involved, not only creating an electrocution hazard but also threatening to set the tree on fire with the victim trapped in the most flammable area. When the first engine company arrives, it’s a good idea to pull a protector line, just in case.

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(3) The palm in the center has self-pruned.

In the southeastern United States, Sabal palmettos are among the most common of palm trees. They are also found in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Hawaii, California, and North Carolina. These trees grow to a height of 65 feet, and their trunks can be as much as two feet in diameter.4 Other types of palms can also cause trouble, but fan palms appear to be most commonly associated with trimmers trapped beneath sliding frond collars.

Perhaps the most common palm tree in the Southwest is the California Fan Palm (also known as the Washingtonia filifera). It has a large, barrel-shaped trunk that can reach more than three feet in diameter. It grows as a native species in southeastern California; southwestern Arizona; and northern Baja California, Mexico, and is planted in many other places. It can sometimes reach about 60 feet in height. A similar tree is the Blue Hesper palm (Brahea Armata), which is not as prevalent as the Mexican Fan but can be involved in rescues also.

Probably the most dangerous trees in terms of sliding frond rings and hair-raising rescue scenarios are Mexican Fan Palms (Washingonia Robusta). They have skinny trunks and can grow to more than 100 feet high, with overlapping hook-shaped leaf bases. Firefighters need to watch for individual fronds (or bunches of them) falling toward the ground as aerodynamic projectiles even in calm weather and especially in high winds or when the trees are involved in fire.

If two palms of the same species are growing side-by-side or on the same street and one has already self-pruned, it’s a good bet that one or more of the neighboring palms is equally likely to be the site of a sliding palm frond collar.

According to an investigative report in the Los Angeles Times, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has investigated 394 tree-work accidents, including 67 deaths, since 1990, when the worker safety agency began keeping statistics. More than half those accidents—214, including 42 deaths—have happened since 2000.5 Not all of these mishaps involved tree trimmers trapped beneath palm frond collars, but that is the one situation that seems to present the worst danger to rescuers.

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(4) The frond ring that trapped this trimmer has just slid.
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(5) This man was trapped beneath a frond collar.

During several recent palm tree rescues, firefighters have discovered that approaching from beneath the victim (and the frond collar) can place them in serious danger. First, the collar can slide again and pin rescuers attempting to climb with flip lines and spikes to help the first victim. Second, the collar can strike firefighters perched on ground ladders, possibly trapping them there, breaking bones, knocking them off the ladder, or dislodging the ladder and causing it to fall. In one case, a collar slid and struck a firefighter who had been “locked into” a 35-foot ladder positioned against the tree below a trapped victim. He had the presence of mind to quickly “unlock” his leg before the heavy frond ring struck the ladder and disintegrated. After the rescue, he explained that he was certain that the force of the falling collar could have snapped bone. Third, the force of a falling frond collar can damage a victim’s climbing gear and cause him to fall to the ground. Fourth, it can disintegrate with a rain of fronds and debris, striking personnel on the ground.

Other potential hazards associated with palms are unexpected tree topping, internal decay, and rotting that can lead to weakening of the trunk. Under a stiff wind, shaking or jarring can cause the entire top section to break off at the trunk. This may also happen spontaneously, and thousands of pounds of tree can plummet to the ground. This is another type of rescue altogether; it is usually much simpler to deal with because the tree section and the victim are already on the ground.

 

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS

 

The emerging hazard of dangerous palm tree rescues in some parts of North America and the fact that there currently are no universal rescue protocols for handling them have prompted some fire departments to conduct their own research and development to come up with solutions.

As one example, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department (PFD) established a tree rescue protocol and a training program for its technical rescue firefighters. The plan includes procedures for first-responding units to stabilize the situation and begin rescue, as well as more advanced techniques and equipment that even allow technical rescue-qualified firefighters to don spiked boots and climb the tree with a harness and dual flip lines to reach otherwise inaccessible victims trapped by frond collars. This training also recognizes some time-proven idiosyncrasies such as the fact that victims wearing spiked boots may have to be raised initially to allow rescuers to pull the spikes from the tree because of the weight being transferred through the victim’s leg to the tree by the spikes and the angle at which the victim may have “kicked in” the spike before the mishap.

Another example is in northern San Diego County, California, where fire departments have also been experiencing a marked increase in tree trimmers seriously trapped beneath palm frond rings. Firefighters there have been working with arborist groups to develop a consistent and effective response to these incidents, and they recently produced a video training program to make responders aware of the dangers and to offer basic recommendations.

Likewise, half a dozen palm tree rescues in recent years compelled members of the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department (LACoFD) to begin searching for options for safely managing these rescues with a greater margin of safety. Captain Joe Woyjeck, LACoFD Engine 35, began studying the issue after his unit encountered a dangerous situation with a tree trimmer trapped in a Mexican Fan Palm in 2007. What started as the report of an injury became a multihour operation necessitating two aerial ladders, a USAR/rescue company, and other units to extricate a man who died before he could be rescued from beneath a thick palm frond collar that had trapped him. Woyjeck saw firsthand the challenges facing first-arriving companies at a palm tree rescue.

Whereas some responders might at first be inclined to dismiss the topic as irrelevant, thinking that just a little common sense and the natural ability of firefighters to figure things out “on the fly” is all that are needed to handle these emergencies, Woyjeck became a believer that righteous palm tree rescues actually are a big deal and that first responders should treat them as such. He recognized that with a good plan and quick and correct action, first-arriving engine and ladder companies can save a life that might otherwise be lost or at least set the stage for a successful rescue if the situation is complex and requires rescue or USAR companies. He was convinced of the need for first responders to know more about palm tree rescues and to share what he had been learning about them.

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(6) Firefighters pulling fronds by hand to remove weight.

Woyjeck contacted the local city public works department and regional arborists to learn more about the hazard. He attended a course for arborists that described the dangers of certain palm trees, taught mitigation measures for tree trimmers, and practiced rescue methods and emergency actions that could be employed by other arborists to help their colleagues at the scene before the fire department arrives. Additionally, Woyjeck started putting together the origins of an awareness-level program to introduce the problem of palm tree rescues to first responders and to suggest viable approaches that could be implemented before the arrival of the responding rescue/USAR company.

It turns out that Woyjeck was working on a somewhat parallel track with colleagues in the LACoFD’s USAR program, who had been responding to multiple tree-trimmer rescues (including the one Woyjeck encountered on Engine 35) and were recognizing patterns that indicated the need for new protocols.

Firefighters assigned to LACoFD’s USAR task forces (rescue companies) began also to look for technical rescue solutions to the vexing problems they had been encountering in different parts of the county. Particularly troublesome was trying to reach victims high in trees inaccessible to aerial apparatus and the related problems of developing an evolution for removing the weight from trapped victims, securing them, and quickly lowering them to the ground without the use of ladders. With every indication pointing to more tree-trimmer rescues in the future, it seemed important to develop a standardized approach incorporating best practices from the research and development and lessons learned from recent events.

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(7) Aerial platforms provide a stable and wide work area.
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(8) Rescuer establishing high point anchor for victim.

Local and regional certified arborists were consulted. It quickly became apparent that the tree trimmer community was equally concerned about the high death toll exacted by palm trees. People attempting to trim the most troublesome palms are dying in increasing numbers as more gardeners, handymen, laborers picked off the street, and others without proper training and equipment attempt to climb and trim palms (typically at prices lower than tree owners would pay for certified tree trimmers to do the work with personnel lifts and other safety precautions). However, even certified trimmers and arborists using the right equipment can find themselves trapped or injured high in a tree.

USAR company personnel consulted with the LACoFD’s own arborists (members of the department’s renowned Forestry Division) about the dynamics of palm frond failure and entrapment. That led to yet another piece of the picture: In many wildland interface areas, property owners are required by ordinance to keep their palms trimmed to reduce the danger of fire spread through ignition of the trees and flying brands (burning palm fronds, which have obvious aerodynamic qualities). So these rescues aren’t confined to the urban and coastal environments; they can occur wherever people or Nature has planted palms, including more rural wildland interface areas. It so happens that some of these trees planted in backyards in sometimes rugged terrain might also be difficult to reach with aerial apparatus.

Recently, the LACoFD established a working group, headed by Battalion Chief Ron Cabrera, that is working with Director of Training Gerry Heinzel of the Technical Operations Section and the Forestry Division to consolidate the work being done to develop effective approaches to tree-trimmer rescues and other emergencies that occur high in trees. The main goals include improving awareness among firefighters of the common hazards and challenges associated with tree-trimmer rescues, researching best practices from wherever they originate, developing and recommending protocols for first-responder immediate life-saving actions, developing cost-effective training to support it, and continuing development of technical rescue options for reaching and rescuing victims badly trapped and those unreachable by aerial apparatus.

 

PRELIMINARY FINDINGS

 

 

Dispatch Protocols

 

Regardless of the nature of the emergency, dispatchers are critical to a timely and effective response. They spend their shift making tough decisions about characterizing each emergency and sending the most appropriate response. It’s safe to say most fire departments don’t have a specific tree rescue response matrix, so the dispatcher typically must select the response type that most closely approximates that needed for a tree rescue.

“Person Trapped” might be a typical choice in many agencies. Hopefully, the first alarm for one or more victims is reported stuck or trapped in a tree (especially if they’re pinned by a palm frond collar high off the ground) would include an engine, two aerial ladders (preferably at least one aerial platform, where available), a rescue/USAR company, an advanced life support (ALS) unit, an ambulance, and a battalion chief.

Some fire departments already have established a tree rescue response matrix that basically preplans the resources (listed above) likely to be needed for a working rescue in a palm or other tree. That presumably will make the dispatcher’s job easier and help the IC by ensuring that the fire unit he’s most likely going to rely on is already on the road.

In the best-case scenario, the first responders to a trapped tree trimmer would already be aware of the hazard posed by certain palm trees, and they would have a preestablished game plan for handling these rescues, based on their department’s policy and training. And the rescue/USAR company’s members would have training and experience responding to palm tree rescues, using the appropriate specialized equipment and training (providing the first-due unit with an immediate source of information for real-time consulting about how best to handle the particular situation, even before the rescue/USAR company arrives).

 

Response

 

Consider any specific information being provided by the dispatchers (i.e., “the reporting party says the victim’s in contact with electrical wires” or “the victim is reported to be trapped beneath palm fronds”). Even before you arrive, you can use dispatch information to make some strategic and tactical decisions to expedite the rescue.

Experience has demonstrated that getting the right resources rolling as soon as possible is critical in these rescues. If you have at least two aerial ladders on the first alarm, you’re ahead of the game. If one of them is an aerial platform, you’re even better positioned for a successful outcome, because personnel are likely to need some working room if they are going to remove fronds, stabilize the victim, and eventually remove him to a platform. Or, if the victim is out of reach and the tree is inaccessible to apparatus and too high for conventional methods, the rescue company may need to extend the platform (or ladder) to its full height and then use that height to launch a projectile and rope over the top of the tree. So, one of your best tools may be an aerial platform (if available).

If your department doesn’t have aerial platforms, consider a mutual-aid request for a platform. If that’s not feasible, consider requesting the local utility company, public works, or another agency that has aerial personnel buckets that could be used to elevate firefighters to help conduct the rescue from a safer position.

Consider the potential for electrical lines to be involved; this is not uncommon, and the rescue process could be seriously delayed if you arrive and find the victim is in contact with live wires or has live wires in close proximity to him, possibly tangled in the palms after a frond ring has slipped. It’s prudent to request that the local electrical utility come to the scene to ensure that you can rule out electrical hazards.

Consider the potential for the victim to meet “trauma center criteria” and the possible need for a medevac operation. Also have a contingency for possible injuries to firefighters. A safety officer, a PIO (to deal with the inevitable crowd and reporters), and law enforcement (crowd and traffic control) may be good calls.

 

On Arrival

 

In typical cases, you may find a victim trapped beneath hundreds or thousands of pounds of palm fronds still attached to the tree as part of the collar that slid. He may be bent over backward or at least pushed back to the limits of his harness, lanyard, and flip line. Although those safety devices prevented the victim from falling straight to the ground, they are now creating a problem for rescuers. They are also keeping the frond ring from sliding all the way to the ground; therefore, they are in some sense keeping the victim pinned beneath the fronds. Your job is to carefully remove the weight from the victim while preventing him from falling to his death and then facilitate a safe and controlled removal to safety, providing life-saving treatment if needed.

In many cases, as previously noted, the victim is being mechanically asphyxiated by the sheer weight of the fronds, and he may also be “positionally” asphyxiated by the way his body has been bent. In addition, he has likely inhaled large amounts of dust, rat dung, and other debris that built up in the fronds over many years. The first priority is to secure him and prevent a fatal fall, uncover him, ensure a patent airway and respirations, and then figure out how to place him on your rope or other rescue system to lower him safely to the ground.

 

RESCUE METHODOLOGY AND OPTIONS

 

Based on research conducted by a variety of agencies and the working group, a growing consensus on best practices for palm tree entrapment is the following:

  • Initially, get at least one firefighter (using the first aerial ladder or platform, personnel bucket, or other means) at the level of the trapped victim to evaluate whether he’s breathing, has an open airway, is conscious, and is being crushed by palm fronds. Assess other aspects of his entrapment problem, and evaluate if his fall protection system is intact. Address any emergency actions that you can perform, such as opening his airway.

     

    • Using the first or second aerial apparatus (or other means), position one or more rescuers above the trapped victim to rapidly pull the fronds off the top of him by hand or by using pike poles, rubbish hooks, or other means, working your way down toward the victim, creating a sort of channel through the fronds to get to him.

 

The PFD’s tree rescue protocol is even more explicit: “Begin yanking fronds off in a direct line above from top to bottom near the victim, with the intent of “zippering” the palm frond ring and causing it to disintegrate, leaving the victim suspended on a now-bare trunk.”

Engage the second-arriving aerial apparatus in this effort until you have removed the immediate life-threatening problem (i.e., the weight of palm fronds on the victim).

First responders can start working on frond removal before the rescue company or USAR unit arrives. A technical rescue unit may still be needed to assist in getting the victim down safely, but now at least you have the relative time to work without the deadly weight of the frond ring pressing on the victim’s chest, and rescuers have time to deal with any medical issues.

• Access to the victim is all-important. An aerial platform is naturally the first choice where one is available. But many fire departments no longer use aerial platforms, so firefighters in those places will need to work from aerial ladders unless they can make other arrangements through the local electrical utility, a local tree-trimmer company, or other providers that might help.

Reaching the victim can present a daunting challenge. In many recent cases, aerial ladders were employed to start working above the victim where firefighters could get the apparatus in. But there are limits to the number of personnel who can fit at the end of an aerial ladder, and also there are weight limitations, especially for light- or medium-rated ladders. An aerial platform provides a wider and more stable place for our personnel to work from, so a recommendation is to request one or more aerial platforms to respond to palm tree rescues. For that reason (and for “jumpers” and other unusual situations where an aerial platform is advantageous), it’s a good idea for chief officers and others to know where fire department aerial platforms are available in and around their response areas.

• Perhaps the worst-case scenario is a tree that’s not accessible to aerial ladders or platforms (e.g., in a private backyard far from the street). If ground ladders will get rescuers above the victim, go for that choice. Secure the ladders to the tree by wrapping the tree with webbing or rope and securing the ladder tips to it. Provide other stabilization that will prevent the ladders from tipping if the tree sways or if the frond ring disintegrates.

If ground ladders won’t get rescuers above the victim, it’s a risky proposition to place ladders and firefighters beneath the palm frond ring (petticoat). It can be (and has been) done to save a life (by opening a patient’s airway, securing him, attempting to reach up to remove palm fronds off his chest, etc). If the frond ring slides or disintegrates, the rescuers may be struck by hundreds of pounds of falling palm fronds and possibly the victim if his safety system fails to hold. This is a risk-vs.-gain decision for the rescue group supervisor, the IC, and the rescuers. The best way to avoid this dilemma is to have a contingency for getting aerial apparatus (and, hopefully, an aerial platform) to the scene.

• Is the IC justified in deciding to create access to get an aerial platform or ladder close enough to effect rescue by knocking down a fence and removing other obstacles? That’s a judgment call based, again, on risk-vs.-gain. If the victim might otherwise die because he’s being asphyxiated 50 feet up a tree and the only way to effect a timely rescue is to knock down a block wall or wood fence and drive an aerial apparatus into someone’s backyard, then a reasonable jury of your peers would probably agree with your decision.

Are there other options? Did you consider them all? Did you do the right thing for a victim in trouble? Did you make the situation better instead of worse? Was it safe, and did it work? These are questions that will be asked afterward; so it’s also a good idea to think of them now, before the rescue confronts you.

• As you remove the fronds and expose more of the victim’s body and predicament, assess how the victim is suspended in the tree and his condition (i.e., is he breathing, conscious, able to assist with his own rescue?). Is the victim’s vertical safety system holding him in place, or will it move or slip as rescuers remove more fronds or if the frond ring disintegrates?

• Establish a high point anchor above the victim for a rope rescue system, and secure his harness to the fire department’s system (similar to a cliff rescue pickoff) before there is any move to disconnect him from his original system. A simple lark’s foot (girth hitch) around the tree with a nylon webbing sling of sufficient length, with a carabiner and pulley, will do the job in most cases. This is a quick and dirty rescue in a life-threatening situation with limited working room, and you may not have time to establish a belay line.

• After removing enough fronds to get the weight off the victim (or to “zipper” the frond collar) and make physical contact with him, get him upright (by hand or possibly using a rescue strap, a cinch strap, a pickoff strap, or other means as necessary), assess his airway and breathing, and assist him medically as necessary while rescuers figure out how to get him down safely. Emergency medical technicians and paramedics need to consider the possible effects of suspension trauma, which can adversely affect victims who have been suspended for a prolonged time.

• Then lower the victim to the ground, preferably directly onto a waiting gurney and backboard, for immediate treatment from the medical group; you may want a medevac helicopter standing by because some of these victims will meet trauma criteria from the mechanism of injury or may benefit from expedited transportation.

• An option: If you can position an aerial ladder or platform (or even a ground ladder) right up beneath the victim’s feet, another option is to guide him onto the ladder and bring him down using an amended “ladder slide” method to deliver him to the base of the ladder.

• Secure the scene, and maintain scene integrity until the arrival of law enforcement and the jurisdictional worker safety agency for investigation of a workplace mishap/injury (or fatality). Ensure that the appropriate worker safety agency has been notified and is responding. Take whatever photos or documentation you may need in case of a subsequent subpoena in a criminal or civil case.

• Share the lessons you learned with your colleagues and other members of your department and the fire service.

 

Endnotes

 

1. Experienced operators and incident commanders know that “working” technical rescue operations often take twice as long as first estimated (or longer). It’s a good working rule to figure the time you think it will take and then double it to account for the inevitable unforeseen circumstances that often arise. Naturally, you’re trying to complete every rescue in the shortest possible time, but its important to be realistic when estimating the time of rescue, because it has an effect on everything from personnel safety rotations to move-up companies being requested for coverage behind committed units to whether helicopter transportation will expedite the patient’s transport to a trauma center once he’s rescued, and other factors.

2. The legendary Greek story about Dionysius II (a fourth-century tyrant of Syracuse) that illustrates for the courtier Damocles the danger presented to some people who work and live with a metaphoric sword constantly dangling over their heads.

3. “California Fan Palm Trees, Cold Hardy Palm Trees,” www.sunpalmtrees.com/.

4. ”A palm tree worth 20 grand?” Christopher O’Donnell, Herald Tribune.com, September 22, 2007.

5. “Peril Among the Palms,” Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2006.

 

Aerial Tree Rescue Methods

 

In some fire departments, the concept of aerial tree rescue is being adapted from arborists to deal with victims rescuers can’t reach using other means (i.e., aerial ladders, aerial platforms, ground ladders). Using these methods, a properly trained rescue company or USAR unit can reach victims from above (instead of from below, where rescuers will be vulnerable to falling or sliding frond rings).

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(9) The leader and slick lines are over the tree. Now, rescuers can establish a pulley and rescue line system.

 

Some departments have successfully handled tree rescues by equipping rescue companies and technical rescue teams with spiked boots, harnesses, and flip lines to allow them to climb the tree to reach victims from below. There are advantages and disadvantages to approaching the trapped victim from below. On the one hand, it allows rescuers to get directly to the victim beneath the fronds and assess him, perhaps clear his airway, and ensure he’s secured to the tree.

The main disadvantage is that rescuers are working from a position vulnerable to sliding or collapse of the frond collar (as well as a potentially falling victim, who may also be wearing spiked boots). In the arborist community, there is a growing movement to teach alternative, safer methods so that coworkers can begin attempting rescue until the fire department arrives. Building on this, some fire/rescue agencies are researching and practicing versions of these alternate aerial tree rescue methods that emphasize placing rescuers in the tree at or above the level of the frond collar and victim and out of the fall zone.

One alternate method some departments are considering is a tree arborist tactic of launching a projectile tied to a leader line over the top of the tree using a very large slingshot (readily available through arborist supply providers) that’s now being carried on some rescue companies. Some are even using line launchers normally carried for water rescues.

In some variations, the leader line deploys from a small bag that allows it to emerge without tangles as it goes airborne and lofts over the tree. The leader line, in turn, is tied to a high-strength, small-diameter, static “slick line” or “throw line” that’s designed to slip over fronds in the canopy without snagging.

Arborists commonly use the slick line/throw line; their job entails getting themselves suspended to work high in or alongside trees that are inaccessible to aerial devices and ground ladders. Whereas the more familiar half-inch static kernmantle rescue rope typically used by firefighters is likely to get caught in the angle of the frond stalk and the trunk when it’s pulled over the canopy, a slick line/throw line is of very small diameter, is very strong, and has a waxy coating that reduces friction and allows it to be pulled through the canopy without snagging. In some cases, depending on the tree height, wind, and other factors, the slick line can be attached directly to the projectile before it’s launched.

With the leader line over the tree top, firefighters can now attach a pulley to the slick line/throw line (using a prusik or an “in-line figure 8”) and insert a rescue rope through the pulley, maintaining control of both ends. Now they can pull the slick line/throw line up and over the top of the tree and down the opposite side (which will have the effect of simultaneously raising the pulley above the victim’s location, creating a “high point change of direction”). By anchoring the slick line/throw line to the trunk of the subject tree or to another solid anchor (i.e., another tree’s trunk or an apparatus, for example), they have created the means to raise a rescuer up alongside the tree to the victim’s level or above (i.e., out of the fall zone of the palm frond ring), independent of any apparatus or ladders.

In one of several possible variations of this evolution, firefighters on the ground can pull the designated rescuer up to the victim’s level (using mechanical advantage, a winch or capstan, or a simple 1:1 personnel raise with a brake and lowering system at the ready) to secure him to the rescue system (using a pick-off strap, a lanyard, a prusik, or other means), and then raise the rescuer above the victim to begin removing fronds.

From here, it’s much like a basic cliff or window-washer pickoff: Once the fronds are removed or “zippered” and the victim is left suspended in the tree, but free of palm fronds pressing on him, the rescuer can be lowered back to the victim’s level to resecure the victim and either accompany him to the ground or use his own separate lowering system to lower the victim to the ground, where a backboard, a litter, or a gurney should be waiting to transfer the victim to the medical group/advanced life support providers for treatment and transport (possibly after being decontaminated).

If a big shot or line gun is not getting the projectile over the tree because of height, wind, or other factors, there are additional options for putting a rescue line over the tree. The IC can consider raising an aerial platform or an aerial ladder as close to the tree as obstacles and terrain allow and launching the projectile and line from that extended height. Or, the projectile can be launched from the roof of a building. You can also request an extended-reach aerial device from other public or private agencies (utility companies, public works, construction firms).

There are other variations of this evolution; undoubtedly, innovative rescuers will develop more versions. Dealing with the problem of trapped victims who cannot safely be reached by ground ladders or aerial ladders is a work in progress. All these methods require thorough training and the right equipment. A number of arborist companies and organizations are now teaching aerial tree rescue methods within their industry, and worker safety agencies are looking at the overall problem of tree-trimmer entrapments. One recommendation is for fire departments with palm tree rescue potential to consider collaborating with licensed and certified arborists who teach aerial tree rescue and other methods of freeing trapped victims in the safest possible way, to evaluate the local/regional hazards and begin to develop viable solutions.

LARRY COLLINS is a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department (LACoFD), where he is a battalion chief. He has been a rescue captain for 18 years and a search team manager for the LACoFD’s FEMA/OFDA US&R task force for domestic and international response since 1992. He has served on FEMA US&R incident support teams since 1995. He is an instructor at FDIC and other fire/rescue conferences and the author of fire service magazine research articles and cases studies, the textbook seriesTechnical Rescue Operations, the Rescue chapter of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, and the Support of Rescue Operations chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II.

 

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