Stairway to Heaven: Tower Rescue

BY RAUL A. ANGULO AND JEREMIAH LOZIER

AUGUST 3, 2011, WAS THE HOTTEST DAY OF THE month in the greater Fort Worth, Texas, area with daily temperatures well above 100°F. According to the National Weather Service–Fort Worth-Alliance station, the high temperature for August 3 was 112°F-ultimately the highest of the year! The highs in the surrounding areas ranged from 109°F to 112°F and were still above 100°F that Wednesday night. Most Texans usually stay indoors with air-conditioning, but for 25-year-old Mike Howard and his colleagues, it was just another day at the office. Their “office” that day was an 800-foot triangular communications tower in Johnson County.

The professional tower climbers started climbing the tower about 9:00 a.m. to perform routine maintenance and change out some communication equipment. They were all supposed to come down at about 5:00 p.m., but constant exposure to the record heat would take its toll on the crew, and for one worker the eight-hour work day would turn into an 18-hour ordeal. When his partners made it to the ground, they realized Howard wasn’t with them. He had succumbed to the effects of heat exhaustion and was trapped 750 feet above the ground (see “Heat Exposure”).

THE SITUATION

Tower workers operate every day at extreme heights and in extreme heat. If an experienced worker can’t climb down, something’s wrong. Howard was stranded 750 feet above ground and was in danger of heat stroke.

These workers have the equipment and are trained to self-rescue and assist each other. One of the co-workers immediately started to climb back up the tower to help his colleague but was physically exhausted from the day’s barrage of heat and had to abandon his ascent and climb back down. That’s when they called 911.

The chief of the Mid-North (TX) Volunteer Fire Department was first on scene with a brush truck. After a quick size-up and after talking with the tower workers, he requested a mutual aid response of the Burleson (TX) Fire Department for a technical rescue; units from Stations 1, 2, and 3 were dispatched at 1946 hours. Engine 3 was first in with Lieutenant Jeremiah Lozier, Firefighter Dallas Fowler, and Firefighter Matt Moseley. The initial report from dispatch was “25-year-old male passed out 700 feet in the air on a communications tower.” Lozier asked, “Did you say several hundred feet or seven hundred?” Dispatch confirmed “7-0-0.” The officer had his crew assemble the emergency medical service (EMS) supplies and rope gear needed for the ascent while he surveyed the scene and interviewed the tower workers. They pointed, saying, “See that black dot up there, Lieutenant? That’s him!” He was at about 700 feet up on the 800-foot tower, they said, and was wearing a harness and should be clipped onto the static safety cable that runs all the way up the interior ladder of the tower (photos 1, 2).

The size-up perspective of the tower from the ground.
(1) The size-up perspective of the tower from the ground. The arrow indicates the first platform where the patient was found. (Photos by Raul Angulo unless otherwise noted.)
The tower climber is suffering the initial effects of heat exhaustion.
The tower climber is suffering the initial effects of heat exhaustion.
(2) The tower climber (inset) is suffering the initial effects of heat exhaustion. (Photo by Valerie Moseley.)

It was dusk, and Lozier could barely make out the patient. Seven hundred feet looked a lot higher than it sounded. It would be dark soon. The temperature was still 108°F, and it hadn’t dropped below 90°F that whole week. With the high temperature and sunset approaching at 8:26 p.m., the rescue would be more challenging than anticipated; the crew had yet to realize the magnitude of this event. The technical rescue team’s previous responses included gas and oil rig rescues involving heights between 40 and 100 feet; others were below-grade confined space rescues.

Lozier continued gathering information about the patient and the tower. First, any tower hazards to rescue personnel had to be identified and secured. Fortunately, this tower had no radio microwave dishes or high-voltage electricity attached to it. The only electrical service was to the Federal Aviation Administration blinking red aviation safety lights, so there was no need for a lockout/tagout. Although this tower did not have any high-voltage electrical or microwave hazards, other communication towers did. The other concern was the mental status of the patient-primarily, was he suicidal? Nobody knew, so they would just have to use caution. Since the workers were familiar with the tower, Lozier asked if one of them would accompany his rescuer up the tower. Both men were suffering from heat exhaustion and declined.

Lozier would have to come up with two plans: a rescue plan to get the patient down and a medical plan to treat him. Fowler, an emergency medical technician intermediate, was designated to be the first rescuer up the tower. The tower’s interior space was approximately four by four feet, so there wasn’t a lot of room around the ladder for carrying equipment (photo 3). The backpack Fowler was wearing to carry EMS supplies had to be tied to the harness below the beltline to reduce his profile because it was snagging on the tower. Fowler wanted to have the right amount of equipment without carrying extra weight. He packed a D-sized oxygen bottle, a nonrebreather mask, a nasal cannula, an IV administration set with 1,000 milliliters (ml) of saline, two carabiners, a knife, and two 16.9-ounce bottles of water-one for him and one for the patient.

The tower base and the static safety cable
(3) The tower base and the static safety cable (arrow) that runs the entire length of the tower’s ladder in approximately 300-foot sections.

PLAN A

It was getting dark and time to get going. Lozier briefed Fowler on the rescue plan. “Dallas, you’re going up. Here’s the plan. Get up there as quickly as you can, but be careful! There are no electrical or radiation hazards on the tower that you need to worry about. The first thing you need to do is to make sure the patient is secured from falling. We need to assess his mental capacity and give this guy some fluids. He’s probably severely dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion. If you can get an IV in him, do it. Then try to talk him down. He’s in his harness, so we want him to self-rescue if possible. However, I’ll be sending some guys up behind you with a rope and gear in case that doesn’t work and we need to lower him.

“You’re going to use the tower workers’ ascender as fall protection and a belay. It’s attached to this 300-foot static cable that runs the length of the [tower] ladder. It clips right onto your harness with a carabiner. If you need to stop and rest, simply weight the ascender, and it will lock you right there on the cable so you can let go of the ladder. If you need to go down the ladder, pull this release lever and it will let you go back down. If you shock-load it or weight it, it will lock onto the cable so you can’t fall. Now, when you get to the end of the cable, you will need to disconnect the ascender and attach it to the next 300-foot length of cable. That is the only time you are unsecured. Any questions? Good! See you back on the ground.”

When Burleson Battalion Chief Tom Foster arrived, he became the incident commander; set up his command organization, making Lozier “Operations”; and established a 100- × 100-foot hot zone at the base of the tower in which everyone had to wear helmets. Lozier, keeping the heat in mind, suggested requesting mutual aid from the Crowley (TX) Fire Department for extra staffing and crew rotation. Also, Burleson did most of its rope rescue training with Crowley, so their personnel were familiar with rope systems and their experience would be beneficial.

Burleson’s Engine 2 arrived with Firefighter/Paramedic Bill Buchanan, an avid rock climber and mountaineer who also had certifications as a rope rescue and high-angle technician. With his knowledge and experience, Buchanan would quickly organize and direct the firefighters in setting up this large rope system and was still fit enough at age 56 to make the climb. The lieutenant quickly hailed him over. “Bill! I have a job for you!” Buchanan ran over while looking up at the tower. “Do you think you can rig me a rope system that can lower this guy from 750 feet?”

FOWLER’S CLIMB AND PERSONAL ACCOUNT

Dallas Fowler started his climb at 2017 hours.

The first thing I thought was “Man! Why does everything happen when I work a shift trade with Kev?! But no big deal, I’ll just climb up and talk this guy down.” I figured it would take me about 20 minutes to climb up there, get the guy hooked up, and climb back down with him. We’d be done with this call in 45 minutes, an hour at best. I never would have guessed it was going to take me an hour and a half just to reach the patient! I obviously didn’t realize what I was getting myself into and what I was up against.

The ladder is like a straight-ladder fire escape. The rung diameter is thin and narrow, like rebar, and it’s 90° straight up! Completely vertical! It just went up into the sky. It was impossible to judge the distance from my position; I thought I would be able to see the patient up there, but all I could see were ladder rungs that blurred into infinity.

When I reached the 200-foot mark, I realized this was taking longer than I thought and it was a lot harder than I thought. I needed to pace myself. I was barely a quarter of the way up, and my forearms and legs were already cramping up. Good thing I was wearing gloves, because after being baked all day in the sun, that tower was hot. Any time my bare arms or exposed skin touched the hot steel, it would burn me! I wanted to save the water for the top, but I needed to hydrate. I realized right there I didn’t bring enough water. I radioed down to make sure the other climbers brought extra water. I also reminded them to use their legs because this climb was going to wear their arms out!

I pushed on until I reached the end of the first cable (300 feet). My forearms were burning, and now my fingers were cramping up. My legs were shaking and cramping, so I radioed down that I was switching to the second cable but I needed to rest. The lieutenant responded, “Okay; be advised, you’re about halfway up.” I thought they were messing with me! It was pretty demoralizing because I thought I was almost at the top. I was worried about losing my grip; and all I wanted was some water, but I knew I had to save it. My mouth was totally dried out. I started to count ladder rungs to take my mind off this torture. I decided to climb 50 rungs and then rest. But that didn’t last. I dropped the count to 25. It wasn’t long before I could only climb 10 rungs, then I had to stop and rest.

I finally made it to the 600-foot mark. At this height, the wind was blowing pretty hard. In fact, for the duration of the call, we would be facing 40 mile per hour (mph) winds on the tower in addition to the 108°F heat. By now it was dark. I hadn’t brought a flashlight, but the blinking tower lights provided just enough illumination to help me keep my bearings. I needed to rest again and finished off the last of my water. I was tempted to open the last bottle, but I saved it for the patient. I know it sounds noble, but it wasn’t. I figured I’d better start climbing again; otherwise, I know I would have opened the second bottle.

I was telling myself, “Only 150 feet left. Come on! You can do this! You’re almost there!” I radioed to see if the ground crew could see where I was in relation to the patient, but all they could see were blinking lights in the blackness. I was relieved to hit 700 feet, but there was still no patient! Where did he go? Where is he? I thought for sure I would be able to see him by now. I looked up the ladder when the blinking light shined on it, but it just continued up into the night. So I kept climbing … 720, 730, 740 feet … I can’t believe I can’t see this guy! Did he just vanish? Did he fall and I missed him? Finally, at 760 feet, I can make out this guy, but he’s not on the ladder. He was lying down outside the tower on a ledge!

At the top of the tower, there are five or six of these steel-grated platforms that measure about three feet by six feet. They are permanently attached to the exterior of the tower for workers to stand on while they’re changing out antennas. There’s not a lot to them. There’s also a five-foot, open-spaced gap between the tower and the platform that you have to span to cross over, so the fall hazard is great (photo 4). Anyway, this guy is just lying there like’s he’s stretched out on a sofa! He had removed his safety harness and was totally unsecured. I realize these guys do this for a living, so he may feel very comfortable lying down at such extreme heights, but with the high winds-I was sure he was ready to blow off the tower at any moment! It was pretty scary. I also noticed his feet were extended way beyond the edge of the platform. This guy was tall, and I mean t-a-l-l. He ended up being six feet, seven inches! I knew that was going to be a challenge if we couldn’t get this guy to climb down on his own power.

The patient was found on the first platform
(4) The patient was found on the first platform at the 4 o’clock position, at 760 feet above the ground (arrow).

I radioed all this information down to Lozier. They had me clarify that the patient was in fact outside the tower. I did and emphasized again that this patient is not secured! Then Chief Foster came up on the radio to warn me that this guy might be suicidal and under no circumstances was I to go out on the platform. I was ordered to stay clipped onto the cable and wait until the other guys showed up. Lozier radioed to do as much as I could for the patient from within the interior of the tower. The first thing I did was rest. My forearms and fingers were burning from fatigue. I tried leaning back in my harness, but it was difficult to breathe. All I could do was hug the ladder to give my forearms and fingers a break. (I can’t believe I made this shift trade with Kev!)

I reached for the backpack to get my supplies. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was for me to unzip the pack. My forearms and fingers were so cramped up that I couldn’t even grasp the water bottle and open the cap! I had to break the seal with my teeth. I was so fatigued-I couldn’t even perform that simple task. I yelled at the patient, but he wasn’t talking. “Hey Mike! Wake up, man! I’m with the fire department, and we’re here to get you down.” He finally woke up and tried to get up to his knees but started to wobble. I said, “Whoa, buddy, just lay back down!” I thought for sure he was going to fall. I told him I was going to toss him some water and he needed to catch it. I knew I was only going to get one shot at this, and I’d be tossing the bottle into the wind. I stretched out as far as I could away from the ladder and tossed it. The bottled rolled around the platform (I’m thinking, “Please don’t fall”) and wedged up against the patient. Whew! Mike slowly opened the bottle and started to drink but quickly threw it up. Now I’m downwind, and all this vomit is hitting me right in the face! But all I could think about is this wasted water. Man, if all he was going to do was throw it up, I could have drunk that water! He did manage to get some water down, though.

He was still in and out of consciousness. Next, I got the oxygen ready. I pulled out the nonrebreather mask and tubing, and the wind immediately caught it. If I didn’t have a good grip on it, that thing would have been gone because it was blowing completely sideways. I connected it to the oxygen bottle and set it at 15 liters per minute. There were 2,000 pounds per square inch (psi) of oxygen in the bottle. I got the patient’s attention and leaned out as far as I could and tossed the mask out to him. He managed to catch it and followed directions to get it on his face. I didn’t risk tossing the oxygen bottle over to him, so I had to lean over and hold it-not an easy task at that point, but at least I wasn’t climbing.

I relayed a patient status report to the medical director (who was now on scene) and stated I was unable to administer an IV to the patient. The medical director suggested if the patient was conscious to spike the saline bag like a juice box and have the patient drink it. It was essential that he got some fluid intake to reverse the effects of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. The oxygen must have helped because the guy started talking to me. I poked a hole in the port of the IV bag and threw it over to him so he could drink it. As soon as he started drinking, he began to throw up again. And of course, I’m still downwind and getting hit in the face with vomit for the second time! I’m never trading shifts with Kev again. Between drinking and vomiting, Mike managed to get through the 1,000 ml of fluid. He was definitely getting better and began talking more and moving around. I was still scared this guy was just going to blow off the tower. I kept trying to talk him back into his harness, but he was still very weak. He said he had to get out of his harness because he was feeling claustrophobic and couldn’t breathe. He also explained why he climbed back up the tower 50 feet to the first platform; he needed to lie down because he felt like he was going to faint and didn’t want to pass out on the ladder.

There wasn’t much else I could do for the patient except keep him calm. By now, it was about 2200 hours. My main objective was to get Mike back in his harness and secured to the tower. I still wasn’t having any luck convincing him to do that and reported it to the ground crew. Lozier suggested letting one of Howard’s tower workers talk with him. I held the radio out, “Mike, this is Dave. Dude! You need to get your harness on and let these guys do their job. They’re going to get you down.” That message went out a couple of times, but the patient didn’t respond. Then Dave came back up one last time on the radio, “Mike, you need to get your harness on now. Dude, don’t make me climb this tower again to get you. If you make me climb all the way up there, I’m going to throw you off!” That seemed to work. Mike started to slowly get back into his harness. He tossed me his harness tether, and I secured it to the platform. Finally! At least now he wouldn’t fall. I radioed down that I had the patient secure and was pretty sure he wasn’t suicidal and did not pose a threat; he just had a bad day at work. Now all we had to do was rest and wait for the rest of the rescue team.

ON THE GROUND: PLAN B

The Burleson Fire Department had four 200-foot ropes. After conferring with the other tower workers and looking at the equipment options to rig such an extreme rope system, personnel decided to use the tower workers’ rescue rope for the mainline. They had a single length, 1,200-foot rope stored in a 55-gallon drum used as a rope bag. Lozier asked the tower worker, Dave, who had been talking to the patient, “Do you trust this rope with your life? And do you trust it enough to have Mike dangling from it 700 feet in the air?” He answered yes.

Buchanan preferred using a single rope. Without knots, it would just make everything go more smoothly. Buchanan would climb the tower with one end of the rope, set up a high point (a high directional pulley) about 10 feet above the patient, run the mainline through it, and attach it to the patient’s harness; then the ground crew would lower him to the ground. Buchanan would use a Kootenay knot-passing pulley for the high directional in case they had to extend the mainline with a fire department rope. At the base of the tower, they would have a change-of-direction pulley, which would get the rope out from under the tower and onto the open field so the ground crew could staff the line and have plenty of room to operate. They would set up a 5:1 pulley system at the base of the tower in case they had to capture the load and lift the patient back up. Other than that, it should be a straightforward lowering evolution. All climbers had an ascender device, so clipping onto the cable would be their belay.

MEDICAL CONCERNS

Buchanan packed the Kootenay pulley, several feet of one-inch webbing, glow sticks, a knife, some prusik cords, six carabiners, and two 16.9-ounce bottles of water. He also pre-tied a “lobster claw” safety lanyard, which he could connect to two points on the tower, making a little seat so he could rest. Resting by being suspended just with the harness sometimes restricts the rescuer’s breathing, which reduces oxygen intake. Prolonged suspension in a harness can also cause compartment syndrome, in which tissue muscle and blood vessels are compressed, cutting off blood flow and causing significant damage to upper and lower extremities. This was a serious concern because Buchanan would be towing the 1,200-foot rescue rope by his harness. The rope weighed about eight pounds per 100 feet, or a total of between 96 to 100 pounds.

As this rope paid out, it would become increasingly heavier the higher Buchanan climbed. Since the load Buchanan would be carrying was significantly greater than Fowler’s, he would also suffer the effects of lactic acid buildup more quickly, causing him to take more rest breaks and increase his time to the top of the tower.

Lactic acid is what causes muscles to feel like they’re burning up during excessive physical activity. Normally, the body prefers to generate energy aerobically when there is sufficient oxygen exchange in the lungs and the blood. But when respirations and oxygen intake are reduced and the body still requires maximum strength, then that energy is produced anaerobically (without oxygen). The body switches to using stored glucose for that energy, resulting in a buildup of lactates in the muscles, causing the burning sensation. During extreme physical activity, lactates can accumulate to high levels within one to three minutes. The burning sensation is the body’s natural defense mechanism signaling the brain to stop and rest, forcing the body to recover. When the body rests, oxygen levels increase and lactic acid levels decrease. Once the body recovers, it can continue.

BUCHANAN’S CLIMB AND PERSONAL ACCOUNT

After downing 32 ounces of water and securing his backpack and mainline to his harness, 56-year-old Bill Buchanan started his ascent up the tower 32 minutes after Fowler, at 2052 hours.

I was surprised how long it took to make the climb. I thought I would be able to make it in an hour. The first thing I noticed was the wind kicking in at about 100 feet. The wind speed and velocity increased the higher we went. It was dead calm on the ground when I started. The wind made it extremely difficult to communicate. Everything had to be done by radio, so when you talked, you had to stop climbing, face away from the wind, cup the mic into your chest, and speak. We could hear the lieutenant okay, but we kept having to repeat ourselves because of the wind blowing into the microphone. One thing I remember hearing was Dallas reminding us over and over, “Make sure you guys bring up some water!”

I paced myself and initially tried to climb 30-foot intervals before taking a break, but that gradually got shorter to where I needed to stop and rest every five to 10 feet. Once I passed 100 feet, the wind started blowing the mainline into the tower, and it was getting hung up. That was frustrating because I would have to take time to free it. Finally, at about 200 feet, I just couldn’t climb anymore. The rope became too heavy, and it was pulling me off the ladder. I’m sure it was about 100 pounds by then. My arms and legs were shaking and burning up! My fingers were cramping up, and it was difficult to just operate the radio. I radioed down to Lozier that I was going to need help towing this rope because there was just too much weight. I tied off the mainline and waited for help. That’s when they started [Matt] Moseley up. Fowler came over the radio, “And don’t forget-more water!”

Dave, the tower worker, in a noble effort to assist his colleague, felt he had recovered his strength and attempted to climb the tower and assist with towing the rope. However, after climbing 100 feet, he started cramping up and was forced to return to the ground.

MOSELEY’S CLIMB and personal account

Matt Moseley began his climb at 2238 hours.

By the time I started climbing, it was already 2238 hours. We’ve been on scene here for 2½ hours now. I’ve been listening to the radio transmission from Dallas and Bill, and now it’s my turn. I know I’m in for a physical ordeal, so I’m just mentally and physically preparing for it. I carried several carabiners, additional webbing, and three 16.9-ounce bottles of water. My main job was to go up and help Bill with the load. The first part of the climb was fairly easy. When I got to within 50 feet of Bill, I started taking up slack. Once I had about 150-200 feet of rope between us, we started to climb. Bill would climb until the slack was out. Then he would tie off the rope and rest while I came up the ladder. Once I reached him, Bill would start to climb while I tied off the rope and rested. It took a while for us to coordinate this see-saw effort, but it worked and we would continue this all the way to the top.

I kept hearing Dallas saying, “Use your legs so your arms don’t give out.” I thought I was; but my forearms were cramping up all the way to my fingertips due to the heat. The ladder rungs were thin like rebar. That made it really hard for me to hold on. Plus, we just finished dinner before the call, and I broke the cardinal rule: “Never eat more than your mask can hold.” I wasn’t wearing a mask, but I was stuffed! And that just added to the discomfort.

I needed to drink some water, but the pack I was carrying got so twisted up in the wind, I couldn’t open it. There was a point when I thought we were three-quarters of the way up, but then I saw the marker sign, “360 ft.” It was very discouraging. I was barely halfway there, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it! Even though I was climbing straight up 90°, it felt like I was climbing upside down, like 110°. As we climbed higher, Buchanan’s weight stayed the same, but now I’m towing the entire weight of the rope below me, so it’s getting heavier and heavier! The most frustrating part of the climb was dealing with the wind. The wind kept blowing the mainline into the tower, snagging it up. There were numerous times I had to climb back down the ladder to free the line. Then I had to climb back up, covering the same ground twice. That was psychologically painful. It’s a good thing it was dark; it made it easier to focus on climbing because you couldn’t see how far up you really were.

When I finally made it to the top, it was a very emotional moment. I couldn’t even talk or put into words what I felt like. It was the most physically challenging feat I have ever accomplished in my life. It felt like I just carried another firefighter on my back, straight up that ladder for 700 feet! I think the only thing keeping me going was that a life depended on our ability to rig this rope. My team was depending on me too. How could I quit? I just couldn’t let them down.

PREPARING THE PATIENT AND THE RIGGING

Buchanan and Moseley took three hours to make this climb; they reached the patient at 2328 hours. The men were exhausted. Between the two of them, they carried 800 feet of rope; Moseley would end up carrying 600 feet of rope himself. And since his pack was so twisted and inaccessible, he also made the entire climb without any water. Since Moseley was the last one up, they knew he was spent and let him rest. They used a knife to cut the pack open and shared the three bottles of water. When Moseley initially packed the water, it had come out of the ice chest. Now it felt like it just came out of the microwave.

Strong winds kept entangling the mainline on the tower’s structural members during the climb. Lozier didn’t want that line snagging with a patient on the end of it, so Crowley Fire Department Firefighter/Paramedic Gary Sansing was sent up the tower at 2250 hours to tend the mainline at the halfway point.

Now the rescuers had to rig the high point and ready the patient. The interior of the tower was triangular with the ladder in the middle. Only one person could occupy that space while clipped to the safety cable. Buchanan had to unclip from the cable and traverse the tower to get about 10 feet above Fowler.

Once Buchanan was set and secured in, he could wrap the corners of the tower for a three-point contact, high directional anchor point where he could attach the Kootenay pulley. As soon as he pulled out his webbing from the pack, the wind blew it straight out horizontally. He had 30- and 40-foot sections of webbing, which became too unmanageable in the wind, so he had to cut them down to size. His fingers were still so fatigued that he had trouble tying a simple water knot. The webbing, snapping in the intense wind and blowing every which way, made it so that setting up a three-point contact, high directional anchor-normally a five-minute evolution-took this experienced climber 30 minutes (photo 5).

The position of the rescuers and the patient on the tower.
(5) The position of the rescuers and the patient on the tower. The numerous supporting guy wires and the high winds made a helicopter rescue impossible.

In the meantime, Fowler and Moseley were still trying to talk the patient into securing his harness properly. The wind was howling so loud that they couldn’t even hear each other talk even though they were just a couple of feet apart. Though the tower worker was still exhausted, the oxygen and fluids increased his consciousness so he could follow directions and cooperate. Once that was done, the patient tossed them one of the safety lanyards to clip it closer to the tower. He stood up on the platform and carefully made his way toward the tower. After passing the mainline through the pulley, Buchanan passed the end down to Fowler, and he snapped it on to the patient’s harness. Buchanan radioed down to the ground crew to “take a strain.” After they had done so, the ground crew was supporting the patient. It was now 0111 hours.

The tower worker patient still needed Fowler and Moseley to steady and assist him onto the ladder. After transferring the patient from the platform to the tower, Fowler, Moseley, and the tower worker all occupied that interior triangular space in the tower. Howard was on the ladder; the rescuers were working around the interior structural frame of the tower. Eventually they positioned themselves with Fowler below the patient and Moseley above the patient. Fowler radioed that the patient was too weak to climb down, so they would have to lower him. Fowler went down the ladder first toward the patient’s feet; Moseley went back up with Buchanan to monitor the pulley. Lozier set it up so Fowler could speak directly with the ground crew haulers to set the pace for the lowering.

FOWLER’S DESCENT AND PERSONAL ACCOUNT

I thought coming down was going to be easier, but it was hard for me! At first, I told the ground crew to lower the patient about two feet per second. That worked for a while, but the wind started blowing the patient into the tower. As I stopped to center him, they would lower the patient right on to my head! Then I’d have to use my radio to tell them to stop. Picture what’s going on here: I’m attached to the cable by the ascender, which also lets you descend if you go down slowly and smoothly. Once you change your rate of descent or shock-load it, it locks up. The way to prevent that is to mind the lever with your hand. I still need to hold onto the ladder, and I still need to talk on the radio. I’m out of hands! I thought I was rested up before the descent, but it didn’t take long before my arms and legs were burning up again!

I had to change the lowering pace to one foot per second because he was coming down too fast for me to keep up. I started cramping up again and had to keep switching arms-then boom, that guy would land on my head again. He was six feet, seven inches and 250 pounds of dead weight, and this guy wasn’t helping out at all. Plus, he was still vomiting on me! Sometimes I couldn’t release the ascender unless I pushed up on the patient’s backside just to climb one rung. That would just wear me out! This happened a few times until we got to the halfway point. That’s where I met up with Firefighter Sansing. I asked him for some water, but his pack had ripped open on the tower and all the water bottles fell to the ground!

Sansing went down below me, and that really helped steady the mainline. Once we got below the wind level, the rest of the lower was pretty smooth. When I finally made it down to earth, there were crews there to help me out of the tower. I think I just collapsed about then. They said I had no color, that I was white as a ghost. As they were rushing me into the medical tent, I remember looking up at the tower. It finally dawned on me what we had just accomplished.

That last part just spent me. I remember thinking, in the beginning, why wouldn’t that tower worker climb up with me? Now I know! Because it was hard going up! It was hard up there! It was hard coming down! It was just … hard!

GROUND OPERATIONS

While the drama was happening in the air, Chief Foster created a medical branch in his organization. Every fire and rescue incident eventually transitions to an EMS incident. In addition to the tower worker just rescued, he had four firefighters suffering the effects of extreme exhaustion. The medical director and his staff set up a tent with chairs, cots, ice, water, and medical supplies.

It took an hour and 15 minutes to lower the patient to the ground. He and Fowler were rushed into the medical tent for treatment. The rope was going to be sent back up for Buchanan and Moseley, but they didn’t want to stay up there any longer than they had to and both decided to climb down under their own power. They also advised Lozier that they were leaving all the equipment in place. Trying to retrieve all the equipment in high winds when they were physically exhausted wasn’t worth the risk since it could easily be replaced.

All rescuers had reached the ground by 0231 hours. The entire rescue took six hours and 43 minutes. The patient and the firefighters were rushed to the medical tent, where they were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration. The tower climber was transported by ambulance to Huguley Memorial Medical Center, where he was found to be in stable condition and later released. He left the Burleson area after the incident.

Buchanan said that the rescuers did not see the patient again. He said, “This was a very emotional event for all of us. The only thing I regret is not being able to talk to the guy. It kind of leaves the emotional saga unresolved. We only saw Mike when the situation was desperate. I know he’s okay, but it would have been nice to talk with him and see him doing well. As for my teammates, I couldn’t be prouder of those guys. During all the challenges, everyone remained calm. We knew we had a job to do and we were going to stay there until it was done. It was definitely a ‘once in a lifetime’ event.”

LESSONS LEARNED

Reviewing the rescue, Lozier said, “The rescue itself was perfect. Our training is what made this difficult rescue so successful.” Although the ground crew and the rescuers were nearly 800 feet apart, everyone was on the same page. However, he suggested the following improvements based on the experiences.

Harnesses. The rescue harnesses used didn’t have a tab to attach a portable radio microphone. Fowler had problems keeping the mic attached to his harness and was accidentally keying the mic as he moved, so they taped Buchanan and Moseley’s mics to their harnesses before their ascent. The department has since added a self-retracting tether cord system to their harnesses.

Fluids. Under these conditions, the rescuers and the patients needed more water. But the rescuers could only carry so much equipment and weight. The Burleson Fire Department has since purchased water vests that hold three liters for all of its member.

Rescue helmets. Fowler was the only member not wearing a helmet, and the rescuers did not bring a helmet for the patient. However, there is a question of whether helmets should be worn under these extreme heat conditions. When a rescuer is clipped onto a safety cable, does climbing up a tower pose a hazard to the head? The body needs to rid itself of excess heat. Putting a plastic helmet shell over the head may prevent an abrasion, but it may also be baking the brain.

Lock out/tagout. There needs to be a more formal system for this operation and for making all members aware of the hazards. Although this tower did not have high-voltage electric hazards or microwave hazards, other towers do.

Communications. Radio designators need to be simplified. Typically, they used truck seat assignments, but that became too cumbersome and confusing. They started using Climber 1 and Climber 2 but eventually started using rescuers’ last names; that worked best.

Fitness. This incident opened the eyes of a lot of firefighters to take a hard look at their personal fitness level. Nobody wants to be the guy who can’t climb the ladder, so a lot of the members are getting serious about getting back into shape, and that’s good.

•••

Lieutenant Jeremiah Lozier and Firefighters Dallas Fowler, Bill Buchanan, Matt Moseley, and Gary Sansing were each awarded the Medal of Valor by the Texas Fire Chiefs Association and Medals of Valor by the Burleson Fire Department. According to Chief Gary A. Wisdom, “These men demonstrated valor, determination, strength, and unmatched courage during this incident. They used the training they had learned and dealt with a very difficult situation and saw it to a successful end.”

Heat Exposure

The human body’s sophisticated heat-regulating system keeps the internal temperature at 98.6°F (37°C) regardless of the outside ambient temperatures. In hot weather combined with vigorous physical activity, the body produces excess heat. The body’s response is to rid this excess heat by sweating and evaporation as well as dilation of the skin blood vessels. We respond by removing clothing or by getting out of the sun to a cooler environment.

If the body generates or is exposed to more heat than it can tolerate and dispel, its mechanisms to reduce body heat are overwhelmed, resulting in hyperthermia, a high body core temperature of 101°F and above. High air temperatures can reduce the body’s ability to lose heat by radiation; high humidity can reduce the body’s ability to lose heat through evaporation. During strenuous exercise or physical activity, the body can lose more than a liter of sweat per hour. This loss of fluids and electrolytes causes dehydration and hypovolemia (an abnormal decrease in circulating blood volume), making the patient extremely weak.

When the body can no longer tolerate excessive heat, illness develops in three forms: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that usually occur in the arm, legs, and abdomen after vigorous exercise. They are not well understood but are connected to the resulting fluid and electrolyte imbalance in the body. Heat exhaustion (also called heat prostration or heat collapse) is the most common serious illness caused by heat. Heat exposure, physical stress, and fatigue are causes of heat exhaustion, which is caused by hypovolemia as a result of the loss of water and electrolytes from heavy sweating.

EMS Treatment

Treatment for heat exhaustion and heatstroke is basically the same; get the body temperature down by any means.

-Remove excess layers of clothing.
-Move the patient out of the sun and into the shade.
-Move the patient into an air-conditioned ambulance or room. Set the air-conditioner to the coldest setting and the fan up to the maximum setting.
-Administer oxygen if needed.
-Encourage the patient to lie down.
-If the patient is fully alert, have him drink up to one liter of water. Stop if nausea develops.
-Apply cool packs to the neck, armpits, wrists, and groin area if heatstroke is suspected.
-Cover the patient with wet towels or sheets. Keep the skin wet by applying cool water with a sponge or a spray bottle.
-Fan aggressively to quickly evaporate the moisture on the skin.
-If the patient is vomiting, place him in the recovery position.
-Provide for immediate transport to the emergency room while monitoring the patient’s vitals and temperature (oral or tympanic).
-Notify the hospital so the staff can prepare to treat the patient immediately on arrival.
Source: AAOS Emergency Care and Transportation of the Sick and Injured (10th Edition), Jones and Bartlett.

RAUL A. ANGULO is a 33-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Co. 6. He is a national author and instructor on fireground strategy and tactics with firefighter accountability and company officer development. He has written on numerous subjects for Fire Engineering and authors the monthly column “Tool Tech” in Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment.

JEREMIAH LOZIER is a 16-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Burleson (TX) Fire Department, where he has served for 13 years. He is a certified emergency medical technician 1 and fire instructor 2 and has technician level certifications in swift water rescue, hazardous materials, and high-angle rescue. Lozier served as the operations chief at this incident.

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