Cell Tower Rescue: First-In Operations and the Incident Action Plan


Across the country, as tower type rescues become more common, local rescuers need be aware of the presence of such rescue sites in their response areas, preplan for different rescue scenarios, and train their specialized rescue personnel to the appropriate level to facilitate safe rescues. Tower rescues have become so numerous that when the National Fire Protection Association issued the 2014 edition of NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, it included tower rescue awareness, operations, and technician level requirements. But for everyone who is involved in high-angle rescue nationwide, how many departments and rescue teams are truly trained and equipped to carry out these demanding types of rescues?

Tower Defined

We must first define what a tower is. NFPA 1670 states, “The requirements of this chapter shall apply to organizations that provide varying degrees of response to emergencies involving guyed, self-supporting, monopoles and non-standard tower structures.” Guyed, self-supporting, and monopole refer to different cell tower types (photos 1-3, respectively). Nonstandard tower structures include transmission towers, water towers, cranes, smoke stacks, and possibly bridges. Although we will specifically discuss first-in operations for a cell tower incident, most of this information may be relevant for these nonstandard tower structures, too. Note that we are not discussing rescues from energized power transmission towers or broadcast towers that have additional hazards.

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Rescues

Tower rescues often involve a “bottom-up” rescue. Traditional fire service classes and curriculum focus on “top-down” rescues, such as a window washer rescue, a slope evacuation, removal of a person on the side of a cliff, and rescuing someone trapped in a high-rise. In these situations, the rescue crew comes into the scene from above the victim and either rappels down or lowers the rescuer down to the subject from an elevated area. This rigging area is usually fairly large, many personnel are able to access it, and anchors are available or can be moved as needed.

(1) Photos by author.
(1) Photos by author.

A “bottom-up” tower rescue is one in which you arrive on scene and the victim is above you. Unless you have the luxury of a helicopter with an external hoist at your disposal, you must access the victim from below on the structure. Then you will need to climb up past the subject, set up high-point anchors with limited equipment, and facilitate a usually much more complex rescue scenario with only one or two fit and well-trained rescue personnel doing all the work and sharing all the responsibility.

Gathering Information

The first order of business for any crew on arrival is to gather information and to control the area.

Compliant worker. If the subject is a properly trained and equipped tower climber, find his coworkers and figure out exactly why a rescue is needed. At-height workers on these types of sites are not permitted to work alone and should be working in teams of two or more at all times. These workers may also be trained in rescue, and you should use their knowledge and skills as much as possible.

What is the problem? Is it a medical issue, or did the worker fall on his fall protection equipment and is now hanging in free space? If the victim is hanging in his harness and is unconscious, this is a time-sensitive problem; and you must set your rescue plan into action immediately because of the risk of suspension trauma.

Other common reasons for rescue include heat exhaustion in the summer, cold issues in the winter, heart problems, injury caused by falling objects, and falling onto fall protection equipment and being unable to self-rescue. There could be any number of other health or access problems with your victim, so it is critical that you find out exactly what the issue is so your rescue team can begin to build its incident action plan (IAP).

Noncompliant climber. Most noncompliant climbers are alone, which will make it difficult or impossible to get any information on the ground. Often with a noncompliant climber, the first question to ask is, “Is he dead or alive?”

If the person is deceased, which is a real probability on transmission towers, your rescue just turned into a recovery.

If he is alive, some common reasons that person needs rescue are the following. The individual

  • climbed the tower but is too scared to climb down;
  • is despondent/suicidal or either drugged or intoxicated;
  • is an adrenaline seeker who got trapped up on top;
  • is a (BASE) jumper [(who launches from buildings, antennas, spans (bridges), or earth (cliffs)] or a paraglider who has become entangled in guy wires.

In these situations, it is imperative that the incident commander take a good hard look at the risks vs. the rewards prior to sending up rescuers.

Other important information includes the subject’s precise location on the structure and at what height. How is the subject positioned on the structure – clinging, sitting, lying, or standing? Does he have a harness? Estimating the height is critical, since this will most likely determine where you place your rigging control and the type of rescue you choose.

Controlling the Site

Set up your standard hot, warm, and cold zones as you do for any special rescue incident.

Lock out/tag out any power sources and all radio frequency (RF) emitting equipment. RFs are a real hazard and should be treated with caution. If the victim is a compliant climber, he most likely will have secured all the RFs in his location. You must confirm with the other workers on scene what the lock-out/tag-out procedures are.

If it is a noncompliant climber, determine from the signage at the compound entry (photo 4) the tower’s site identification number, its Federal Communications Commission (FCC) number, and the number of carriers using the tower and their respective emergency contact numbers. Call each number and request immediate shutdown of all RF transmissions from the site. Even with all of the equipment shut down, you must monitor with personal RF monitors. They clip to the rescue worker’s harness as he climbs and will alert if any dangerous level of RF radiation is encountered.

Once the area is secured and you understand what you need to accomplish, your rescuers can develop the IAP.

Accessing the Patient

How will you access the patient? The first option is to set up your tower ladder and pick him off. But if the subject is out of the tower ladder’s reach, you will need to climb. If a climb is called for, determine how to access him vertically as well as horizontally.

Is a fall protection system in place that you can use as a safety while climbing? It will usually be in the form of a cable, a rail, or a notched pipe safety system. Are there safety grabs at the site, or do you have the proper one on your rescue squad? If not, you will need to use twin lanyards, some sort of advance-placed fall protection, or lead climbing techniques to maintain two points of contact while accessing the victim.

In all these cases, another option is for the first rescuer up to trail a rope and either secure it to the structure and the next rescuer up can use a fall arrest rope grab (a self-belay device) as his backup safety system while climbing or the first rescuer can set up a belay system and belay the second rescuer up as that person climbs.

Most likely, the victim will not be right in line with your climbing path, which means that you will need to access him by climbing horizontally at some point. This means you will need to come off the installed safety system and use twin lanyards or a combination of work positioning devices to maintain two points of contact throughout your transitions.

Tower Control vs. Ground Control

Where will you set up the rigging control for the operation? There are some advantages and disadvantages to both of these techniques.

Tower Control Systems

Tower control relies on one or two rescuers climbing the structure with everything they need to facilitate the rescue on top.

Team selection. Tower rescue is not for everyone; it is physically and mentally demanding. Being on top of a 200-foot-high rooftop is completely different from being up only 60 feet on a fully exposed cell tower leg (it’s like being on a ship at sea; you can feel the towers move under your feet). Select the two most highly trained members you have who are physically capable of climbing up the tower loaded down with the necessary equipment. Climbing is strenuous and burns a lot of calories, so rescuers should have food and water with them.

Rigging. All rigging should be prepared/set up on the ground as much as possible and kept as simple as possible. The two tower rescue options are a pick-off and a top lower.

Pick-off. In a pick-off, rescuers set up two static lines above the victim. One rescuer rappels down and performs a standard pick-off style rescue to the ground.

Top lower. In a top lower, rescuers set up a two-rope system above the subject, then make connections to the victim and lower and belay from the top to the ground.

Rope length. The rope length should be at least the height of the rescue with some to spare. The available rope length determines whether you will do a tower control or ground control rescue. If the victim is at 180 feet and all you have are 300-foot rescue ropes, your choices are to do a tower control rescue or a ground control and pass knots.

Advantages/disadvantages. The advantages of a tower control option include using a small fast rescue team (if personnel are highly trained) and that less rope and equipment are needed. The disadvantages are that the small rescue team has all the responsibility, it is not suitable for severe trauma patients, and rescuers have limited ability to offset away from the structure.

Ground Control

Ground control relies on establishing a fixed brake on the ground instead of on the tower.

Team selection. Select the two most highly trained members to climb the tower to establish high-point, change-of-direction pulleys and to package the victim. Because the control is on the ground, the rescuers who are climbing have less responsibility than they would on a tower-based rescue.

Rigging. For rigging, the two rescue climbers will climb up using a bag-carry or bight-carry technique; establish high-point, change-of-direction pulleys; package the patient if it is possible; and make appropriate connections. The ground crew will establish a lowering or raising system. Autolocking rescue-rated descent control or progress capture devices work best in this kind of scenario.

Rope length. The rope length should be at least 2½ times the height of the subject’s location. This will also vary based on the type of system set up and ground anchor locations.

Advantages/disadvantages. The advantages of this method include allowing offset options to bring the packaged patient away from the structure, spreading the responsibility among more members, and having more space to run rigging for haul and lower as needed. The disadvantages are that it requires a larger rescue team, longer rope, and more equipment; it is more complicated and slower; and solid communication is essential.

Patient Packaging

A compliant worker will already be wearing a tower harness with sternal and dorsal attachment areas to connect to. What is the mechanism of injury? Does the patient need spinal immobilization at height prior to lowering? Is this person just stuck and needs to be lowered to the ground using his harness? Typically, unless the subject has a life-threatening injury that can be resolved quickly while he is suspended, you will be able to provide the best medical care after you have safely lowered him to the ground.

A noncompliant, unharnessed climber will need some sort of patient packaging such as webbing or a rescue harness. Take special care when dealing with panicked or combative subjects.


Portable radios must be used for clear communications between the rescuers on the tower and on the ground. Many harnesses do not have harness attachments to hold radios, so make certain that your radio is affixed so that it cannot be dropped.

This is a quick rundown of some first-in considerations for a cell tower rescue. Hundreds of other factors can come into play in any given tower rescue. The importance of training with the tools and techniques that tower climbers use cannot be overstated. If you are the authority having jurisdiction, you must preplan for rescues on these structures in your response areas.

  • Study available information on tower rescues.
  • Seek out competent tower rescue training.
  • Take that information and practice tower rescue techniques on unexposed locations to drive the fundamentals home.
  • Once rescuers are comfortable using the tools and techniques for tower rescue, get out on some telecommunications towers and train on them.

NATHAN PAULSBERG is a lieutenant with the Palatine (IL) Fire Department, a member of its technical rescue team, and the head of Mutual-Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Division 1’s technical rescue training committee. He is a technical rescue instructor at the Northern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy and Gateway Technical College. Paulsberg is a squad officer and head of all rope operations for Illinois Task Force 1, co-owner of Elevated Safety LLC, and a Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians (SPRAT) Level 3 rope technician.

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