High-Rise Rope Rescues,Indianapolis, Indiana

By David Owens

Everyone associated with technical rescue knows that technical rescue incidents are low-frequency/high-risk events. Most teams train for months, if not years, before they are called to an incident. For the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department (IFD) rope rescue teams, all of that knowledge, training, and perseverance over the years was put to the test on the outside of a downtown high-rise.


On August 14, 2008, at 1244 hours, the IFD sent a rope rescue task force and box alarm assignment that consisted of Tactical 7, Tactical 14, Squad 7, Squad 14, Squad 13, Ladder 13, Engine 13, Engine 11, Engine 5, and Battalion 13 to the 31-story M & I Bank Building at 135 North Pennsylvania Street for a report of a scaffolding collapse. Initial reports indicated that three workers were hanging on a broken scaffolding unit and that one had fallen to the ground. It was later determined he did not fall. First-arriving units confirmed the number of victims and approximated their location on the building as the 28th floor. Battalion Chief Mickey Radez arrived on-scene and assumed Pennsylvania Command. He immediately requested additional advanced life support (ALS) transport units to the scene and requested the building engineer to report to the command post.

Rope Rescue Task Force 7, with 10 firefighters, is housed five blocks away and arrived on-scene quickly with Tactical 7. Captain Robert Aldrich quickly sized up the operation and determined that with the number of victims and the victims’ spacing on the wall he would need to conduct three separate operations. He requested an additional rope rescue task force through Command. Rope Rescue Task Force 14, with 10 firefighters, was dispatched and responded with Tactical 14 at approximately 1254 hours.

Tactical 7 used interior elevators to move equipment to the 26th floor and used an interior stairway to gain access to the roof. Some of the box alarm fire companies were sent to locate windows near where the workers were hanging, in case it became necessary to remove the windows to retrieve the victims. An additional consideration was which victim to retrieve first; it was decided to get the worker closest to the scaffolding unit first (photos 1-3).

(1) Indianapolis Firefighter Private David Creighton reaches the worker next to the scaffolding unit for the first rescue.


( 2) Creighton places the worker on IFD ropes and removes him from his fall protection so other rescuers can raise them both to the ledge on the 25th floor.


(3) Creighton nears the ledge on the 25th floor with the worker. Once on the ledge, they can go in a window that rescuers removed. Rescuers decided to raise the first victim because lowering would have placed the rescuer and victim under the scaffolding, in the collapse zone. (Photos by Tod F. Parker – PhotoTac.com.)

The wind on that day was blowing at five to 10 miles per hour, and a storm front was moving in that was predicted to bring 30- to 45-mph winds, heavy rain, and lightning to the area within one hour. The scaffolding unit was swinging like a giant pendulum in the light wind; rescuers knew that if the wind picked up, the scaffolding would become a safety hazard to the worker next to it and the public below.

Once on the roof, rope rescue team members were faced with a very small working platform comprised of filled metal struts used to hold the cables that supported the scaffolding. Finding a suitable anchor became a challenge. Once members identified an anchor, iron work bolted to the roof, it became apparent that there was only a four-foot area in which to set up a mechanical advantage.

IFD standard operating procedure is to lower victims during a rescue operation. However, in this case, rescuers needed to raise the worker located next to the scaffolding because lowering him would have placed the victim and the rescuer under the dangling hunk of metal and into the potential collapse zone. In addition to the collapse zone hazard, the first rescuer over had to triage the worker when he reached him to determine if he was stable. If the worker was severely injured or his condition was questionable, rescuers would have had to reevaluate the risk/benefit analysis and possibly lower the victim to the ground.

Rescuers quickly put the lowering system into position and sent the first rescuer, Private David Creighton, over the wall and lowered him to the worker next to the scaffolding unit. Creighton performed a quick assessment and determined the victim was stable. Because of the decision to raise, Creighton placed a harness on the victim, placed him on the rope system using a pickoff strap and an IFD victim harness, and removed the worker from his fall protection to begin the process of raising him to a ledge at the 25th floor. On this ledge was a row of windows. One ladder company was assigned to remove one of the windows (using a pickhead ax and pike pole to clear the glass) to help free the victim from the rope system as soon as possible. The obvious reason for taking out a window above the ledge was that the glass would fall onto the ledge and not down the side of the building, where it could strike victims, rescuers, or onlookers.

Tactical 14 personnel set up two lowering systems for the other two workers. Captain Ron Dix, the officer-in-charge of this unit, began the ascent to the roof with the necessary equipment. Once on the roof, Aldrich briefed Dix on the mission needs, and Tactical 14 began to set up. The team encountered the same anchoring challenges. However, the plan was to raise the victims just enough to remove them from their fall protection system before lowering them to the roof of the attached sixth-floor parking garage.

After the team quickly established both lowering systems, members lowered Firefighters Ian Marano and Peter Horvath to the two remaining workers. At the same time, the first worker was pulled onto the ledge at the 25th floor, taken through an open window to safety, and turned over to the Medical Group for evaluation.

The two rescuers reached the remaining two workers at almost the same time and began patient assessments. Both workers were in stable condition with only minor injuries. The rescuers placed harnesses on both victims, and each rescuer placed the victim onto the fire department ropes using a pickoff strap (photos 4, 5). Crews raised the victims approximately two feet, removed them from their fall protection, and lowered them to the roof of the parking garage. They were then turned over to the Medical Group for treatment. All three victims were transported to a local trauma center.

(4) Indianapolis Firefighter Ian Marano removes the second worker from his fall protection.


(5) Marano (left) is lowered with the second worker to the roof of the parking garage. Indianapolis Firefighter Peter Horvath (right) prepares to be raised approximately two feet to remove the third worker from his fall protection and place him on the IFD ropes so he can be lowered to the roof of the parking garage. Once on the roof of the parking garage, both workers were turned over for medical treatment and transport. (Photos by Tod F. Parker – PhotoTac.com.)



The operation lasted approximately two hours. The weather that was predicted came in just as the last victim’s feet touched the parking garage. Following are some of the lessons learned.

  • Radio channels. The incident commander (IC) tried to use a couple of different channels to make communication easier. The problem was that not everyone made the channel change, which led to some confusion early in the incident.
  • Span of control.The IC established three group commanders: Operations, Safety, and Recon. The group commanders helped to cut down on the radio traffic, which eliminated most of the initial confusion.
  • Preplanning. There is always room for improvement in preplanning, but technical rescue personnel need to preplan from a different angle. If IFD personnel had looked up and noticed that work was being done on that building, we could have gone to the roof and preplanned a rescue operation.

(6) Glass and falling debris from the scaffolding and support system on the roof made crowd control and the establishment of a collapse zone the immediate operational priorities.


(7) One worker’s fall protection failed to work properly, and he slid down his rope to the top floor of the parking garage. He wrapped his leg in the rope, using it as a friction device to slow his fall, and sustained moderate friction burns. (Photos by Rodger Birchfield – IFD.)


IFD Rope Rescue Teams

The Indianapolis Fire Department has been involved with high- and low-angle rope rescue for more than 25 years and has grown from one team to three teams. Team personnel are trained by two in-house instructors using Progressive Rescue Solutions Guidelines and are National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-compliant. Each team carries enough hardware and rope to establish four separate systems (two main and two belay). Each team carries three ropes ½ inch in diameter and 300 feet long and three ropes ½ inch in diameter and 600 feet long stored in separate rope bags. All three stations train regularly. The company officer assigned to the rope rescue house conducts regular monthly training sessions. Additionally, each team attends quarterly training sessions conducted by the two in-house instructors. All training is documented and placed in each firefighter’s training file. The in-house instructors are also responsible for maintaining the NFPA- and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-required rope and equipment logs for each team.

David Owensis a division chief and a 21-year veteran of the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department, assigned to the Training & Special Operations Division. He also serves as a rescue team manager and task force leader for Indiana Task Force 1.

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