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February 3, 2018

Teaching Aerial Rescue to the Rescuers

Last year, a blog was posted on this website titled “A Skill You Hope You Will Never Need.” The tragic reality is that sometimes the skill is not where it is needed—a jolting example of wrong place, wrong time. Read more about how the grief over the accidental death of a tree worker was transformed into a training opportunity in which arborists taught metro-Atlanta First Responders the skills of aerial rescue.

On May 27, 2017, a climber working for a metro-Atlanta tree care company was working 75-100 feet up in a tree and was struck by a section of the tree he was attempting to remove. The other members of his crew called 911 immediately, and both the fire department and an arborist working in the vicinity arrived on the scene within 30 minutes. Despite their quick response, neither could reach the climber in time to save his life. It is likely that severe head trauma from the impact of the cut section of the tree led to his death. The team’s task then went from “rescue” to the grim one of “recovery” of the body. A tree care related aerial rescue needs to happen in 30 minutes or less in order to render proper aid to the injured person. The average time for a firefighter rescue, however, is about four hours. This may be due to the basic approach to first response rescue, which will be discussed later. The recovery was completed with the fire department’s ladder truck in this instance, but this did not alleviate the team’s devastation at not having reached him in time to result in a more positive outcome.

Even though this tragedy did not take place within the corporate fold of Downey Trees, such incidents send a ripple effect of grief through the entire industry, especially in the local area. Rusty Lee, Vice-President of Downey Trees, is also the current President of the Georgia Arborist Association (GAA). Both Downey Trees and the GAA promote safety and professionalism in the Arboricultural Industry in Georgia, and take tragic incidents like this very seriously. Rusty, a former firefighter himself, was called to the site of the accident on that fateful day, and became determined to derive something positive from the grief that gripped the Association in that moment. He thus became inspired to organize the largest aerial rescue training seminar of firefighters ever conducted in the state of Georgia. Rusty knew from his experience as a fireman that most rescue teams are not familiar with arborist climbing equipment. Additionally, if their ladder cannot access the injured climber due to power lines or lack of access points, there is rarely an alternate plan for a rescue. Adding to the possible detriment of a rapid rescue, once the fire department arrives, the scene is closed to non-firefighters, even if an arborist trained in aerial rescue could retrieve an injured climber much more quickly.

The need and urgency for such training established, three days were set aside in early January, 2018. Rusty arranged for three shifts of fire fighter rescue teams from four of the largest fire departments in Metro Atlanta to participate in the training. The need for three separate days was twofold: the classes needed to be small enough to allow the opportunity for everyone to participate in the skill-building, and fire department schedules are most often set up as one day on, two days off. The three day span therefore allowed all of the personnel in each department to take the training without the possibility of being interrupted by a call. North American Training Solutions (NATS) led the activity on the grounds of Stone Mountain Park. NATS has been in the business of training the arboricultural industry for over 10 years; its staff has over 200 years of combined experience with the skill sets required for tree care, including aerial rescue. The group was represented by experts Phillip Kelley, Warren Williams, and Ed Carpenter for the 3-day workshop. GAA member tree companies and supporters from around Metro-Atlanta also assisted by sending their best climbers trained in aerial rescue. Other support personnel from these companies provided and prepared hot coffee, refreshments and hot lunches on the bitterly cold days of the training.

Approximately 150 firefighters and first responders from the City of Atlanta, City of Sandy Springs, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Paulding Counties were exposed to arboricultural rescue methods and equipment by over 30 volunteer arborists operating six climbing stations, including opportunities for rope and spike climbs. Participants learned the basic difference in rescue strategies. Firefighters and First Responders have a “Top-Down” approach: they reach people in tall buildings and towers with tall ladders and helicopters. They are accustomed to solid stable structures. Many are neither well-versed nor well-equipped to climb from ground level, especially into a flexible, moving, living organism such as a tree. Arborists, on the other hand, use a “Bottom-Up” approach: they start from the ground and climb that flexible organism using ropes that are also flexible. This difference requires re-thinking the approach to rescue, as well as the learning of challenging new skills. The level of dedication of the rescue teams and trainers was high all three days: the proof of everyone’s seriousness was in the voraciousness with which the first responders learned new rope skills, all the time braving temperatures which dropped into the teens.

Rusty and the GAA Membership were delighted with the response and found the dedication of both the trainers and rescue teams to be inspirational. During the breaks and lunch, good food was served and friendships were fostered. Some of the rescuers had never even climbed a tree before, while other municipalities had highly experienced rescue teams. Old skills were sharpened and new ones learned: a ray of hope in light of tragedy. Perhaps a skill learned in the bitter cold at Stone Mountain Park may one day result in a life saved.