High Angle Rescue
  by Michael Dunn

High angle rescue operations involve unique hazards and require special training and equipment to be able to perform them safely. In the last five years, several rescuers have been killed or seriously injured during high angle rescues and in training exercises.

What is High Angle Rescue?

Rope rescue operations are frequently defined in terms of the type and steepness of the terrain they are to be performed on. The steeper the ground, the more difficult and the more technical the rescue becomes. Ropes may have to be relied upon to gain access to the victim, to support the team members and the victims during the rescue and remove them from the rescue site.

Low angle rescue is considered to be terrain that has a slope angle from 15 to 35. The condition of the terrain will determine the need for and the amount of rope support required. Is it muddy? Are there loose rocks or other debris that would cause poor or slippery footing? How many rescuers are needed to transport the victim and stretcher to safety?

Steep angle rescue is considered to be terrain that has a slope angle from 35 to 60. Again, the condition of the terrain will determine the level of technical expertise required to perform this rescue safely.

High angle rescue is considered to be terrain that has a slope angle of 60 and higher. Rescuers are totally dependent upon the ropes used to keep them and the victims from falling and to gain access to and egress from the rescue location. Examples of high angle locations include: pipe racks, ledges, catwalks, tops of vessels, cranes, and water towers.

High angles are also found below grade level in ship holds, barges, confined spaces, tunnels, sewer and piping systems. Good, competent technical rescue skills involving ropes, anchoring and belaying systems, lowering and hauling systems and litter/stretcher work are going to be mandatory for the safe performance of the rescue team.

Reasons for Starting a High Angle Rescue Team

Statutory requirements may be the motivating factor behind the decision to form a high angle rescue team. In many states, the county or parish sheriff's department is responsible for all search and rescue operations in their county or parish.

Some states such as Tennessee have emergency rescue squads that perform the search and rescue functions in their response areas. Other states such as Louisiana have formed large, mutual aid response teams such as SELSAR (South East Louisiana Search and Rescue).

SELSAR is coordinated through the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Department and is made up of local law enforcement agencies, fire departments, public and private ambulance companies, state and federal agencies such as LA. Wildlife & Fisheries, LA. State University Firemen Training Program (state fire training academy), U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs, industrial emergency response teams, private search dog teams and response teams from neighboring states.

Local ordinances may designate the local fire, law enforcement, or other agency as having statutory responsibilities for search and rescue.

Public expectation may also provide a strong motivation for forming a rescue team. When the public calls the local emergency services telephone number, they expect their particular problem to be handled efficiently no matter who the response agency is.

Inadequate performance at a recent high angle incident can lead to bad public relations, unfavorable media attention and a potential loss of services and funding as politicians try to appease the public during election year campaigns.

The motivating factor may simply be a desire to expand the capabilities of an existing rescue team. For example, the team may currently perform vehicle extrication and want to offer additional rescue services such as water rescue, high angle rescue, confined space rescue, cave rescue, etc.

Equipment Needed

There is a bewildering amount of equipment available for high angle rescue. The rescue team needs to have the knowledge to choose the equipment that will best meet their particular needs. Don't buy equipment based upon cost or low bid alone. Consider whether it will adequately meet your needs.

Some of the general equipment that will be needed for high angle rescues are:

  • Ropes - will you need low stretch or high stretch? Kernmantle, braided, double braided or twist? What material will best meet your needs (nylon, polyester, etc.)? What size will you need - 7/16", 1/2", 9/16" or 5/8"?
  • Pulleys - will you need single, double, triple sheave? Knot passing or prusik minding? What size, strength and weight?
  • Carabiners - steel or aluminum? Locking or non-locking gates? Size and strength?
  • Harnesses - will a seat harness suffice or will you need full body harnesses?
  • Litters - basket litter, semi-rigid litter or both? Will you need a flotation kit for the litter (is water rescue a possibility?) What type of lifting bridle will best meet your needs - fixed or adustable length? Strength rating? Material?
  • Anchoring straps or tubular webbing? What size and strength? Fixed or adjustable length? Fabric loops or metal "D" rings on the ends?
  • Edge or rope pads and rollers to protect the ropes from abrasion, fraying and cutting.
  • Friction control or descent devices for lowering systems. Will you be using brake racks, brake tubes, figure eights or some other device? What material and strength?
  • Rope grab devices. Will you need mechanical rope clamps or will you be using prusik cords? Do you know the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Personnel Needed

The The size of the team will vary with the anticipated complexities of any potential rescues, i.e. high rise building rescue (stranded window washer or suicidal jumper) vs wilderness rescue; fire rescue vs child trapped in tree top; response distance and distance from back up support or mutual aid teams will all have a bearing on team size.

Some rescue functions can be performed by untrained personnel to free up trained rescuers such as muscle on hauling systems or support personnel for crowd control or to carry rescue gear.

Training Needed

The skills needed will also vary with location. Medical skills will be required for team members but the skills required for an urban setting may be different for a wilderness environment.

What knots will your team use? What lowering systems? What hauling systems? What belaying technique? What anchoring system will be needed for the different rescue sites? Litter rigging and patient packaging skills will be very necessary; can the patient accidentally fall from the litter after you have packaged him? It has happened before.

Rappelling skills will help build confidence in team members but this skill is not as vital as the ability to set up and operate a lowering system.

In some areas of the country, such as caves with long vertical drops, the ability to ascend the rope may be necessary.


High angle rescue teams require properly equipped, trained and dedicated team members to be able to perform competently and safely.

Be sure that you evaluate and compare the different brands of equipment available and purchase gear that will best meet your needs. Compare the training offered by different organizations. Ask for and check references. Does the organization also sell rescue equipment (do they teach classes to sell equipment?). What techniques do they teach? What experience do they have in the subject area? Are they insured?

Sound like a lot of trouble to go through? Just remember who will be hanging on the end of the rope.

Michael Dunn is the President of Emergency Response Training, Inc., a Baton Rouge, LA. based fire/rescue training consulting company. He was a state industrial firefighting and rescue instructor for 15+ years and has been actively involved in the fire service for 28 years. He received an Associate's Degree in Fire Protection Technology from Oklahoma State University. Dunn is on several national and international committees that are developing standards and textbooks for rescue and emergency response, including those of the International Fire Service Training Association, The American Society for Testing and Materials, and the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists.

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