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Burleson, Texas: High-Angle Tower Rescue

On August 3, 2011, shortly before 8 pm, the outside temperature was above 105 degrees and winds at the top of a local cell tower were blowing 35-40 miles per hour.

At about that time, the Burleson Fire Department received a call for mutual aid to Mid-North Volunteer Fire Department for a cell tower worker trapped approximately 700' in the air. Burleson contacted Crowley Fire to respond as well; these two departments work well together and had completed many hours of rope rescue training together.

Three tower workers had been working near the top of the tower all day in the heat to replace some equipment; the temperature that day had been well over 100. At the end of the day, when it was time to descend, one of them didn't come down. The two workers had already begun working their way down the tower when they realized the patient wasn't descending. He was near the top and seemed to be confused, probably due to exhaustion. One of the workers had tried to go back up to help, but had come down because he too was cramping and was unable to continue due to the extreme weather conditions.

Lt. Jeremiah Lozier took charge of operations for the incident and coordinated all involved in the rescue. He spoke with the two coworkers, who told him the patient was in his harness suspended on a static cable that was inside the communications tower.

Lozier asked if either coworker could make the ascent with a firefighter to help with the rescue, but they were both exhausted and unable to make the climb. They quickly briefed Lozier on the tower's features and provided some technical insight that shaped the decision-making process.

Later, one of the coworkers decided he was rested enough to climb back up and help Fowler with the rescue; he made it about 100' before he started cramping again and was asked to descend to prevent another emergency.

Firefighter Dallas Fowler was given the task of climbing the tower to make initial assessment and provide patient care, taking up a medical bag that contained water, IV fluids and first-aid supplies. It took him about one hour to reach the patient. The plan was to get the worker hydrated and help him climb down under his own power. This plan soon changed.

When Fowler reached the patient, he found that the patient had undone his safety harness and climbed further up to over 750' and was now lying untethered on a platform approximately six feet away from the tower. The platform he was lying on was about the size of a coffee table and extended away from the tower by at least six feet—just a wire mesh platform with unprotected sides.

The patient was approximately 6'5" and 250 pounds.

He was in and out of consciousness, and he appeared to be suffering from possible dehydration and severe cramps and was showing signs of heat-related illness.

It now appeared this was going to be a full rescue that would require the firefighters to construct a lowering mechanism with ropes and other rescue equipment.

The new plan was to ascend to a high point above the patient's location and use a tuba descender to lower him and a rescuer from the bottom of the tower using the static cable in the tower as our safety line.

Firefighters Bill Buchanan and Matt Moseley began ascending the tower, taking rescue equipment with them: a three-point anchor system and approximately 1,500 feet of rope. It took about two hours to reach the patient as they shifted the weight of the needed rescue equipment during the climb.

During this time, Fowler had been talking with the patient to get him alert enough to take in fluids. Although Fowler couldn't reach the patient, he spiked an IV bag and tossed it to the patient. The patient drank the IV bag; this was done on the advice of our medical director.

Once Buchanan and Moseley reached the top, they constructed the three-point anchor and pulley system inside the tower and lowered the rope to the bottom where firefighters constructed a belay system to lower the patient.

The fluids had helped the patient and the three rescuers they talked the patient into putting his safety harness back on; the firefighters were then able to get him back inside the tower. At that point, the patient was locked into the lowering system.

One issue they faced in coming down was that there was a lowering rope, three firefighters and a patient all coming down the close quarters inside the tower. Crowley Firefighter Gary Sansing climbed up one-third of the tower simply to keep all of the equipment and rope from tangling and to keep it free and clear of the tower-structure members.

Once all was in place, the patient was slowly lowered to the bottom, reaching the ground at 2:30 in the morning; the total time of the rescue was approximately 7 hours. Shortly afterwards, he was transported to a local hospital. He was very exhausted and dehydrated and did spend several days in the hospital.

The firefighters were also very exhausted, dehydrated and cramping; they each received two IV bags and some food. Once they were hydrated and rested, they were sent home for the rest on their shift to rest.

The rescuers not only successfully rescued a stranded worker, but they also had to contend with triple-digit heat, dehydration and muscle cramping from the climb. In addition, there was the unbelievable force of the wind at the top of the tower: it was so windy that radio-to-radio traffic was almost unusable and face-to-face communication had to be done by screaming at one another.

"These firefighters … demonstrated valor, determination and unmatched courage during this incident," Fire Chief Gary Wisdom said. ''They used the training that they had learned and dealt with a very difficult situation and saw it to a successful end."

Chief Gary Wisdom submitted this Valor Award nomination.

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