High-angle rescuers are trained specialists. And the unit in Wiesbaden’s professional fire brigade is no different. Its Director, Thomas Dörwald, explains what really matters during deployment operations – and what fascinates him about his job.

The Morgenbach Valley is one of the most beautiful and, at the same time, one of the most difficult climbing areas in Rhineland-Palatinate. The rocky slopes make the nature reserve a popular destination for beginners and advanced climbers alike. Often, some climbers have a little too much confidence in their own abilities, making accidents inevitable. As is the case today. A young man has slipped on a rock face and used one of his arms to break his fall. With severe consequences. He seems to have broken his elbow and is in a great deal of pain. It would be impossible for him to descend from the hard-to-reach ledge. Fortunately, his friend has already called the emergency services.

Ready for action: The high-angle rescue team of Wiesbaden fire service. (Photo: Wiesbaden 112 / Sebastian Stenzel)

The drone of a helicopter can already be heard from a distance. A team of high-angle rescuers from Wiesbaden’s professional fire brigade is approaching. The team members are specialised in rescuing people from emergency situations like this one with air support. Because the Wiesbaden specialists don’t have their own helicopter, they cooperate closely with Egelsbach police’s flying squadron. When they receive an emergency call, in most cases the rescuers only have a rough idea of what to expect. In the Morgenbach Valley, reaching injured parties is a challenge in itself. The side valley which runs along the Rhine is almost completely covered in woodland, making it difficult to even see the scene of an accident.

Two firemen are heading towards the ground on a wire rope. (Photo: Wiesbaden 112 / Sebastian Stenzel)

Heading towards the ground on a wire rope

Two people are waving down below. The pilot carefully reduces his speed above the treetops. Two fire-fighters are ready to abseil down a wire rope between the trees to reach the injured person. Another colleague follows them with a vacuum stretcher. It completely covers the young man, and he can be transported without feeling any pain. A few minutes pass until the pilot receives a radio signal. His colleagues on the ground are good to go. The pilot skilfully brings the helicopter back into position and lets down a rope. The young man and a high-angle rescuer are secured to it. This is also a very quick process. Both people are now hoisted up towards the helicopter, but are not pulled inside. They fly outside the helicopter for a few minutes until it reaches the next landing point, where there is already an ambulance waiting to take the young man to the nearest hospital.

Rescuer and accident victim are dropped at a landing zone. (Photo: Wiesbaden 112 / Alexander Wörl)

Drills are part and parcel of the job too

Thomas Dörwald has followed the events from afar and watched every single hand movement, because what appeared to be a realistic situation was only a drill for the men in the Wiesbaden professional fire brigade. While the climber’s injury was indeed staged, in an emergency situation the rescuers would have got him out of his precarious situation in good time. So, as Director of the Wiesbaden High-Angle Rescuers Unit, Thomas Dörwald is satisfied: “We always select scenarios that we might encounter when we are actually deployed for our drills. In real-life situations, we might encounter an injured crane driver who has to be rescued from his cab, a shaft worker with a broken leg or a worker who has fallen into a building pit.” Or even a climber who has sustained a serious injury after taking a wrong step on the rocks. Drills like the one performed in the Morgenbach Valley are part and parcel of the job that Mr Dörwald and his team do. They meet three times a year for a three-day intensive training course. They are required to do at least 72 hours of advanced training and drills per year. Anyone who has specialised in “Special Rescue from Heights and Depths” (SRHT) has also already got at least 80 hours of training under their belt.

“Working as a high-angle rescuer is the icing on the cake,“ says Thomas Dörwald. (Photo: Wiesbaden 112 / Sebastian Stenzel)

“It’s an effort that not everybody wants to go to,” remarks Mr Dörwald. The trained building fitter went down this route himself and set up the high-angle rescuers unit of the Wiesbaden professional fire brigade in 2001. At that time, it only had three members; today, there are 16 men. Their commitment means that the normal fire brigade service has another string to its bow. It’s rare that the SRHT group is dispatched. “In most cases, we’re explicitly called upon to provide support. We come into play if and when there has been an accident,” explains Mr Dörwald.

An overwhelming feeling

When the Director of the High-Angle Rescuers Unit is dispatched, he’s in his element. He made a conscious choice to work in this profession. Because heights hold a special charm for him. And they always have done. He joined the paratroopers at the end of the 1980s, and nowadays climbing is one of his hobbies. “As a fire-fighter, you’re constantly on the move at height anyway. But working as a high-angle rescuer is the icing on the cake,” explains Mr Dörwald enthusiastically. “Standing on a tall building, for instance, is simply overwhelming.” There’s no doubt about it – a fascination such as this goes hand in hand with a high degree of risk. Mr Dörwald has internalised this too: “You mustn’t lose respect, then you won’t become careless too.”

In some cases, carelessness is also the reason why the high-angle rescuers from Hesse’s state capital have to be dispatched in the first place. “We often see that employees lack knowledge of how to use their equipment correctly while working at height. They cannot free themselves from their hazardous situation. Sometimes, they aren’t even familiar with their location, which doesn’t make the work any easier for us,” affirms Mr Dörwald. The expert is also aware of situations that he only heard about through the grapevine: “Many companies are now well aware of the fact that they are legally obliged to train their employees and develop appropriate rescue concepts.” If, for instance, a worker has an accident while replacing tiles on a church steeple, an emergency call isn’t made straight away. There are also cases where colleagues rescue affected individuals themselves.

No standard programme

If it turns out that this isn’t possible, the Wiesbaden high-angle rescuers are deployed. They have to be able to classify the situation within mere moments. The hand movements that follow are practised. Everyone in the team knows what they have to do by means of clearly consulting with one another. The specialists get to work just like individual, interlinked cogs. There is no standard programme. Each deployment operation is too different from the last one for there to be a standard programme. If, for instance, a window cleaner falls and is hanging on a building façade in his safety harness, he may be given first aid in this position by a paramedic first of all – and only lowered to the ground afterwards. The SRHT unit has to take a completely different approach when dealing with a tree surgeon who has been working at height and injured himself with his chain saw. “In situations like these, in most cases the injury is dramatic and a swift descent is essential so that the victim doesn’t bleed to death,” explains Mr Dörwald.

Complete confidence – in both one’s colleagues and one’s equipment

It doesn’t matter what the rescue team encounters at the scene of an accident. One principle always remains the same for Mr Dörwald: “Ultimately, it all boils down to saving one person – or, indeed, several people – within a very short space of time.” And it’s not just about ensuring the safety of the victim or victims, but also about guaranteeing one’s own safety. In this regard, the team members must be able to rely entirely on both their colleagues and their equipment.

Those who work at heights need equipment they can rely on. (Photo: Wiesbaden 112 / Sebastian Stenzel)

In addition to traditional fire-fighters’ clothing, they also wear harnesses which they can also use to secure themselves against falling. They can also use the harness to hook into the wire rope which they use to abseil down from a helicopter to the scene of an accident. The high-angle rescuers are allowed to choose their own harnesses. “It’s important that everyone feels comfortable in their equipment. This means that a harness must be comfortable and easy to handle and shouldn’t impede work,” explains Mr Dörwald, discussing what really matters to him when it comes to his equipment. Mr Dörwald states with confidence: “We must be able to handle our equipment in our sleep.” Which is also why he regularly makes sure his skills are up to scratch together with his unit. As was also the case during the drill in the Morgenbach Valley…