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Foot Entrapment: learning the ropes

A few weeks ago I published a blog with a photo sequence showing students in an SRT/SRT-A Yosemite National Park course practicing entrapment rescue. Getting ‘hands-on-stable’ was the goal and they achieved it by shallow water crossing to the victim. They then stabilized, extracted, and transported him to shore. It was quick and simple.  Unfortunately, entrapment rescues we see aren’t always quick and simple. Access to the victim could be limited by a variety of factors. This post will help you to understand some options that you have as as rescuer when you cannot get hands on an entrapped victim. It’s time to ‘learn the ropes’ of foot entrapment.

When hands on access is not an option, turn to your swiftwater tools. Your throwbag can be used to help stabilize and extract an entrapped victim. In the photos below see how this class used throwbags for Stabilization and Extraction. 

In the above photos, rescuers responded to either side of the entrapped victim. In most cases, this is necessary for rope tactics to be effective. We will address single bank entrapment later. Think of the the first line thrown across as a life line. Its goal is to get and keep the victim’s head above water. The victim has to play a role in his or her own rescue. If they can’t reach up for the rope, and/or grab it and hold it, the odds of a successful rescue go way down. The first line is called a stabilization line. Once across the channel and under the victims chest, try and make this line as tight as possible, the more rigid the line, the more likely the victim will stay above water (think of extending the victim a railing to hold onto). This is tough work. Both the weight of the victim in the middle of the rope, and the force of current are working against you. Practice taking up slack evenly and using body belays or vector pulls to increase tension.  Don’t tie the stabilization line off. This single rope may be all the victim needs to free his or her foot, giving them something to push against and help in their own rescue.

Once you’ve stabilized the victim with the first rope, and they are still entrapped, a second line can be used to try and free the entrapped limb. Remember that rope management is very important and adding additional ropes can be dangerous and drastically complicate the situation.  When using a second rope, the first needs to be maintained and tight at all times. The stabilization line is all that’s holding the victim’s head above water. Cross the second line downstream of the victim and work it under the victim. If they can help move it to their waist even better, tell them what to do. The second line, or Snag Line, passes underneath the stabilization line as the rescuers holding the line move upstream. By moving upstream with the snag line, rescuers can be more effective since the angle formed by the snag line around the victim gets smaller. Forces of angles dictate that with a smaller angle  (closer to 0 degrees) rescuers pulling the snag line have more power than they would with a larger angle.  Communicate the pulling on the snag line so it is uniform and coordinated. Each pull is a separate attempt to free the entrapped limb. Play rough and play tough. If the situation isn’t changing look for ways to change the angle of extraction. Move further up stream, cross both ropes to the same bank to isolate the pull, or attach a tag line to one side of the snag line to control the angle of extraction. There isn’t any right answer, try something, if that doesn’t work, try something else. Eventually something has to give.

If and when the victim comes free, there is a chance he or she could become stuck on the ropes you’ve put into the water to help them. Preplan and communicate which side of the channel you want the victim to end up. If they are stuck on either rope, one side has to give slack or let go of tension so the victim can pendulum downstream to the opposite shore. These rope tactics may seem basic and simple, and they can be. However, they can get complicated very quickly. Practice on shore before attempting these techniques in the water. Practice, practice practice. Communicate with your team and get to a point where you are efficient and fast with stabilization with ropes. Fast stabilization buys you some time to address the next step of the rescue. Good luck.

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