VISITOR SAFETY AND RESCUE IN CAVES
During 1984 I spent three months in the USA under the auspices of a Winston Churchill Fellowship in order to study the management of national parks and wilderness areas with special reference to visitor safety and technical rescue. My itinerary comprised a circuit tour of the Western States of the USA and a brief visit into Canada. Although not the prime focus of my study I was able to visit show caves and I spent one week at the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) annual seminar on managing cave rescue, held at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota (see Watson, 1984).
The comments made in this paper are therefore based upon my visits to some nine commercially operated show caves in the US, discussions with management staff at each cave and at other centres, intersection with fellow participants from throughout the US at the NCRC seminar, and my previous experience of caves in Australia and of technical rescue procedures.
2. Safety in Caves
Many of the caves and related karst features of North America are located within national parks or on other government controlled lands. There are three broad patterns of cave visitation, as follows:
- Tourists visiting commercial show caves.
- Tourists and/or amateur speleologists visiting more challenging sections of commercial show caves on what are termed "spelunking tours" in the US.
- Amateur speleologists and others visiting "wild" caves, that is, non-commercial caves.
Each type of visitation presents special problems for the cave managing agency involved. In the case of commercial show caves, safety issues involve both the cave and its associated walkways and the fitness of the visitors themselves. Obviously walkways must be easy and safe to use, with adequate lighting and handrails where necessary. The actual route taken by a walkway can be used not only to protect delicate formations from damage by making sure they are well out of reach, but also to reduce risks of bumped heads by avoiding areas with low ceilings. Often extra lighting or verbal warning from the cave guide may be required to promote safety.
The cave visitor obviously will need to be reasonably fit. This is especially important in deep caves, those located at high altitudes, and caves having tight passages and walkways which require much stooping and bending. Where cave guides are present there is usually an opportunity for some discreet screening of visitors and on most tours an opportunity is given early on for persons to decide not to continue.
At most show caves visited on the study tour incidents had arisen where elderly or handicapped people had been urged by their families to take a tour against their own better judgement with the result that several accidents had occurred.
Footwear is another important consideration, especially in wet caves where slippery conditions may be encountered on walkways. For example, the Carlsbad Caverns are a long way from the nearest overnight accommodation in the town of Carlsbad. However, publicity in the town about suitable footwear allows cave visitors to prepare themselves adequately before their journey to the caves.
One would expect that the more challenging "spelunking tours" would result in more accidents. However there seems to be little evidence to indicate that this is the case. This is probably because the participants on these tours are likely to be fitter and in a younger age bracket than the average tourist. There are also tight management controls over the nature and quality of equipment and over visitor behaviour. For example, at Wind Cave in South Dakota the cave guide spends at least 30 minutes with each spelunking party before entering the cave. In this period the group is provided with overalls, lights (several sources of light are carried by each person), and helmets. The group is told about the requirement to avoid touching cave formations. Basic safety rules are also covered. Generally, there is a good guide to participant ratio, with some tours comprising as few as five people. This too undoubtedly contributes to the good safety record of such tours.
In the case of the third category cave visitor, namely the amateur speleologists and others visiting "wild caves", there is not much that the managing agency can do and safety is highly dependent upon individual's caving experience and awareness of safety requirements. For those belonging to recognised caving societies there is generally a reasonable level of caving experience, and the groups most at risk are ones with no experience, especially those who enter wild caves without any proper training and without suitable equipment or protective clothing. Knutson (1981) has produced a simple analysis of 80 cave accidents in North America during the period 1976-79. The majority of these accidents occurred with the inexperienced groups but incidents involving experienced cavers of category 2 were almost as numerous, probably because of the more challenging caves tackled by this user group.
3. Cave Rescue
3.1 Organisation and Co-ordination
The National Cave Rescue Commission was formed in 1977 as a sub-commission of the National Speleological Society. It is a volunteer group which co-ordinates cave rescue resources through out the USA. It provides a communications network through which cave rescue resources are located.
This is facilitated by a national 24 hour telephone number that of the National Co-ordinator who has access to 8 Regional Co-ordinators who in turn have their own regional networks of contacts and resources. There are two additional specialists, a Cave Diving Officer and a Medical Officer who keep up to date with advances in appropriate medical and dive rescue equipment and personnel. The NCRC also undertakes various other functions, for example, developing good working relationships with other rescue-orientated organisations and government agencies, research on new cave rescue equipment and organising training seminars, such as that at Wind Cave, in order to increase the number and improve the proficiency of cave rescuers throughout North America.
The co-ordination of a rescue generally requires the establishment of a series of specialist functions. An example of the organisation of a major cave rescue is shown schematically in Figure 1.
The 'Responsible Agent' in the US may vary considerably according to various federal, state and local laws. However, in a national park where there is proprietary control clearly the National Park Service is the responsible agent. However, caves occur on all manner of public and private lands and in practice the responsible agent varies considerably, although it is often traditionally the local sheriff.
In many instances the responsible agent does not have the experience or necessary skills to co-ordinate the actual cave rescue operation. A person with general skills in technical rescue, communications, personnel management, and so on is generally (and hopefully) appointed to this role and he or she is assisted on major rescues by an Operations Officer. In Figure 1 five other major functions in a rescue are identified and these should be self evident.
The NCRC places its major training effort on the annual cave rescue seminar which is presented at a different venue each year. The 1984 venue at Wind Cave in South Dakota was one of the most central locations used in recent years and consequently the seminar attracted a wide and fairly representative spread of cavers and management personnel from across North America.
The seminar lasts for one week and is split into an advanced course (about 6 students) and a basic course (about 25 students). There are about a dozen instructors and staff, several of whom currently hold, or have previously held, official positions at the NCRC. The course involves several sessions which are attended by both the advanced and the basic students, but much of the practical work is undertaken as two groups.
A highlight of the training programme is the mock rescue which takes up at least one whole day towards the end of the course. This is run as a major cave rescue operation with definition of responsibilities as presented in Figure 1. Following the mock rescue a critique or "debrief" is held on the final day.
The NCRC also publishes the manual of cave rescue techniques (Williams, 1981) which has the obvious value as a basis for smaller training sessions at the local level.
3.2 Rescue Stretchers
During the NCRC Cave Rescue Symposium there was an opportunity to examine and work with several different types of stretcher including:
The KED (Kendrick Extrication Device) which is a short backboard/ mini stretcher combination mainly used for the extrication of persons from a sitting position in motor vehicle accidents. The KED is basically an upper body splint with potential for stabilising the head, neck and full spine. It cannot be used for lowering or raising with ropes unless it is placed within and properly secured to another rescue stretcher. The attraction of the KED for cave rescue is that it can provide some patient stabilisation when passages that are very tight or too confined for a full length have to be negotiated.
The standard Neill-Robertson stretcher which is a wrap-around canvas device with cane slats for reinforcing. the patient is held in the stretcher like a cocoon and consequently the whole package is not much larger than the patient, so providing there are no sharp bends, even tight passages can be negotiated in theory. However on its own this stretcher is to flexible for spinal injuries. In such instances simultaneous use of the KED might be a considerable improvement. This stretcher is manufactured in Western Australia and is commonly referred to there as the Joyce Stretcher.
The modified Neill Robertson stretchers. The standard Neill Robertson Stretcher is made more suitable for spinal injuries by the addition of a tubular steel frame which gives the stretcher rigidity and provides the option of permanently attaching a protective helmet for the patients head and footrest. At the NCRC course one commercially available modified Neill Robertson stretcher was used - the PMI Rescue Stretcher.
The SKED. This is a drag sheet style of stretcher with sufficient rope ties and sufficient strength to be used in conjunction with lowering and hauling systems. The stretcher has several drawbacks, including excess flexibility, which can cause the patient's head to tilt forward uncomfortably and poor protection of the patient due to the relatively thin construction material. This latter drawback would be improved by simultaneous use of the KED. The stretcher is, however, quite good to work with in mud as it slides easily over a smooth surface. To sum up one person's interpretation, "a good stretcher for the rescuers but not so good for the patient". It should be remembered, however, that such comments refer to the context of cave rescue the SKED may be very good in less demanding situations and would clearly be excellent in snow and where the patient did not have back, spinal or head injuries.
The Ferno-Washington basket litter. This is a plastic version of the more familiar Stokes litter which is constructed from tubular aluminium and chickenwire. The classic Stokes litter is very popular in Australia and is probably as widespread as the Neill-Robertson stretcher. It does have some disadvantages; in particular, the wire catches easily on any rock projection and of course in the bush. The plastic version manufactured by Ferno-Washington Inc eliminates this drawback. However, the Ferno-Washington has its own faults, including its large size in cave situations and the inability of even large screwgate karabiners to fit over the frame. It therefore becomes necessary to link karabiners to the stretcher with tape, thereby risking failure through abrasion damage to the tape. Ferno-Washington also manufacture a two-piece split version of the stretcher which may have special value in cave rescue. The stretcher breaks in two at its mid-point and can be transported in two separate halves. Thus it may be possible to unload the patient, split the stretcher to negotiate a tight passage and use the KED backboard until the cave passage widens sufficiently to reassemble the stretcher and continue the evacuation.
3.3 Rigging Systems
The range of ropes and associated hardware (karabiners, descenders, and so on) used in cave rescue in the US is almost exactly the same as that available through commercial outlets in Australia. There are, however, several manufacturers of specialist cliff rescue equipment in the US. For example, sophisticated edge rollers have been developed but the cost of importing these items into Australia is somewhat prohibitive.
American rescue teams appeared to use the same three friction lowering devices as are commonly used in Australia that is, Figure 8 descenders, the Whaletail descender and the rappel rack. The latter two devices cause less twisting of the rope but are not quite as simple to use as the Figure 8 descender.
At the NCRC seminar there was opportunity to see demonstrated, and to work with, various rope hauling systems. The two favoured systems were the Z rig which has a mechanical advantage of 3, and the Piggyback (the "Pig") which has an advantage of 4. These are illustrated in Figure 2. Throughout the study tour it was found that rescue teams preferred to use spring-loaded Gibbs ascenders for use as the haul cams and ratchet cams in preference to Jumar -ascenders. The Jumar (especially older models) is more likely to fail due to fracturing of the frame and for this reason it is generally avoided in hauling systems. Even for solo use, that is for one person walking up the rope jumars are safer if the frame is also backed up by small tape slings (see Setnika 1980, p226).
It is beyond the scope of this paper to review the provision for cave visitor safety and rescue throughout Australia.
However, some comment can be made on the Western Australian situation with regard to non-commercial caves. Most wild caves are located on land managed by the Department of Conservation and Land Management. This includes the most popular caving area of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge in the south west of the State, Yanchep National Park and Nambung National Park to the north of Perth, and Cape Range National Park in the north west of the State. However, there are also extensive cave systems on pastoral lands, for example the Nullarbor area and some on private properties or unmanaged crown lands.
In Western Australia the "responsible agent" as shown in Figure 1 is the Police Department. However, the police have no major capability in technical rescue and so there is heavy reliance upon volunteers in the State Emergency Service. There is no cave rescue group as such in Western Australia, although national park rangers and amateur speleologists do practice cave rescues from time to time.
There are clear indications of a major growth in outdoor adventure activities in Western Australia, especially in the activity known as "abseiling", which is increasingly popular in cave dolines and vertical solution pipes. There have been no fatalities to date but the frequency of accidents is increasing and it is inevitable that sooner or later a large cave rescue operation will occur. A major technical rescue from a cave in the remote Nullabor area would be extremely difficult due to its isolation and other logistical difficulties.
In conclusion, I consider it to incumbent upon all cave managing agencies in Australia to take a critical look at their own cave visitor safety programmes and at the resources available, both in equipment and manpower to deal with both straight forward evacuations and more complex search and rescue operations in caves under their control. From my observations in Western Australia and my limited knowledge of the situation in other States I suspect that reviews of this nature are long overdue in most cases.
Knutson, S., 1981. American caving accidents 1976 through 1979, National Speleological Society News May 1981 (Part 2, Volume 39, number 5)
Setnika, T.J., 1980. Wilderness Search and Rescue, Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston
Watson, J., 1984. 1984 National Cave Rescue Seminar, Aust, Ranger Bulletin, 3, (1), p33. (also in The Western Caver. 24,(2-4), 36-37, 1985)
Williams, T.L., 1981. Manual of cave rescue techniques, National Cave Rescue Commission of the National Speleological Society, Huntsville, Alabama