Author(s): Cate Weeks. Published on May 2, 2014.

A RESCUE FROM THE HIGH ROLLER would be unlike any that Scott Province, captain of the Las Vegas Fire & Rescue’s heavy rescue team, has ever encountered.

Most of his team’s more than 1,400 calls each year are for vehicle rollovers and extractions. About half a dozen times a year, the team is called in for technical rescues—helping people stuck in an elevator or an injured construction worker in a trench. When plans for the 550-foot-tall (168-meter) High Roller observation wheel were announced, Province knew there were no standard procedures to follow or training courses to sign up for. But the observation wheel’s builders brought him in early during the design process to help them develop a rescue plan.

“I think we probably got 90 percent of what we needed figured out just by looking at the drawings together,” Province says. “But I wouldn’t have wanted to learn that other 10 percent the day we needed to do a rescue.”

Rescue personnel figured out those last critical steps during six on-site drills before the High Roller opened on March 31. Rescuers began on the rooftop maintenance level of the High Roller’s outdoor boarding platform, followed by a seven-minute climb to the wheel’s center hub on a series of ladders and landings inside its support legs. Most of their equipment, which is stored in a locked cage on site, was hauled up with a davit crane that normally transports oil to the hub. After a practice drill, fire officials discovered the crane would take about 20 minutes to lower and raise again, so Caesars Entertainment, which developed the wheel and its accompanying open-air pedestrian mall, also installed a more powerful engine to cut that part of the process in half.

For a normal rescue, such as plucking window washers off the side of a building, Province’s team stays on a single system, setting up a main and belay line on a roof; the rescuer descends, sets up a pick-off harness, then descends all the way to ground along with the person. A wheel rescue, by comparison, requires transitions among three different systems. The first is on a custom-designed dual-pulley trolley. From the hub of the High Roller, rescuers select one of the wheel’s three-and-a-quarter-inch-wide cables on a slight downslope and trolley out toward the rim. “We thought we could get on the rim straight from the trolley,” Province says.

During the initial training session, however, a team member tried to make that transition, but the cable’s turnbuckle proved impossible to cross safely. After three hours, Province says, “we realized that was a bad plan—a very bad plan.”

Team members now trolley out and set up a second system to rappel straight down until they cross to the outer edge of the rim. From there, they swing around to hook onto the rim. “It’s a weird feeling,” Province says of rappelling from the trolley to the rim. “It’s completely different when you don’t have a building to touch. You’re dangling there for a while, and the wind can catch you and spin you around. Once one guy transitions to the rim, he waits for the next guy so there will be a second set of eyes making sure you hook in right. There’s no room for error.”

Rescuers then must climb along the ladders on the rim in another highly unusual position—inverted—and complete another transition from the rim to the roof of the cabin to access the rescue hatch. Stored inside each cabin is another special request from fire officials that Caesar accommodated: a collapsible ladder to help rescuers drop into the cabins.

Once three rescuers are inside, they open the cabin’s doors—a purposefully tricky process to dissuade potential base jumpers—and throw down parachute rope to haul up the equipment needed to lower passengers on the third rope system. Cabins are equipped with rope anchor points above and below each door. Along with the usual harnesses, Caesars purchased an infant basket and “screamer suits,” essentially large slings that passengers sit in to avoid the delay of putting on a full body harness. To speed the process, rescuers can piggyback up to three people, spaced 10 feet apart, on one line.

Province says NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, is an important tool for his team. “Nothing about these rescues is routine, and we have to be able to change our approach and improvise if necessary,” he says. “The details of the standard help us do that. When you follow NFPA guidelines, you know they go above and beyond with just about everything, which is exactly what we need to make sure we’re as safe as possible while conducting this kind of rescue.”

After each training session, the Las Vegas, Henderson, and Clark County crews met for debriefs and to share the lessons learned. “By the end, I was 100 percent confident we had it nailed,” Province says. “The interesting thing about this is I think it made us more stable as a team. We train continually, of course, but the High Roller was different. There were no established procedures to drill on. We had to develop strategies, test them, improvise, and adjust. Everybody, and I mean everybody, on the team got better as a result.”