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Cave Rescue

Recent Rescues in Vermont

Each of these was relatively straightforward involving a fall and extraction of an injured person. The 2008 and 2016 recuses were accomplished relatively quickly with few complications. The 2013 rescue involved an unprepared person who had entered a cave without a helmet, rope, etc., and fallen a substantial distance, and that rescue took until the following day to complete.

VCA members practicing cave rescue techniques in a Vermont cave

What Cavers Should Know About Cave Rescue

Unlike front-country rescue, where EMS personnel can respond in a relatively short time, cave rescue is a long, difficult process. Even simple rescues (such as the one from Falls Cliff cave, where the patient was only 150ft from the entrance) are likely to take 6-8 hours or more.

The VCA strongly recommends that cavers take steps to prevent rescues by caving safely, bringing appropriate gear, and leaving information with someone not in the cave about where you are going and when you expect to return. Read our FAQ page for advice on gear, safe caving practices, and other helpful suggestions for safe caving.

What Emergency Agencies Should Know About Cave Rescue

Caving is considerably safer than driving, four-wheeling, snowmobiling, and so on. However, agencies more familiar with front-country rescue should treat all cave rescues, even those where you can drive to the entrance, as back-country situations. The logistics will be as complex as a search-and-rescue for a lost hiker, or injured snowmobiler somewhere off-trail. Similarly, a rescue from any Vermont cave is likely to be a many-hour event requiring multi-agency coordination. There will be a number of challenges that the emergency agencies must face.

Local emergency agencies are often unfamiliar with the cave, the cave environment, and cave rescue techniques. They usually rely on local cavers to help them with the rescue. The Vermont Cavers Association (VCA) recognizes that we may be called upon, and have taken several steps on our end to help you as best we can. Here are the main points:

1. The most important point that the emergency agencies need to realize when they ask for help from cavers is this: The VCA is NOT a cave rescue organization or cave rescue team. We are responding as individual bystanders who know the cave environment and want to help a fellow caver. A number of us have had cave rescue training and we will bring some specialized equipment to help with the rescue, but the emergency agencies are responsible for the rescue. We are not on call, and there is no promise that any of us will be reachable or available. But if we can, we will come to help you, and we operate under your jurisdiction and direction.

2. The VCA has several cavers who have access to the Vermont Cave Rescue Network (VCRN). This is a list of cavers and their capabilities that would be useful in a rescue situation. The information about capabilities lets us prioritize the callout to meet the need – for example, if the cave has vertical passages, we need cavers experienced in rappelling down and climbing up a rope. We have in the past provided this information to several agencies in the major cave area. The Vermont State Police – Rutland Barracks also has contact information for the VCRN, and we will gladly share it with other emergency agencies that have caves in their coverage areas.

3. Agencies must realize that once called, it will take us time to start arriving – at least an hour for most Vermont caves. We have a lot of equipment that we need to pull together and bring, and the cavers will be responding from all over New England and upstate New York.

4. We will bring a cache of specialized equipment that will likely be helpful. The cache includes military field phones and wire for communication, special patient assessment and packaging equipment, and a limited amount of passage modification equipment. We will supplement this cache with personal items. It is up to the agencies to decide what if any of the equipment is appropriate to use for the rescue.

5. When we arrive on scene, we will have one or more cavers remain in your Command Post to help you develop and implement the rescue plan. The cave rescue cache includes ICS Job Action Sheets written specifically for cave rescue that we will suggest you follow.

6. One of the first things we will do is to help you understand the cave environment. Most Vermont caves have a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees, and are wet. Vermont caves tend to have primarily small twisty passages. Walking in a Vermont cave is not as common as crawling. Cold wet mud and rock will quickly suck the heat out of a person. Hypothermia is ALWAYS a concern. Everyone who enters the cave MUST be properly dressed and prepared to protect themselves against hypothermia.

7. We will also help you to understand the concept of “Cave Time.” Cave time is a lot longer than surface time, and goes up considerably based on the activity. A caver may be able to travel 100 feet in a cave in ten minutes, or it could take half an hour or longer. It may take an hour or more to move a piece of equipment that same 100 feet. It could then take several hours to move a patient through that same passage. Cave time must always be considered during a rescue.

8. We will discuss with you who will be going into the cave and how to ensure that everything is done as safely as possible. The ideal situation is agency personnel with specialized training working together on a team with cavers who understand the cave environment.

9. EMS agencies need to realize that medical protocols that apply to surface rescue might not be practical in a cave. For example, mechanism of injury is often by itself enough to warrant spinal immobilization in the outside environment. However in a cave, immobilization can add hours to a rescue. We try to assess very carefully and immobilize as little as absolutely necessary. We will need to work closely with the EMS service to develop and implement medical treatment plans.

10. EMS agencies also need to realize that, unless they are willing to go into the cave themselves, medical assessment and treatment may need to be done by cavers with little or no medical training. Even if we have cavers with medical training, they have responded as bystanders and not part of an EMS system. Pain medication, one of the most useful treatment adjuncts in a cave rescue, may not be an option unless the agency can provide someone willing to go into the cave.

11. We will assist you as best we can in passage modification, but we prefer that this be directed by an agency leader with specialized technical rescue training. Widening and straightening cave passages is a slow and difficult procedure. Moving one rock can create a shifting of other rocks, blocking the passage or trapping the rescuers. We may need to wait for the more experienced “diggers” to perform this, or we may suggest alternate immobilization techniques to allow the patient to move around corners without passage modification.

12. We will assist you as best we can with technical rope rescue. Most cave rescues will involve some degree of rope work and haul systems. Some of the cavers have had training in setting up haul systems, but again our preference is to work under the direction of an emergency agency leader with specialized technical rescue training.

The National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) has developed a one-weekend Orientation to Cave Rescue training course that is designed to bring agencies and cavers together for an overview of what is needed for cave rescue. The course is taught by nationally certified instructors. The VCA would be happy to bring this course to any agency wanting to learn more about cave rescue.