Hong Kong firefighters improve rescue techniques as number of suicidal jumpers rises

Teams reveal negotiating skills more important than technical climbing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 11:00pm

Hong Kong’s firefighters have improved upon their techniques in rescuing suicidal jumpers as the city’s skyscrapers get ever taller.

Local firefighting personnel said they must cope with an extra level of stress in trying to retrieve people at extreme heights.

To coax suicidal individuals back indoors, firefighters often have to descend on rope from rooftops, tie the rope around the rescue subject, and carry the person into a nearby flat through a window.

Senior station officer Lee Wai-ming said more suicide attempts were occurring at a height of over 20 floors compared with the 1980s, making rescue work more difficult.

“When you’re hanging from rope outside the 20th floor, the pressure is different from what you feel when you’re on the second floor,” Lee said.

Rescuers must also contend with strong winds when working from heights, he added.

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Responding to the new challenges, the Fire Services Department has been enhancing its equipment and strategies for high-angle rescues.

In the 1980s, Lee recalled, local firefighters would descend with a single rope tied to their waist, as at least five colleagues held onto the other end of the rope from the rooftop.

These days, firefighters are equipped with auto-locking descending equipment, which prevents them from falling even if their rope is let go.

“Now we don’t need so many people,” said principal fireman Chiu Wing-cheung, a 20-year veteran of such rescue work. “And we feel much more confident than before.”

Lee noted that the team in recent years had devoted more attention to handling negotiations in their rescue efforts, while physical intervention had become ‘Plan B’.

We feel much more confident than before
Chiu Wing-cheung, principal fireman

He said all rescuers had undergone negotiations training, and experts were being deployed to rescue scenes.

Firefighters successfully stopped 821 people from jumping from a height in the five years from 2012 through 2016.

Aside from suicide jumps, the city’s rising skyline has been the scene of an increasing number of other high-angle incidents, firefighters said.

In 2011, the high-angle rescue team was established to carry out such work.

Choi Kwok-chung, assistant commandant for technical rescue at the Fire and Ambulance Services Academy, said the specially-trained team could conduct rescues from wharf cranes, Ngong Ping 360 cable cars, and tall rides at amusement parks.

“Good techniques and frequent training are most important for this job,” Choi said. “Rescuers should be able to assess different scenarios and avoid exposing themselves to risk.”