Living On The Edge

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Standing on a cliff 200 feet above the East Verde River, Pine-Strawberry Fire Captain Harris Scott directs his crew to set up its rescue equipment 20 feet from the edge.

"I'm afraid of heights," Scott admits, "but you have to play with your fear."

Testing the limits of his courage, Scott has climbed the ranks at the rural fire department from volunteer to captain, and over the years, he has learned to conquer his fear through trust.

"After a while you trust your knowledge," he says.

Now he's in charge of training the department's special operations teams. Today he is training the rope rescue team.

"What bothers me is the responsibility for other people," says the 20-year department veteran. "They expect me to bring them up alive. Sometimes that gets pretty heavy.

"Make sure we all have ID," he calls out to the crew members as they check their harnesses and prepare to descend. "If we fall, they can identify the bodies."

It takes at least five technically trained people to pull off a safe rope rescue, and Scott wants everyone to understand the seriousness of the task at hand.

"In theory, it should take us about five minutes to set up and get to a victim," he says, double-checking the work of his five-person crew. "But rescuer safety comes first. I don't believe in heroics. It's calculated risks."

Ironically, rescue work is hurry up and wait, he says. "It's like flying hours of pure boredom interrupted by moments of shear panic," he says.

For the rescuers, the panic comes in a rush as they leap from the edge.

Trainee Ken Slayman has only taken that leap of faith three times. Chosen as the lead the medic who must get down to the victim and report his injuries Slayman anchors his ropes to a juniper tree.

Determination sets in as he readies his harness and checks each caribiner (the rings that attach ropes and harnesses). He is over the edge and on the ground in a matter of seconds. As he goes down, a three-man crew readies a second rope system.

Wearing a body harness and attached to a basket to retrieve the victim, Kevin Figueroa is lowered over the rock wall by two men working a maze of ropes and pulleys.

With a 46-to-one safety margin and a backup rope, Figueroa, a seasoned veteran, still has to take a deep breath.

"The scariest part is going over the cliff," he says.

Just 15 feet down, he and the basket disappear under a ledge. Once down, Figueroa and Slayman set about the task of loading their imaginary victim into the basket. At the other end of the rope, Mike Roggenstein and Mark Boys will lift about 400-pounds, the weight of the two men, 60-feet to the top while Donna Bayo works the backup rope.

If this were a real rescue that involved an injured adult, the team on top would have to lift about 600 pounds, the weight of two rescuers and one victim.

"If we pull (the rope) six feet, they only move up one foot," Scott explains. Boys and Roggenstein decide the load is too heavy and rearrange the system, making it easier for the two to pull their fellow rescuers and the basket to the top in a little less than 10 minutes.

Since 1988, the rope team has worked on about 15 rope rescues. A self-described adrenaline junkie, Scott enjoys his job.

"Going on a call is hard," he says. "You get to apply your craft, but it's someone's serious problem."

A group of high school students who hiked too far into a canyon to hike safely back out provided Scott with one of his most satisfying rescues.

"That was absolutely great," he says. "No injuries just hungry and cold boys. They just needed help out."

Rescue calls generally start to roll in around Memorial Day weekend and they continue throughout the summer, Scott says. The rope team went on three calls in the summer of 1998, and Scott calls that a fair season.

Campers get stranded more often than residents, Scott says, but residents drive off cliffs more often than campers do. Fewer drivers have driven off local highways, however, since the Arizona Department of Transportation installed more guardrails, he says.

In addition to traditional rescues, rope teams stabilize vehicles that wind up in precarious positions after accidents and help save victims during swift-water rescues, he says.

As for today's training, it went well, Scott says. The team safely completed several repelling missions, set up systems for raising and lowering victims and their rescuers and strung a diagonal highline, a line that went from the top of the cliff to a tree on the canyon bottom.

"We met our objective," he says, and in rope rescue circles, that's a good day's work.

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