Dog rescued from cliff thanks to Decorah firefighter's training

Dog jumped out of truck during family vacation trip

Sarah Strandberg
Published: August 24 2012 | 11:05 am - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 11:27 pm in
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A lucky pooch was able to return home with her owners after Decorah firefighters used new equipment and techniques to pluck her from a ledge on theálimestone bluffs in Palisades Park.

Trinity and Caitlynn Poland of Clarksville were driving through Palisades Aug. 15 with their children, Gavyn, 4, and Morgan, 2, when their terrier/German shorthair Hailey jumped out of the truck window and started running. The four-year-old canine likes to chase birds, and the Polands speculated that's what she was doing when she raced toward the edge of the cliff.

"It looked like she was going for something on a branch. All I saw was her tail go over, and I thought she was a goner," said Trinity, who has been vacationing in Decorah since he was a child.

Standing on the edge of the precipice, Trinity said he couldn't see his dog, but could hear her whimpering. He started to climb down the overlook to get to her but realized it was too dangerous. Hailey was on a small outcrop of limestone 20 feet below him, and from there it was about another 100 feet to the ground.

"It looked like it was straight down. I don't know how she made it there," he said.

Trinity guessed a tree branch might have slowed Hailey's fall.

"My wife was bawling. She was a nervous wreck when I tried to go down," he said.

Lee Bjerke, a longtime volunteer with the department, said when he approached the family, he was greeted by Gavyn, who asked, "Are you going to save my puppy?"

"We're going to try," Bjerke responded, realizing the pressure was on to save the family pet.

Firefighters do respond to the occasional cat-stuck-in-tree rescue, but Chief Mike Ashbacher said this was different.

"It was pretty obvious. Cats in a tree will eventually come down. That dog wasn't going anywhere," he said.

"We don't like to see anybody distressed ... pets are part of the family, and we try and treat it that way," he added.

It proved to be a good test for new equipment and training implemented over the past couple of years.

In May of 2010, Bjerke and Kurtis Johnson, another member of the department, attended "high angle" rope rescue training in St. Louis, Missouri provided by CMC Rescue.

Because of the popularity of mountain biking and the new Trout Run Trail, and the bluffs above the Upper Iowa River, Johnson said the department realized there are potential risks that could present challenges for rescuers.

"We're always going to find a way to do (a rescue), but this was safer," Johnson said of the specialized training and equipment.

They learned how to use a multi-purpose device (MPD), a high-efficiency pulley, with an integral rope-grab mechanism, which means it can be used as a lowering device and quickly changed over to a raising system without switching out or replacing hardware.

Funds raised through the department's annual benefit dance and community donations paid for the new equipment, which cost more than $11,000 and includes an anchor, harnesses, ropes, carabiners and other hardware. The department has enough to equip several firefighters for a steep rescue.

Johnson was lowered using the MPD to get the dog, as another firefighter, Kyle Kohls, repelled down next to him. It was all recorded by a camera mounted on Johnson's helmet and has been posted on YouTube.

While the department had trained using the equipment in another location at Palisades before, it had only been used in actual response to "low-angle" situations, such as a steep ditch in slippery winter conditions.

Tied into the raising and lowering system, Johnson had no control over the speed of his decent. Repelling, Kohls could climb up or repel down on his own. Not knowing exactly what they would face, the firefighters decided it would be best to have both options.

"Going over was the easy part. The hard part is all the guys up above, running the system," Johnson said.

At their "mercy," Johnson said he trusted those controlling his movements "100 percent," and because of his training, felt completely comfortable hanging more than 100 feet above the ground.

About 10 firefighters were involved in operating the rope system, which was anchored by an oak tree.

"The rigging crew did a real good job. You definitely have to trust them when you're hanging off a rope system they put together," Kohls said.

One of Johnson's first concerns in the rescue was the sharp limestone rock. Through the course he completed with CMC Rescue, he knew the sharp edges could easily fray a taut rope.

"We had to keep edge protection (old fire hose) in place. It wouldn't take much moving across the rock to cut the rope," he explained. He can be heard on the YouTube video saying the rocks were like "razors."

Ashbacher was in charge of guiding Johnson's movements, based on what Johnson told him.

As he got closer to the dog, Johnson said he worried she would jump or slip through his hands.

"I wanted that dog back up on top," he said.

Although the department had a pet carrier for the dog, Johnson quickly surmised there wasn't enough room on the ledge to put her into it safely.

"She was trying to stay on the ledge, pushing back toward the wall," Johnson said.

Kohls said he could see the dog's back legs shaking.

Johnson used a calm, soothing voice to reassure the animal. It would be what you'd want to hear if you were staring down a 100-foot fall to your death.

He reached out and hooked a leash to the dog's collar, which was clipped to his harness.

"She wasn't afraid of me. I think she was happy to get off that wall. We went up to the top and I handed her off," Johnson said.

The Polands stopped by the fire station two days later to meet with their dog's rescuers before returning home.

"They are really brave. I couldn't have done it - I'm scared of heights," Caitlynn said.

The Polands watched the video of the rescue and learned it had been posted to YouTube.

"You're puppy is famous," Trinity told his children.

The young father was surprised to learn the firefighters are volunteers.

"I assumed they were full-time employees. It looked like they've done this a lot," Trinity said.

He said it would have been a sad end to their vacation to go home without their dog.

"I can't see how she survived. It's like a miracle," he said.

During debriefing after the rescue, Ashbacher said his department reviewed what could be done to become even more efficient in such a situation and identified additional equipment that might be helpful.

He also said they would return to the scene and conduct additional training.

Kohls said the rescue was a confidence booster for the department.

"It definitely wasn't the first time (using the rope equipment), but we've never had to rescue any living thing ... it's what we practice for," he said.

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