Thursday, June 12th, 2008 | Issue 24, Volume 12
FALLBROOK — On Wednesday, June 4, North County Fire Protection District, Pala Fire and Bishop’s Tree Service conducted a training exercise for emergency workers to gain more expertise in rescuing tree trimmers in incidents involving palm trees.
On-site while the training took place was Rich Magargal, a 45-year veteran certified tree worker who has decades of experience trimming palm trees.
Magargal, the author of an article entitled "Beware the Hidden Dangers of Palms," says there is a distinct danger that a tree trimmer can be suffocated beneath a skirt of dead fronds when trimming the two palm species commonly found in California, the Mexican fan palm and the California fan palm. It is not unusual in some areas to have palms that are 100 years old.
Within the past year, a tree worker in Fallbrook with 15 years of experience suffocated beneath a 10- to 12-foot skirt of dead fronds while trimming a palm. It was reported that emergency workers spent 40 minutes trying to rescue the worker.
"Suffocation accidents are the result of fronds sliding down, or ‘sloughing,’ onto the climber," Magargal said. "There is absolutely nothing he or she can do to remove them because their entire body is forced down and against the palm trunk with hundreds of pounds of pressure. The force of the fronds is primarily on the head of the climber, forcing the chin into the chest. This is how suffocation occurs."
Magargal quoted John Ball, a professor at South Dakota State University: In his article, Magargal said the safest way to trim palms trees is with the use of aerial equipment, rather than the trimmer climbing the tree, and for residents to employ the service of a professional tree service that uses trained, experienced personnel.
Encinitas-based Bishop’s Tree Service Inc., who took a proactive role in this exercise, has served San Diego County since 1978. Their motto is "Safety first!"
Brian Bishop positions himself under the dead branches of a palm tree for the purposes of the safety drill. North County Fire and Pala firefighters learned how to rescue a tree trimmer trapped under the weight of dead palm branches. - Paul Gallaher photo
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North County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Abbott (right) listens as Brian Bishop, owner of Bishop’s Tree Service, explains his plan for a rescue drill Wednesday, June 4, on Mission Road. Bishop is a certified arborist and president of the Professional Tree Care Association. - Paul Gallaher photo
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Bishop climbs a palm tree to position himself to be “rescued” during the safety drill. - Paul Gallaher photo
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FALLBROOK -- Firefighters and tree trimmers simulated two palm tree rescues Wednesday morning during a drill off East Mission Road, using a fire engine with a ladder and shooting footage for a training video.
Officials said a tragedy involving 28-year-old tree trimmer Jorge Garcia last fall prompted the North County Fire Protection District to improve its training for a potentially fatal situation in which an arborist gets stuck below a pile of palm fronds called a "slough."
"Usually the guy stays alive for an hour," said Brian Bishop, who owns Bishop's Tree Service and volunteered to simulate a tree trimmer stuck 30 feet in the air. "It's not that he's crushed, it's just he can't move and slowly suffocates."
For rescuers, the trick is to extricate the victim quickly while ensuring their own safety.
"These things can weigh 500 to 1,000 pounds and can kill a rescuer just as easily as it can kill the person who's trapped," said John McKnight, a North County Fire engineer who helped film the training video.
Bishop estimated that about 100 tree trimmers have died throughout Southern California in the last five years while trapped beneath dislodged palm fronds.
It's a relatively rare occurrence, but one that's preventable, because the victims usually survive the impact of fronds sliding down on top of them.
Experts said rescues are relatively rare because firefighters haven't been trained to perform them, and that most trimmers who have survived a slough were able to extricate themselves without assistance.
"Usually what happens is the fire department is called out, and they get there and find a guy trapped under the palm fronds, and they can't figure out how to get him down," said Bishop.
Richard Magargal, a Borrego Springs arborist who helped stage Wednesday's drill, said that he was once trapped in a slough.
"It's terrifying, of course," Magargal recalled. "You can't breathe, and you have just minutes" to get out.
He said California and Arizona are where most of the nation's palm trees grow tall enough for the sloughs to be fatal.
In Garcia's case, which happened on Sleeping Indian Road near Verde Avenue in November, the trimmer was 35 feet in the air, strapped "lumberjack style" to the trunk of a palm tree when the tree sloughed and buried him with the dry, heavy fronds.
He was pronounced dead at the scene, although it was uncertain at what point he died. It took firefighters several hours to figure out how to get him down.
On Wednesday, officials said they aim to figure out how to rescue a tree trimmer before he suffocates.
North County Fire Division Chief Steve Abbott said extricating someone from a palm tree slough is one of the most dangerous and complicated rescues that firefighters must perform, because the trees are often out of reach of ladder engines.
"It might be a situation where the tree is in the backyard, and we can't get a ladder truck to it," Abbott said. "There's a lot of things that can go wrong -- a lot of hazards to the firefighter. If you pull the fronds away at the wrong spot, they could pull them down on the victim … and make the situation worse."
In addition, if enough palm fronds land on an engine's ladder, it could collapse because it's not built to support more than a few people, he said.
During the simulation, Bishop said the proper way to perform a palm tree rescue is to pull away the dead fronds directly above the trapped victim, until the person is free and can either climb down or be pulled onto a ladder.
Abbott said he hoped the district's training video will spread awareness. Once completed, it may be distributed nationally as a primer for fire departments, he said.
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