The Height Rescue Unit of the Fire Brigade in Frankfurt
“Weather conditions such as extreme rainfall, heat, cold or thunderstorms make rescue from a height even more demanding than overcoming the sheer height itself.”
Thorsten Traeger (Head of Height Rescue Frankfurt)
The Frankfurt environment changed drastically during the reconstruction after World War II. High-rise buildings and construction sites, industrial plants, crane systems and tall light towers required rescue operations in the event of damage. This could no longer be carried out using conventional techniques, as they would provide too great a risk for firefighters.
Therefore, the fire brigade in Frankfurt was the first fire department in the old federal states of the Federal Republic of Germany to set up a rescue group in 1993 specialising in rescue tasks for heights of up to 300 meters. This did not just encompass rescuing from tall structures, as his name suggests, but also from under the ground. It is no coincidence that experts refer to such special rescue groups in Germany as “Special Rescue from Above and Below” (SRHT). For example, SRHT operations also take place in excavation pits or lift shafts. The Frankfurt height rescue unit is locally known as HÖRG (“height rescue group”).
Typical scenarios where the height rescue unit are called for include: rescuing people from window cleaning structures, rescuing construction crane operators or rescuing suicidal people from high-altitude technical facilities. The height rescue group also carry out securing work or the removal of endangered components from facades or buildings. When the weather changes from cold to hot (or vice versa), windows can break and falling facade parts can be a real danger. Training sessions for the height rescue unit take place throughout the year, but due to the weather in the winter months, training can take place in halls or covered areas. Therefore, the height rescuers in spring are increasingly brought to habituation exercises on skyscrapers so they can leave their “winter mode”.
Working at height requires special courage and a high degree of cautiousness. In addition to normal training for the fire brigade, however, it is essential to have special and continuous training to ensure the personal safety of the worker in action.
The Frankfurt Fire Department employs 45 men in the height rescue group, who work in 3 service groups. This makes it so that there are always 5 height rescuers ready to be dispatched day and night. At the moment, however, the height rescue in Frankfurt is a purely male domain. It was not always like that: “There was also once a woman in our team and we are generally open-minded in this regard,” assures the head of the height rescue unit. In general, height rescuers have to constantly train and therefore have to complete a mandatory program of 72 practice lessons per year. Here, the personal routine can be maintained or increased. As a fire fighter, you can become a height rescuer after attending a 2-week training.
Of course, the training of height rescuers takes place on high buildings in the Frankfurt city area, for example, on the skyscrapers of Commerzbank or DZ-Bank. However, the height rescuers also train on flatter buildings and structures. The Frankfurt Fire Department is especially proud of its relatively unique training centre on the Marbachweg, which is second to none in Europe. This building complex, called FRTC, is where the Frankfurt fire brigade train for emergency situations. Here, whole buildings are modelled: there is a fire hall and even a subway simulator with real train wagons. (further details on the FRTC on the website of the Frankfurt Fire Department, in German)
The need for a height rescue group becomes clear when one considers its frequency of use. On average, the height rescue in Frankfurt is called to about 80 operations per year, which amounts to more than one call a week.
In the meantime, fire brigades have begun to rethink the meaning of the height rescue group. After various external rescuing operations in which support was requested, for example, by Bochum, Dillenburg or Wetteraukreis, numerous cities and towns have followed the Frankfurt example. There are now almost 100 height rescue groups in Germany.