Calling out cave rescue

Notes

This information relates to UK only - and in fact, mainly to South Wales.

This article is not intended to be insulting or derogatory to any emergency service in any way. The information it contains is simply what has been in our experience the most efficient way to handle a cave rescue situation, without involving unnecessary rescue organisations.

Calling out cave rescue

All cavers know it might happen some day, you just might have to call out cave rescue. But who do you call? Should you use a mobile phone? Should you call the local Cave Rescue Organisation (CRO/CRT)? What's their number anyway? Should you dial 999? Who should you ask for?

Unfortunately, the answer is not at all obvious, but that's why I wrote this page, so you would know what to do.

Looking after the casualty

If you are serious about taking up caving, I suggest you attend at least one first aid course. They are most likely to concentrate on minor injuries, or CPR. Chances are that an underground injury will be a serious one, like a broken arm or leg, or occasionally a lot worse, so ask questions, and try your best to remember the first aid practices for the more serious injuries. Remember, of course, that most cavers do not cave with triangular bandages, and often, there is nothing to use as a splint (and would you want to use one anyway?!). If you intend to do vertical caving, you should take a course in self rescue techniques, or read a book on the subject.

It is also the responsibility of every caver to try to remember the way out. Try never to rely on your 'leader' to remember the way; what happens if it is the leader who has the accident?

The recommended caving party size is four people, not too many to slow you down, but enough to cope with an injury. Once you have done your best to get the casualty comfortable and as safe as possible, it's time to call the rescue. One person should stay with the casualty, and two should go out (for larger parties, have two team members wait with the casualty, the other team members can make their way out at a steady speed, unless you want to leave extra team members with the casualty so that they can work shifts or leave later to give an update on the casualty's condition). The two who go out should first make note of the casualties injuries, and where the casualty is. The casualty should be kept off the floor when possible (a dry sand bank is perfect), and should be covered with an insulating bag or space blanket. The cold is their biggest threat. For more serious injuries, you may have to leave them where they are, but you still need to keep them warm if at all possible.

The reason for sending two people out is that a two man team is very fast, and the two can help each other with remembering the route out. Often, one person on their own will be very slow at finding the way, because even though they know it, they are worried they will get it wrong. Although the second person is not necessary, they can reassure the first that they have got it right (even if the second person does not have a clue, their reassurance makes a substantial difference).

Who to call and how

Now we get to the difficult bit. If you get this part wrong, you can introduce substantial delays in the rescue process. Whoever you call will want to take over the situation, often without the knowledge to do the job correctly.

If you are near the caving club headquarters for the club that manages the cave, you may want to try there first. This is the case for caves like Ogof Ffynnon Ddu and Dan-Yr-Ogof in the Tawe valley (South Wales), where the South Wales Caving Club HQ is situated at Penwyllt, just above the central portion of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu. If the HQ is too far away, closed, or there is none, you will need to call the emergency services for help.

You should only dial 999 or 112 if you do not know the number for the local manned police station. With mobile phones, they put you through to the emergency room operated by the mobile phone company, and frequently, these are not even located in the same country as you. The operators there do not (in our experience) have any knowledge of cave rescue, or even that there is such a thing as cave rescue, and they would have no idea of what rescue team to pass you on to. Often, this ends up as the fire service, who would prove little help in a cave rescue situation. Even if they do pass you to the correct service, it is unlikely to be a local one, so they will not be of much help to you.

If you do have to dial 999 or 112 (because you didn't check the number for the local manned police station ...), never ask for the fire service, ambulance, coastguard or mountain rescue. These organisations are not prepared to deal with cave rescues, but have been known to try to take over the handling of the situation. This means that when they finally call the cave rescue team because they realise they are out of their depth, they will try to manage the rescuers when they do not have the knowledge to do so, which ends up with them getting in the way of the rescuers. We have even had reports of them trying to stop rescuers from helping if they do not have any qualifications to do so - cave rescue is a voluntary service provided by experienced cavers who have no need for a qualification that says 'I have been on a weekend course, so now I am a "good caver"' - and demanding that all cave rescuers hand over their car keys before going underground.

In all situations, don't dial 999 or 112 unless you absolutely have to. You should always call the number for the local manned police station (for most caving areas, this is written in the caving guide book for the area) and ask them to arrange the cave rescue. Make it clear that you want cave rescue, not mountain rescue, as they often mistake these for each other. If you do need to dial 999 or 112, ask for the police service, then ask to be put through to a local police service. They are likely to know who to contact in the cave rescue team, and what other services to contact (such as the ambulance). Give them as many details as you can; what is the name of the cave, where is it, where in the cave is the casualty, what are their injuries. If at all possible, try to meet the rescue team at the cave itself, as the police do not always pass on as many details as the rescue team would like.

What can you do now?

Nothing. You will probably not be allowed to go into the cave to help, as you may be suffering from shock, even though you are unaware of it. You will also be more tired that you realise, as your adrenaline levels will have been elevated while you were making your way out. You will probably be offered some form of food, enjoy it, you won't get that sort of treatment too often. Let the cave rescuers do their job, they are trained for it.