Tree Climbing & Aerial Rescue Training & Assessment  - Adapting To Coronavirus & Two Rope Working

Tree climbing training and assessments have gone through various evolutions over the years. This varies from the incorporation of pole rescue to changes in climbing equipment technology. These can often be seen as following the changes in current emphasis or paradigm.


  • Three strand nylon to braided ropes, reduced stretch & diameter
  • Adapted equipment developed to arb specific LOLER
  • Compulsory pole rescue
  • Mechanical friction devices
  • CE & European Norm Conformity
  • Component compatibility
  • SRT, and various sub evolutions


All of the above changes mean the standard five-day tree climbing course is already bursting at the seams, especially for novice students. More radical change with a move to compulsory two rope working has also impacted climbing training and assessment. Whatever the eventual subtleties of the Arboricultural Associations Technical Guides due out imminently, it’s difficult to see how in a training or assessment context a move back to relying on a single point of attachment could be justified. So we see these changes as being permanent.


Training Tree Climbing & Aerial Rescue

Various solutions have been heard in response to the above challenge of packing more content into the same short timeframe. They mainly involve either increasing the course duration, splitting up parts of the content, over the years they have cropped up in somewhat similar guises.


  • Increase course duration
  • Reduce content – remove pole climbing & rescue
  • Re-position pole skills to rigging
  • Remove rescue entirely and focus on climbing skills only


The Coronavirus pandemic and the likely continuation of social distancing measures has made conventional aerial rescue practices untenable in training or assessment context – and in searching for a possible solution we looked at the use of a manikin to replace the previous universal use of other trainees as ‘casualties’. Manikins have been around for a long time & utilised in other rescue disciplines and it’s surprising that the arboricultural industry has not adopted these resources earlier.


A wide range of options was reviewed, and with advice from Ian at Sussex Trauma (a former firefighter), we decided to invest in a 50kg Ruth Lee Work at Height Manikin. This is an adequately specified product specifically designed for work at height. There were cheaper brands and more substantial options from Ruth Lee. Still, we thought a robust specialist product with a realistic but not ridiculously heavyweight would be the right balance of rescue challenge for a range of students, considering the lack of help or cooperation typically seen in previous rescue practices. Besides this, manikin is designed to be suspended and has weight distributed correctly in the legs, torso, arms and head.


After running a couple of basic tree climbing & rescue courses with this method of rescue we can report on the generally positive impacts:


  • One to one training/assessment is made easy.
  • Social distancing maintained
  • Safety increased – no hanging around, safer on pole, can abandon at no risk 
  • Efficiency increased – no waiting around for casualty students
  • No hand holding – all trainees need to fully understand what’s going on
  • Increase in associated skill development
  • Skills developed in context of worst case scenario – un cooperative unconscious casualty
  • First rescue can be done on day one
  • Belays seen from day one and more familiarity with them and hauling systems


There are a few minor downsides, however. For example, the manual handling implications of moving this deadweight to and from the site and then around the different trees in use. When this is in place, the hauling systems make light work of getting it into position up in the tree. We plan to set up a sack barrow for this movement and make lifts onto vehicles for two people.


Another criticism of the manikin is how to position it on a pole to force the student or candidate to ’pass’ the legs by changing over, or indeed that they are not wearing spikes. This is an interesting point as it shows how we are at risk of missing the bigger picture by being stuck in our rigid rescue boxes rather than building skill and confidence in rescue problem-solving. In a real pole rescue is it guaranteed that a casualty would be positioned conveniently spiked in? Could a casualty be hanging on a blank pole section without spikes?


While attempting to isolate students with their own kit in separate trees, they to some extent touch the same manikin. We produced a set of 4 belay kits including industrial belay devices, pulleys and connectors and base anchors, all reasonably expensive but it was not realistic to invest in 4 manikins.


City & Guilds Assessment Impacts

We trialled two approaches in assessment in the light of the above two rope working and COVID challenges, to give each candidate every opportunity to demonstrate their skills within the allocated assessment window. 


The first was to drop down to two candidates per day which is half the expected number. By allowing this extra time, the assessor was able to set up the manikin for the rescues. On paper, this might be viewed as half the work, but it’s not as simple and the time is influenced by many factors, not least the climber skill level. Even avoiding having to pack up and travel to a separate site for pole rescue can save an hour. Both changes had apparent impacts on the assessment costs.


The second approach was to have a technician deploy the rescue manikin to allow the assessor a distraction free day.


A constant challenge of our tree work training is deciding how much information to deliver to each student to not only help prepare them for assessment but also set them up with safe foundation skills. With so many ways to construct a belay, we decided to keep this as simple as possible by providing a snake anchor, karabiner and industrial belay device for use in creating a belay for either rescue or to create an anchor point for the manikin to be hauled into place. 


It could be argued that a knot and prusik based system should be the default as it is unlikely many tree firms have the kit we are using. Ideally, we would teach this on top of the above version, but for training and assessment purposes, we are attempting to deliver meaningful information over a short time period.  These industrial devices are also safer and more user friendly than a munter/prussic combination.


On the plus side students will see a basic hauling system over the entire course.


In conclusion, the City & Guilds assessment needs a rewrite to keep correctly updated with the changes in the two rope working and social distancing. For example, if students have been working on two systems, their necessary rescues need to involve simplifying the potential four climbing systems, and the historically more complex rescues are more comfortable with the apparent donation of one rescuer's system to the casualty.


Despite our best efforts to remove rescue types from the boxes or labels that are in common usage, they can be a handy way to navigate through the options.


  • Type A - Casualty incapacitated, unable to operate own system(s) which is intact.


  • Type B - Casualties rope systems damaged – how likely is this scenario now with 2 ropes?


  • Pole rescue C - 2 person team, casualty on a pole specified as conscious, rope system condition not specified 


  • Pole rescue belay 3 person team


Importantly, are we missing any more likely scenarios in our tree-climbing rescue training? It could be argued that skills for self-rescue and first aid in the tree are more practical. 


Building hauling systems or isolating a casualty in the case of neck/spinal injury is another development point for our somewhat limited menu of rescue options. Another point here is that should we rethink practices such as connecting a casualty to our system at all when that could be a limiting choice should things go wrong on the descent.


Remember we’ve not even covered Stationary Rope technique rescues...



Moving Rope systems  - Rescue summary & comparison


Rescue type & Casualty position  Casualty condition  Rope condition Team size 1 rope system solution 2 rope systems CONVID-19 & manikin impact 
Rescue A

Suspended in open canopy min 5m from ground up to 3m from stem. 


Not specified 
2 min
Reach casualty

Direct attachment

Rescue operates both systems to descend

Potential for a lot of confusion with 4 systems in play.

Realistically need to simplify to 2 systems between 2 following direct attachment.

Could choose sub-optimal systems or lock up all systems in a birds nest of rope in absence of ground crew support

Rescuer must operate both systems as no help available from manikin casualty.

Rescuer must know all aspects as casualty can’t support verbally. 

Hauling system may create confusion at casualty tie in point.

Rescue B

Suspended in open canopy min 5 m from ground up to 3mfrom stem


Not specified
2 min
Reach casualty

Direct attachment

Rescuer uses extra prusik from spliced side to give support to casualty. Simulates disconnection of casualties damaged system. Very difficult to release casualty from the system.

Use of prusik on own system is not the best option now, simply donate one of the 2 systems to casualty and descend operating both as required. Bonus here is that rescuer can abandon casualty in worst-case scenario. Ground crew can ‘simulate’ removal of casualties system by operating ground belay system as rescuer disconnects or cuts the casualties rope.
Rescue C

Casualty on pole min of 5m not within 1 of top




Not specified 
2 min
Reach casualty

Direct attachment

Operate casualties system to descend or set up alternative system and use that or use extra prusik from spliced side to give support to casualty. 

Risk of spike damage to casualty.

Casualty waiting & uncomfortable.

Lack of clarity on rope/lanyard needs so depends on interpretation of 2 ropes.

Increased risk of spike damage to multiple ropes

May not need to change over past manikins legs and manikin not on spikes.

No risk of injury to manikin


Rescue D

Casualty on pole min of 5m not within 1 of top


Not specified but use of belay suggests it’s damaged. 


Reach casualty

Direct attachment

Set up belay anchor point and coordinate with ground crew to lower casualty. 

Lack of clarity on rope/lanyard needs so depends on interpretation of 2 ropes.

Less logical rescue as can use second system for casualty.

Increased risk of spike damage to multiple ropes

May not need to change over past manikins legs and manikin not on spikes.

No risk of injury to manikin

Simplified belay reduces overall demand on students but may not be work appropriate.

This rescue is almost redundant as candidates already shown full competence with most aspects of 3 man rescue via manikin set up