Apparatus, Pierce, Rescues

San Diego (CA) Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit’s Custom Pierce Saber 4×4: Rescue 44

Issue 8 and Volume 22.

By Peter Ong

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s Lifeguard Unit has operated a custom rescue apparatus, Rescue 44, since February 2015.

This custom 4×4, built on a Pierce Saber cab and chassis, replaced the previous Rescue 44, which was a utility truck with a commercial-built crane.

1 The San Diego (CA) Fire Department’s Rescue 44 with open compartments showing its slide-out tray and gear while rescuing a paraglider. (Photos 1-3 courtesy of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit.)
1 The San Diego (CA) Fire Department’s Rescue 44 with open compartments showing its slide-out tray and gear while rescuing a paraglider. (Photos 1-3 courtesy of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit.)

The idea for San Diego Fire-Rescue’s new Rescue 44 came from an East Coast training trip to visit the Coast Guard around North Charleston, South Carolina. Lifeguard Sergeant Jon Vipond and Senior Lifeguard Robb Eichelberger made the trip and saw a rescue truck with a rear-mounted crane at the Charlestown County (SC) Volunteer Fire Department. They both figured such a rig with a rear-mounted crane could suit the rescue needs of San Diego Fire-Rescue’s Lifeguard Unit. “That was the spark of the idea,” says Vipond. “We passed the information to John Bahl, also a lifeguard, who did all the research for the new truck. He’s the equipment geek. John looked at the specs while the Fire-Rescue and the Lifeguard Division gathered the funding.”

Housed at the San Diego Mission Bay Lifeguard Headquarters Boating Safety Unit, Rescue 44 cost $540,000 to build and weighs 45,000 pounds. This apparatus responds to calls around the Sunset Cliffs, Torrey Pines, and Black’s Beach area, a coastline of vertical and steeply sloping sandstone cliffs dropping down to a beach, rocks, and even directly into the Pacific Ocean. A curving road usually hugs the cliffs, and flights of stairs allow access to the beaches below. Since most of San Diego’s coastal cliffs are accessible from above, San Diego Fire-Rescue lifeguards have used trucks with mechanized equipment such as cranes for cliff rescues over the decades.

2 Shown are stairs leading to the beach around the Sunset Cliffs area.
2 Shown are stairs leading to the beach around the Sunset Cliffs area.

San Diego Fire-Rescue uses the new Rescue 44 as a regional resource. The heavy-duty crane comes in handy for moving heavy objects from sailing vessels to lifeguard tower “satellite station” shacks. Rescue 44 also responds to floods and can respond to collapse events. Rescue 44’s high ground clearance makes it ideal for flood rescues, carrying flood rescue gear and more lifeguards – all emergency medical technicians (EMTs) – during flood emergencies. “Rescue 44 also has potential value in confined space applications – e.g., used as a high point for vertical entries,” says Vipond, noting that the crane could be used “over a vertical confined space entry such as the access port in the top of a storage tank so that a rescuer can be lowered into the tank.”

Specifications and Performance

Rescue 44 replaced the former rig used since the 1980s that resembled a yellow electric utility service truck. “The old truck’s age was beginning to show,” says Vipond. “It wasn’t purpose-built for rescues.”

The current Rescue 44 is 12 feet 2 inches tall and 29 feet 6¼ inches long. “Ground clearance is 9½ inches below the steering tie rod (front axle). [There is] no central tire inflation system or air/hydraulic suspension,” says Vipond. It features a five-person cab with all forward-facing seats, a central cab width tray dividing the front and rear passenger seats, an interior battery charger, air inlet and outlet, and LED scene lights all around the cab and body.

3 The San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit’s previous Rescue 44 based on a utility truck
3 The San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit’s previous Rescue 44 based on a utility truck.

“The front of the cab sports two LED spot/search lights controlled mechanically from inside the cab: one from the driver seat, one from the command seat,” Vipond points out. The cab’s roof-mounted Touchmaster device controls the sirens and the public address speaker. Rescue 44 also features Kenwood and Motorola radios.

A Cummins ISL 400-horsepower engine and an Allison 3000 EVS transmission power the truck, which also features four-wheel drive with a Wabco ESC/ABS/ATC braking system and CAM brakes. The truck also has an air “inlet for supplying air from an external source to the service brake air tanks,” notes Vipond. “An outlet provides a supply of compressed air from the service brake air tanks. The shutoff positively closes the air outlet.” When parked in the station, lifeguards keep the rig’s batteries charged via a 120-volt power cord and a Kussmaul Auto Charge 1200.

4 Note the roof spots, stair, and high ground clearance. (Photos 4-8 courtesy of Mónica Muñoz.)
4 Note the roof spots, stair, and high ground clearance. (Photos 4-8 courtesy of Mónica Muñoz.)

Pierce custom built Rescue 44 on a steel chassis with the cab, treadplate, and body made from aluminum. The bumper is stainless steel. San Diego’s city shops did the shelving modifications, which consist of five 5,500-pound slide-out trays and four 200-pound slide-out and tilt trays behind Gortite roll-up doors. A passenger-side stair behind the cab leads up to the body’s roof, which has four coffin compartments, each with a disc light inside for nighttime illumination when open. An SKF reservoir device located inside one of the rooftop compartments feeds the vehicle’s automatic lubrication system.

Rescue 44 normally responds to calls with two lifeguards, a driver/operator, and crew. The driver/operator knows the chassis and can operate the crane. San Diego Fire-Rescue averages about 50 to 60 coastal rescue calls a year with about half in the Sunset Cliffs area. During flood emergencies, Rescue 44 responds with more lifeguards, all EMTs, and a yellow water rescue craft carried on top of Rescue 44.

Rescue 44’s Crane

International Mold and Tool (IMT) is part of Oshkosh Corporation, parent company of Pierce Manufacturing. The American-made IMT Model 24/169SL K6 “knuckle boom” crane is what the San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Division chose for this apparatus. The rear-mounted IMT crane has a maximum reach of 56 feet and can lift 1,920 pounds when fully extended, compared with the previous utility truck’s crane with 25-foot maximum reach and lift of 1,000 pounds. At a 10-foot horizontal reach, the IMT crane can lift 15,000 pounds. There is also a side-mounted spotlight at the end of the boom.

5 Rescue 44’s passenger side showing the stair and slide-out trays
5 Rescue 44’s passenger side showing the stair and slide-out trays.

This crane has 420 degrees of rotation. “The crane can pivot through a full revolution, plus continue another 60 degrees into a second revolution before there is a risk of damage because of the twisting of the hydraulic and electric lines that are routed up the inside of the mast,” explains Vipond. “We train our operators to avoid rotating more than about 270 degrees; there would rarely be a reason for an operator to rotate the crane completely over the cab. This reduces the risk of losing track of the amount of rotation in play.”

Vipond also notes that the IMT crane was purpose-built for rescues compared to the old “stick-controlled” crane on the previous Rescue 44. The best aspects about the faster-operating IMT crane rest with the smarter computerized controls and crane overload and stabilization sensors. “You can’t destabilize it,” notes Vipond. “The crane won’t work if it’s unstable.” The treadplate rear bumper has two stabilizing jacks that extend from its corners. A black remote-control handheld unit with two curved side grab handles; five toggle switches; green, red, and orange function buttons; small joysticks; a neck strap; and a small center monitor with surrounding multifunction buttons allows the crane to be controlled from 100 feet away.

6 Rescue 44’s American-made IMT Model 24/169SL K6 crane.
6 Rescue 44’s American-made IMT Model 24/169SL K6 crane.

The IMT crane allows for greater reach and rescues from the roads that often parallel very close to San Diego’s coastal cliffs, although Vipond notes that some situations of cliff instability occurred where Rescue 44 could not set up in a stable fashion and gain access to the victim with the crane.

Calling Rescue 44

Rescue 44 responds to all coastal cliff rescues within the area. The majority of Rescue 44 calls involve noninjured victims. Rescue responses consist of people who have slipped or fallen from the edge when the sandstone crumbles, paragliders who have struck the cliffs, visitors lost on trails, and many calls regarding people who get trapped out on the rocks and shore and can’t climb back up the cliffs.

If the call is a confirmed noninjured victim, San Diego Fire-Rescue lifeguard units respond in Toyota Tundra pickups. The typical response makeup consists of Rescue 44 (two people), the Lifeguard Supervisor Unit (two people inside a Toyota 4-Runner sport utility vehicle), a Supervisor Unit from the next district (two people in a Toyota 4-Runner), and the lieutenant or battalion chief for a total of seven San Diego Fire-Rescue firefighters in four vehicles.

7 The lifeguard (left) wears the remote-controlled unit around his neck.
7 The lifeguard (left) wears the remote-controlled unit around his neck.

For a coastal cliff injury call, San Diego Fire-Rescue sends an ambulance and an engine. A surf rescue incident may dispatch a San Diego Fire-Rescue boat and a jet ski.

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) normally does not respond to San Diego Fire’s cliff or surf emergency calls because the San Diego Fire-Rescue lifeguards respond much faster than the USCG can. It can take around 30 to 45 minutes for the USCG to get a helicopter in the air. As such, the USCG defers coastal rescues to San Diego Fire-Rescue.

Rescue 44 has operated successfully in four-wheel drive but only in certain situations. Because of its high ground clearance, the rig can drive through mud and flood waters with ease; however, weighing in at 45,000 pounds (22.5 tons), the truck has limited mobility and usage in the sand, and San Diego Fire-Rescue does not drive Rescue 44 through soft sand or the beach.

8 Rescue 44 training. Note the stabilizing jacks and unextended boom.
8 Rescue 44 training. Note the stabilizing jacks and unextended boom.

On the scene, setup normally follows the same cliff rescue setup procedures of the previous Rescue 44. However, the current Rescue 44 has some marked improvements. Vipond explains that the previous Rescue 44 required cable and rope for two anchor points. The current Rescue 44 allows the second line (the safety line) to be run directly from the crane attachment. San Diego Fire-Rescue lifeguards are comfortable and confident in the crane’s specifications and abilities to run both lines through the end of the boom from the crane. Anchor points are attached to the chassis.

“Rescue ropes are controlled through CMC Rescue Multi-Purpose Devices (MPDs™) attached to anchor points on the vehicle and then run through pulleys at the end of the boom,” explains Vipond. “When we use two ropes, the crane serves as a high directional. Or, we use the cable and its hydraulic winch for our primary line and one additional rope as a safety line.” Two rescue pulleys are normally run through the crane (cable and hydraulics) as the high point with any additional lines (ropes and pulleys) anchored to the truck. The MPD acts as the backup safety line.

9 Rescue 44’s crane lifting a victim from the Sunset Cliff’s rocks. Note the yellow water rescue craft on top of the body’s roof. (Photos 9-11 courtesy of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit.)
9 Rescue 44’s crane lifting a victim from the Sunset Cliff’s rocks. Note the yellow water rescue craft on top of the body’s roof. (Photos 9-11 courtesy of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguard Unit.)

Normally the Rescue 44 driver/operator positions near the cliff edge in a location where constant visual contact with the load is possible. All other lifeguards and firefighters aid in reaching and extracting the victim. Instead of manually pulling the victim up the cliffs with ropes, pulleys, and lots of laborious physical staffing, the crane speeds up the mechanized rescue process since the crane can lower and retrieve multiple patients and rescuers at once.

Nighttime illumination is provided by portable LED lamps, the rig’s scene lights, helmet headlamps, and the spotlight at the end of the crane. Additional lighting may come from other responding San Diego Fire-Rescue vehicles. Rescue 44 does not carry parachute flares, thermal imaging cameras, chemlights, or strobe lights.

PETER ONG is a freelance writer who writes short stories, articles, poetry, and reviews.

10 Note the lifeguard by the pickup operating the crane remotely.
10 Note the lifeguard by the pickup operating the crane remotely.

Rescue 44’s Gear

11 Rescue 44 lifting a victim. The standing lifeguard (in shorts) closest to the orange cones controls the crane using the remote-controlled unit
11 Rescue 44 lifting a victim. The standing lifeguard (in shorts) closest to the orange cones controls the crane using the remote-controlled unit.