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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingJuly 17 - July 23, 2019

The Dangers of Nighttime Recoveries

Nighttime.recovery 5e91aBy Randall C. Resch

There's an obvious difference working daytime accidents vs. recoveries during nighttime hours. Once the sun is down, dangers and risks go up 100-fold. Nighttime recoveries are difficult and problematic; some are downright dangerous and shouldn't be worked when it's dark.

Towers should consider several questions before attempting dangerous nighttime recoveries. Consider four safety "requests" regarding reasonable on-scene safety:

Do agency requirements demand all recoveries are conducted at night?

What comparable assets are required to conduct nighttime recoveries?

Is the recovery site accessible from another location?

Can towers communicate danger and safety over priority?

Fighting the Obvious

In 2012, a nighttime recovery scenario wound up being the 75th rescue by the Malibu Search and Rescue Team of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. A motorcyclist drove off a cliff on California's infamous Mulholland Highway in Malibu. The motorcycle rider wasn't seriously injured and climbed to the top of the steep embankment to seek help. The motorcycle continued hundreds of feet further down the cliff into an abyss of darkness.

Around 9:30 p.m., two tow operators decided it was routine to try and retrieve the motorcycle. With extra cable over one tower's shoulder, one tower allegedly climbed over the side, descending to the motorcycle. Due to darkness and unstable, rocky conditions, the tower slipped and slid beyond the motorcycle, approximately 50' farther. The tower was able to hang onto sparse bushes until he could be rescued.

News reports stated that the Sheriff's SAR Team spent more than two hours working to rescue the tow operator. The tower's decision to attempt a nighttime recovery obviously didn't include evaluating all dangers that lurked in the darkness.

Comparably, CHP requested two tow trucks respond to a two-vehicle accident in the San Diego county mountains where a DUI motorist collided with another vehicle head-on. Because the impact caused both vehicles to go over the embankment about 200' down, they came to rest against another stolen vehicle that was unknowingly there. The terrain was dark, steep and littered with cactus and shale-type rocks.

To have worked that recovery at nighttime would have required a number of additional personnel, police vehicles and tons of flares. With extremely hazardous conditions that existed because of California's drought, the amount of flares required would have created an extremely dangerous fire hazard. Since both vehicle occupants were eventually transported to area hospitals, there was no reason to recover the vehicles that night.

Another deciding factor was that the county's backroads had a fair share of intoxicated nighttime drivers headed to parts east or local casinos. Ultimately, our incident commander openly agreed that the nighttime environment was too risky to attempt recovery.

Having carefully evaluated all dangers and pending risks, the CHP authorized us to work the recovery the next day. Our recovery plan included returning with three wreckers and one carrier outfitted with additional lengths of cable. CalTrans arrived with a compliment of traffic trucks and cones setting up control above and below the recovery site.

With CHP on-scene, CalTrans deployed an escort truck bringing traffic up and down the mountain. Once traffic controls were in place, three wreckers, strategically positioned side-by-side, hooked-up to a casualty vehicle where all three were winched up the embankment at the same time. The daylight recovery was a total success.

It Makes Sense

Towers should develop good communication skills along with common sense that fully identifies the recovery plan, especially when recoveries entail a fair level of danger. While I believe that towers should do everything possible to satisfy the needs of law enforcement, working smarter and not harder is best when deploying all safety tactics that strive for successful recoveries.

Nowhere in any rotation contract is it written that responding tow truck operators are required to put themselves in harm's way, especially if there's a better way to reach the safety objective. I believe it's better to avoid a dangerous situation than to confront it, especially when dangerous conditions are obvious.

In the motorcycle recovery attempt, the rescued tower survived this harrowing account; however, he risked the possibility of death or injury all for the price of a recovery.

So, at what point does common sense dictate safety?

As Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, "The better part of valor is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life."

Randall Resch is American Towman's and Tow Industry Week's Operations Editor, a former California police officer, tow business owner and retired civilian off-road instructor for Navy Special Warfare. Randall is an approved instructor for towers serving the California Highway Patrol's rotation contract. His course is approved by the California law enforcement community. He has written over 500 industry-related articles for print and on-line, is a member of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame, and, a recipient of the 2017 Dave Jones Leadership Award.
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