“Basically,” adds the 50-year old manager “we are the special rescue team for high elevations and depths. The term “Height Rescue” is used by mountain rescue services – but actually, it all depends your standpoint.”
Not one single rescue operation – that says a lot about the safety at the Stetten salt mine. However, it is not entirely true that Dietmar Sickinger and his colleagues never get deployed.
Because there are other duties to perform apart from rescue operations. For example, in February 2011, a water pipe burst in the salt mine’s air shaft. When the temperature reached minus ten degrees Celsius, the water spraying from the pipe dispersed and before long formed a thick sheet of ice, which meant that cages could no longer move up and down the shaft. To solve the problem, two members of the Heights Rescue team rappelled down to the ice sheet and drilled a hole in the ice using a steam jet. The others secured the 200 meter rope from above. After a few hours, the water pipe had been repaired and the air shaft was free of obstruction.
In 2013, work of an entirely different type had to be done on a 1,000 ton salt silo: a stainless steel panel had become dislodged from the cladding and was plugging up the silo's eject chute. Once again, the Heights Rescue team was called to “go in with the rope,” as Dietmar Sickinger likes to say. The men rappelled 30 meters down into the silo, folded the stainless steel panel flat and cleared the eject chute. After six hours, the job was done and salt started flowing freely through the silo.
The Heights Rescue team is made up of volunteers. On days when there are no incidents, they work as regular miners. They complete 72 hours of training annually to be prepared for emergencies. As part of their basic training, they do a one-week training program with the plant fire department in Burghausen. They attend repeat training courses every three years, and in between these, do special courses with the professional association of miners to practice working with ropes and other techniques.
The most exciting and important exercises are those during which a fall is simulated. “There are many work platforms,” explains Dietmar Sickinger, “and although workers are secured with a safety harness, they have to be freed quickly if they fall. This is because the safety harness can cut off blood circulation to important organs which can cause kidney or liver damage within 20 minutes.”
During the simulation, rescuers rappel to an inflatable doll suspended in a safety harness after falling from a height They place the doll in a rescue basket, a tub-shaped stretcher, and lower it or pull it up to safety.
Prospective members of the Height Rescue team are tested to ascertain their ability to work at heights. “You must not suffer from vertigo and you have to be in peak physical shape,” says Dietmar Sickinger, “plus you need two additional personality characteristics:” Reliability and team spirit – because anyone whose life is literally on the line must be able to rely on his colleagues completely.”
Not only the training exercises promote team cohesion, but also the shared celebration at the end of a full day of training. And this year, Sickinger and his men have something very special in mind. They want to visit the training site for height rescuers in Singen – a facility for practicing different types of rescue scenarios, on platforms, high-bay warehouses or in collapsed scaffolding.