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Vital safety boost for cave rescue in Tasmania

TASMANIA is home to some of the most challenging caves in the country.

And with the ongoing boom in the sport of caverneering, it is more important than ever that local and visiting cavers – both beginner and experienced – are fully equipped to traverse these vertical, wet and cold locations.

The Southern Tasmanian Caverneers (STC), based in Hobart, are centred on the exploration and documentation of Tasmanian caves.

The oldest caving club in Australia, it regularly runs cave rescue training exercises and programs to introduce new people to the sport of caverneering.

STC search and rescue officer Dr Andreas Klocker said recent cave exploration and tourist trips were often focused in southern Tasmania, particularly the Junee-Florentine area.

“The combination of these difficult caves together with the growing number of cavers interested in the area obviously increases the chance of accidents,” he said.

“Very rarely are we required to perform rescues in Tasmania, but when it happens, it is very hard to deal with and a range of specialist skills and equipment is required.

“What many people don’t realise is that what can take 30 minutes to get in a cave can end up taking six to seven hours to get out in the event of an accident.”

Over the past couple of years, STC has been involved in two rescues of visiting cavers, the most recent of which saw a caver fall eight metres, breaking her femur and resulting in a full-scale rescue.

“This was the first vertical rescue undertaken in Tasmania and the most serious we have seen, involving Police Search and Rescue, the Westpac helicopter crew, Tasmanian Ambulance Service, SES and several members of STC,” Dr Klocker said.

“Within 12 hours of the call-out, the injured caver was airlifted to the Royal Hobart Hospital.

“One of the main reasons for this very slick rescue was that STC members had been intensely training in vertical cave rescue techniques for a number of years, and have built up a close relationship with local emergency services.

“But although this training paid off, it became apparent that the rescue gear in southern Tasmania was not adequate for rescues in our many challenging vertical caves.”

In an effort to remedy this, STC applied for a Tasmanian Community Fund (TCF) grant to go toward the purchase of specialist equipment, most notability a cave rescue stretcher.

Featuring a built-in harness, this stretcher is ideal for vertical rescues and can be manoeuvred easily through tight spaces.

The STC recently put this newly-purchased equipment to the test when it hosted a cave rescue exercise in Mystery Creek Cave, Ida Bay – the same location the caving accident took place in 2017.

The exercise saw the 29 participants – both local and interstate cavers, STC members and SES crew – undertake a stretcher rescue from the back end of the horizontal part of the cave.

Dr Klocker said they were on-the-ground for 12 hours performing the exercise.

“This exercise has been an annual event for the past five years and everyone was really happy with how it went down,” he said.

“It gave us a chance to test out the new gear and we keep getting better and quicker every time we run it.

“It’s all about working on our skills and giving participants a chance to see how difficult cave rescues can really be.”

TCF chairperson Sally Darke said it was great to see the new equipment being put to such good use.

“Tasmania has a wide variety of unique caving experiences, including the deepest and most technically challenging caves in Australia,” she said.

“The conferences, field trips and rescue exercises run by STC help both local and visiting cavers remain safe and fully prepared when exploring these locations.

“It is reassuring to know that we have the STC on hand in the event of an accident and that they are fully equipped to respond as quickly and safely as possible.”

The Tasmanian Community Fund was established in 1999 following the sale of the Trust Bank.

An independent funding body, the Fund provides grants to community organisations that make a difference by improving the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of the Tasmanian community.

For more information on how to apply for TCF grants and to view grant recipients, visit www.tascomfund.org.

For more information on the Southern Tasmanian Caverneers, visit https://southerntasmaniancaverneers.wordpress.com.

Caption: Southern Tasmanian Caverneers members, SES crew and local and interstate cavers performing a cave rescue exercise at Mystery Creek Cave, Ida Bay. Photo credit: Gabriel Kinzler.