A Stokes basket is a metal wire (or plastic) litter used by First Responders in difficult terrain.
Originally designed by Charles Francis Stokes, a Navy Surgeon General in the early 20th century, these baskets have been updated to keep pace with our changing requirements. Once used primarily in mountainous areas with transport occurring on the backs of donkeys and horses, the appearance of helicopters on the historical scene expanded the ways in which rescues could be conducted.
After the person’s immediate first aid needs are tended to, he/she is fastened into the litter, and then the litter can be moved. In my own case, I had a ski accident that included a deeply lacerated arm. I was dripping blood onto the snow, but since I didn’t ordinarily need poles to ski, I thought I could ski down the rest of the mountain to the First Aid Station on my own, holding the injured arm in front of me.
Wiser heads than mine prevailed. The mountain rescue team wrapped my arm, lowered me into a Stokes basket, and strapped me in. I was towed about a half mile across a mogul field by a pair of guys from the Ski Patrol. It was a bumpy ride over that mogul field, but there was no other way to get me down to the waiting ambulance.
I was towed behind skis, but snowmobiles, horses, and ATVs have all been employed to get the injured through the woods or hill country.
With specially attached ropes and in limited situations, people can be also be lifted to safety by helicopter. Natural disasters sometimes cut people off from ground transportation, so people have been airlifted out of wildfires or flooded areas without the helicopter ever having to set down. Somebody on the ground helps the injured person get into the basket, attaches it to the pulley system, and then the helicopter takes them to safety. The photo shows the same Stokes basket (with demo dummy) and the single rope leading to the tie-down spot.
The view of the underside of the six-foot Stokes basket reveals the mesh insert that keeps the patient’s limbs from falling through the open steel frame. In addition, the dark blue insert provides some comfort and support to the upper body.
Stokes baskets are also used to rescue victims from confined spaces, like caves or collapsed buildings. I recently discovered that some baskets used in surface water rescue have floats attached. If used in mountain rescue, the litters might come with a lid/cover to either protect the person from falling rocks or keep the patient from falling out, should it tip.
Design improvements have included using multiple attachment points, separate hold-down cables, and powered extension hoists. The multiple attachment points can prevent the basket from spinning while being transported by helicopter. Powered hoists can be valuable during steep terrain rescues and/or if there is not enough manpower onsite to do the heavy lifting. The U.S. Navy has used the Stokes basket to transport patients through narrow corridors and doorways.
The close-up shot of the ‘bear claw’ shows the holes at the bottom through which the carabiners and ropes are attached; the other ends secured at the Stokes basket. The ropes attached to the vehicle that supplies the lifting power are secured at the top of the ‘bear claw.’
On the right: the rope is wound through the brake bar rack to more securely anchor the rope to the vehicle. Less slippage occurs with its use.
Ropes come in different strengths for different needs, so the ropes are different colors to keep it simple for the rescuers. Because of the incredible demands placed on the ropes (weight, tension, water, scorching heat, and freezing cold) the ropes need to be tested for soundness on a regular basis. Too much weight at any given time can compromise the integrity of the rope, but even with normal wear and tear, they are replaced every few years.
Life expectancy of the ropes seen in the photos is about seven years. Somebody’s life depends on that rope not snapping, but even at a cost of about $15.00 per foot, fire departments try to budget for replacement at about the five year point.
The type of rescue involving a Stokes basket/lifting with ropes is a low frequency, but high risk operation.
On land, firefighters are frequently called upon to handle rescues of this type. At sea, this job falls to the Coast Guard. They have the trucks/helicopters, equipment, and training to ensure the happy ending to an otherwise awful tragedy.
Taken by Patti Phillips during a Writers’ Police Academy demonstration in Wisconsin.