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Training exercise on High Roller prepares firefighters for emergencies — VIDEO

Firefighters from Las Vegas, New York and Florida were getting the hang of High Roller rescues Wednesday.

Literally. They were hanging from the observation wheel at The Linq.

First responders from the Las Vegas and Henderson fire departments welcomed colleagues from the New York City and Orange County fire departments — that’s Orange County, Florida, as in Orlando, not California — for training exercises on the wheel. The agencies exchanged tips and tricks since each has an observation wheel of its own in operation or on the way.

The exercise aimed to keep firefighters prepared for worst-case scenarios in which riders would be trapped.

The early morning training would have probably scared average people. The High Roller is, for now, the world’s tallest observation wheel at 550 feet.

Beginning about 7 a.m., the firefighters climbed ladders within the columns of the High Roller about 275 feet to “the hub” in the wheel’s center. From there, the men strapped into a harness and zip-lined across the 3-inch-wide cables that make up the wheel’s “spokes.”

Then they climbed up a narrow ladder on the wheel’s rim and popped open a hatch on the top of one of the High Roller’s 28 pods. From there, the crews tied the side door open, kicked off from the pod and rappelled down to the ground.

None of the firefighters flinched at dangling more than a hundred feet in the air.

“All of us that do this training do it because we like to do it,” Orange County Fire Department Batallion Chief David Hollenbach said. “No one was really afraid of it. It was more of a thrill.”

Hollenbach said that even though the Orlando Eye has different specifications — the 400-feet tall wheel doesn’t have cable spokes, so firefighters would climb up a ladder along the circumference — the rescue principles are basically the same.

“What this has done is just given us a different tool in the toolbox,” he said.

Four firefighters from Orlando and eight from New York participated in Wednesday’s training alongside crews from the valley. Eric Eberhart, the High Roller’s general manager, said that the valley’s fire departments do this training every year, but this is the first time that they have had departments from other states join in.

Richard Blatus, a New York fire battalion chief, said his crew was happy to train in Las Vegas, because a similar observation wheel, which will be 630 feet tall, is planned for Staten Island.

“What we learned today is that they have a well-thought-out system here in Las Vegas and we can bring that back,” he said.

Blatus said his department will meet with the wheel’s designers to share ideas on safety specifications, much the way the Las Vegas’ fire department did for the High Roller.

Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski said the High Roller has always had a collaborative relationship with public safety agencies — together they helped decide where to place hooks on the wheel to use for rescues, for example.

Blatus said, “We just appreciate the opportunity to come out here. This gives us a great jump on putting together our rescue plan. It’s a really good system.”

Henderson Fire Department Battalion Chief Tim McKeever said the crews will meet again to practice Thursday, this time to try techniques the out-of-state departments use. The fire department in Orlando, for example, uses anchor points around its wheel to control rappelling rescuers on windy days.

The Henderson department handles heavy rescues on the Las Vegas Valley’s south side and has benefited from training from steep heights and working with the other departments, McKeever said.

“Just to have that plan is huge,” he said. “They’re teaching us some of their concepts and ideas and we’re going over ours. We’re jelling very well together.”

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Find him on Twitter: @WesJuhl

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