14-17 November 2019, Preliminary program 13-14 November 2019

The 13th European Cave Rescue Meeting took place in Baredine Cave, Istria, Croatia from 14th to 17th November 2019 and was organized by Croatian Mountain Rescue Service – Cave Rescue Commission on behalf of the European Cave Rescue Association.

Due to security warnings from various European governments, this year’s ECRA meeting had to be relocated from Turkey to Croatia at short notice. This was a very thankless decision, as flights that were already booked would expire.

The new conference venue was the Baredine Cave near Poreč in Istria, Croatia. The owner, himself a speleologist, and his staff really welcomed us and provided us with the best culinary care. Immediately next to our base, the restaurant, you almost fell into the entrance shaft of the show cave. The museum was set apart in a long stone house. The lectures took place here. The Speleolit ​​cave climbing centre directly in front of the museum was used for the technical exercises. The exercises could be followed well from the small terraces on the edge of the shaft. On the way back to the restaurant was “Little Stonehenge”, a meadow with boulders arranged in a circle, well suited for testing various communication systems. The neighbouring Tractor Museum, the conference area of ​​the Medical Commission, was also close to the main venue.

As part of the meeting, a preliminary program was prepared for November 13th and 14th, again at the same location. The first day fell into the water due to severe weather, but the group succeed to visit Roch – the smallest city in the world, Raspor village and some other interesting natural and historical places. The tour to the Brijuni National Park, situated at the coast of western Istria, which covered a group of 14 islands and islets was rescheduled the next day, November 14th. The end of this tour led to historical part of Pula.

A second group visited Cave system Zračak Nade 2, which is the longest cave in the region (-350 m) situated on the Učka mountain in Northwest Croatia. This trip was organized mainly for enthusiast in rope progression with narrow passages.

The third group visited Piskavica cave, a flysch cave. A special feature of this cave is the length of about 1 km in a rock that normally does not allow cave formation. Initial joints in a thin lime slab about 2.5m high allowed water to penetrate and form the cave passage below. You get in at the upper end of the cave and are accompanied by a channel along the entire course. The ceiling is completely flat and you have the impression of moving through a dilapidated building. The cross-section of the aisle, which can usually be walked upright, varies between the box section, the trapezoidal cross-section and the triangle on the top. The end of the cave is characterized by a gradual lowering of the ceiling and longer sections of shallow water until the motivation for further advance is completely abandoned. About 500 m after the entrance, 2 large light sources lit up in the dark, the eyes of a marten who eyed the illustrious visitors of this secluded patch of earth.

13th ECRA Meeting

Each participant of the meeting received a badge with the name and organization they represent, as well as a printed booklet with program and other useful information. Posters promoting main ECRA values such as exchange of knowledge, mutual aid, international cooperation, friendship etc. were printed and stick in the area. Pictures of various training actions were used among them those of Icelandic extreme photographer Sigurður Ólafur Sigurðsson, made during an international cave rescue exercise at Balabanova Dupka in Bulgaria. Authors of the other photos are Darko Bakšić and Marin Glusević from HGSS.

Friday, November 15th was the first official day of the 13th European Cave Rescue Meeting. It was opened with an official ceremony by Marko Rakovac, Chairman of the Cave Rescue Commission of the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, followed by speeches of the Mayor of Poreč, municipality where the Baredine Cave is situated, the Head of the local fire service and Dinko Novosel – President of ECRA.

Technical part of ECRA Meeting

Then the technical part began with the presentation of the Counterweight system with controller with 5 m cowtails deminishing loop by Darko Bakšić.

The main topic in the Technical Commission session was underground communication as information handling is a crucial key-point during caving rescue operations. Even the simplest cave rescue operation must rely on a solution that allows rescuers operating in the cave and operation directors to communicate to carry out the rescue safely and effectively. Several solutions were presented and put on the ground for the workshop and around 40 rescuers were able to play with them. As far as the voice communication concerns, the systems can be grouped into two categories: wired and radio.

Exchange of experience on the various communication systems (Italian ERMES, Bulgarian “Underground Communication System”, Cave-Link, Nicola 3 and other systems) were done.

Cave Rescue Bulgaria and Croation HGSS presented two different “local battery powered” telephones. Both systems have demonstrated to be robust and effective and place side by side with the Italian solution already used by Croatian HGSS, Italian CNSAS and Swiss SSS.

One of relevant aspects that raised during the workshop is the compatibility between the Bulgarian and the Italian systems. In the unfortunate event of a joint operation, these two systems should be able to work together with the advantages that would ensue. During the next ECRA meeting some electrical tests will certify the compatibility to exclude any damage resulting from a long term usage.

Besides these telephones, Cave Rescue Bulgaria presented a very useful radio link between the telephone line just at the cave entrance and a second radio far from it (at the base camp f.e.). This is really an innovation that improves significantly the robustness of the overall communication system overcoming all the issues related to the mechanical integrity of the telephone line that often is accidentally broken either by someone or damaged by some grazing animals.

A. Vlaykova and E. Enchev showed how the Bulgarian “Underground Communication System“ works. It consists of 2 modules – Cable Audio Transceiver (UCS-CAT-1) and Cable to RF Audio Converter (UCS-CRF-1). In the tests was found that the wired communication is compatible and works perfectly with 3 others – Italian, Croatian, Romanian (used by Slovenian cave rescue). The CRF module itself, in addition to being compact, has the option to choose between 16 selectable frequencies. It is extremely useful not only for cave rescue, but also for caving expeditions, saving efforts to stretch the cable from the cave entrance to the base camp.

Moving to the radios was the chance to put the hands on Nicolas (versions II and III) and HeyPhone for the vocal communication and on the Cave-Link for the Short Text Message transmission.

Nicolas III and HeyPhone, presented by the English BCRC, are the latest developments in the cave radio field. For their operation they only need the laying of the antennas and then “Phush-To-Talk”.

The Cave-Link, presented by the Croatian HGSS, is a system that allows to send and receive SMS. It is made of units that working as repeaters can extend the transmission range.

As a very general comment was stated that the wire-based systems require time and skills for the laying of the telephone “copper pair” but, on the other side, provides a very reliable solution during the time. On the contrary, radio systems allows the teams to get in connection in a very short time but their performances are quiet sensitive to the environmental conditions (humidity and type of the grounds).

Another tool was presented by the Italian CNSAS: the Time Domain Reflectometer (TDR). It is a commercial instrument that is normally used by the telecommunications company technicians to check the telephone line. In the event of an issue with the telephone line during a cave rescue operation, this tool can be used indeed to accurately locate the position of the issue and determine its type (short circuit or broken line).

Last, but not least, Ermes 2.0. This is the second version of the digital data transmission system designed and implemented by the Italian CNSAS. During the workshop we experienced how this new version does not require any specifically preconfigured hardware but, instead, allows to communicate using standard consumer hardware (smartphones, tablets, laptops) with standard operating system (Android, iOS, Windows).

Giuseppe Conti, chairman of the ECRA Technical Commission, and Italian team introduced the improvements of ERMES system, presented last year in Casola. With ERMES extends data type that can be transferred outside the cave like voice records, pictures, data records, videos. This is extremely useful in incidents where the medical team can hardly reach the victim. In such cases, visual and audio communication helps the medics to assist remotely first aid treatment of the casualty. Special application for recording the medical data improves and extends medical data exchange between cave and external camp. ERMES uses transmission over existing twisted pair cable, standard communication technology TCP/IP, commercial hardware and freeware software.

It is clear that most of these solutions are complementary and can effectively provide a comprehensive solution to the communication needs we face during operations. For the next years we should work to make them a common heritage to all the rescuers belonging to our community.

ECRA has once again demonstrated to be a unique place were Cave Rescue Services is able to discuss and share solutions to common needs.

Medical commission

The medical commission continued its work on Saturday. In absence of the president, Lana Donlagic, Ueli Nägeli (secretary of the commission) stepped in as substitute. The commission continued to work in the usual way. For the new participants we reviewed the development of this group: Topic of the 4th ECRM in Saalfelden, Austria, was “Medical treatment inside the cave”. Most presidents were accompanied by one or more physicians or paramedics, actives in the different national or regional organizations. Some of them, from Croatia, Hungary, Italy, United Kingdom and Switzerland decided spontaneously to continue discussions they had begun during the next ECRM. Lana Donlagic (Croatia) organized a “meeting in the meeting” during the ECRM at Paklenica, supported by William Lumb, Ueli Nägeli and Regula Höhn who took part as secretary (both Switzerland). The aim was to review and adapt existing guidelines and recommendations, especially the ICAR recommendations to the special situation and reality in caves and to establish a platform for exchanging experiences resulting in a Consensus paper. Since this first meeting, the group met every one or two years during the ECRM, other nations have joined. 2016 at the end of the ECRM at Malačka (Split, Croatia) an official Medical Commission within the structure of ECRA was founded. During the meeting 2019 all existing Consensus Papers since the meeting of Paklenica were review and consolidated. We agreed to slightly alter the proceeding: Instead of creating every time a new Consensus Paper, we will regularly update the existing summary to the actual situation as kind of state of the art. Arguments and discussions that have led to the actual and will lead to future updates of the Consensus paper captured in a protocol instead. The actual papers have been written by Katrin Habegger and Regula Höhn (Switzerland).

Passage Enlargement

The Passage Enlargement Commission, led by Werner Zagler, has compiled an overview of the legal situation and training in the individual member countries. A team from HGSS / Croatia demonstrated their ventilation system in the Baradine cave, consisting of a compressor on the surface and a simple hose a là plastic bag, diameter about 20 cm, for introducing the fresh air. Тhere was also a practical demonstration for working in a cave under bad air conditions. In that case the cave rescuer has a mask and an oxygen bottle in his transport bag.

Cave diving rescue commission

The divers met for a workshop. This time, one dive fell victim to the bad weather and the resulting conditions. The members of the commission discussed standardisation of procedures of extraction of an injured person from behind the sump and implementation of already known techniques and procedures that Italian and British colleagues use in their interventions. The other topic was usage of different stretchers in those interventions, usage of a drysuit and heating systems for the victim.

Presentations and videos

Eddy Cartaya, NCRC / USA reported impressively about the work in the lava and glacier caves of America, e.g. on Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, both in Washington State. Most of us Europeans were new to the special dangers and challenges to rescue measures and teams.

A workshop “EU Civil Protection Mechanism and Cave Search and Rescue Units“ regarding EU Civil Protection Mechanism and possibility for Cave Search and Rescue registration as a part of CP Pool were held by Maks Merela, JRS / Slovenia. After long procedure Slovenia and Spain registered CaveSAR Teams as a part of Voluntary pool. In the period to 2024 reorganized system will be build up, one part as rescEU and other part as CP Pool. All interested Cave Rescue Organizations were invited to present their organizations.

In the evening the video “Zračak Nade – Ray of Hope” was shown, a documentary of a Croatian cave rescue exercise starting in the Učka road tunnel in Istria. A special challenge was a section of practice between two siphons up to 35 m long, without any communication options to the outside. The victim, a comrade who is very experienced in cave technology, but without any diving experience, will surely remember this section as a special gift for her 54th birthday. For the rescuers at the lower exit of the cave, this exercise will also be a topic of conversation for a long time, especially since the diving section took several times the expected time.

Another highlight was the lecture by Andrew Munoz, a report including analysis of a near-death experience that he and his buddy were exposed to during a cave tour in British Columbia on December 5, 2015. Andrew had already shown this lecture at the EuroSpeleo 2018 in Austria.

At the General Assembly on Saturday evening, President Dinko Novosel led the annual report. The cash register report confirmed the proper bookkeeping. The general secretary provided an overview of the income / expenditure situation in the past financial year. Thanks to the collected membership fees and the low expenditure at the same time, the annual financial statements were again clearly positive. Dinko Novosel reported on the ICAR Meeting 2019 in Zakopane / Poland. The topic was the interest of ICAR in the area of ​​cave rescue or what a cooperation could look like. On the sidelines of the event there was also a meeting with Jan Kryztofek, the President of TOPR / Poland and other representatives of the organization. This was also about exploring a possible cooperation. Afterwards, the heads of the ECRA commissions reported on the activities of the past financial year.

In accordance with the statutes, the members admitted to an extraordinary general assembly in July were confirmed by the general assembly (ESOCAN / Spain, GOPR / Poland, NCRC / USA). After that, 3 more new members were accepted (NGRT / Norway and CRS / Czech Republic as full members and FUCZ / Bosnia-Herzegovina as associated members), so that the membership has grown to 25.

On Friday and Saturday there was also the opportunity to visit the Baredine cave with a guide. It is one of around 1500 mostly shaft-like caves in Istria. 5 chambers lead down until the show cave part ends in front of a lake. There is also a small pool with 2 grotto olms.

ECRA member organizations received as a gift one edition of the Croatian book “Speleologija” (Speleology).

Еach year ECRA forums attracts more people. About 92 cave rescuers from Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA were present in Croatia.

Many thanks to the team of the Croatian cave rescue for the extremely short-term organization and implementation of the well-attended ECRA meeting.

Author:  Kurt Dennstedt / General Secretary of ECRA, Antoniya Vlaykova, Web Admin of ECRA

Photos from 13th ECRA meeting

ECRA Meeting 2019, Baredine Jama, Istria, Croatia
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