In the series I Made a Big Mistake, PopSci explores mishaps and misunderstandings, in all their shame and glory.
Does someone near you have their head stuck in a fence? If they’re having trouble breathing or are in physical danger, call emergency services. If they’re otherwise fine, or you’d just like to be prepared in case you, your child, or a friend ends up pilloried like an 1800s criminal, there are some relatively simple ways to solve this problem.
Seriously, consider calling for help
Although there are countless stories of children and adults escaping unscathed after getting their heads stuck in railings, plastic chairs, and other objects, that’s not always how the story goes. The trapped person may also be choking due to the position of their head, or their location could pose some other risk to their body. They could be in serious danger.
If so, you’ll need to do what you can to mitigate the risk and/or help them breathe, while quickly calling emergency services. There are too many potential situations for us to give exact advice, though, so you’ll have to think on your feet. That said, common sense dictates that if something’s pressing against their throat and restricting their airway, you should find a way to stop that from happening without putting yourself or them at greater risk.
Even if the stuck person isn’t in immediate danger, you may find that it’s too difficult or dangerous to free them. If you’re at all concerned that something could go wrong, call for help. Bob Mielke, a captain in the Duluth, Minnesota, Fire Department, says calling 911 is likely the best option for most people and that firefighters are ready to help. “We have a lot of tools we can use to get somebody out of that situation,” he says.
Have them reposition their body
Often, if a child is stuck in a railing, they stepped through with their body first but couldn’t bring their head along for the ride, Mielke says. He recommends asking how they ended up in the situation, and—if possible—suggesting they step through to the side their head is on.
At a certain point, though, this stops being an option. I, for example, am too big to fit through a railing, but I cannot rule out the possibility that I get stuck in a fence one day. The key issue here is the ears: they easily flatten against the head when pushing face-first through a railing, but they double over and get stuck on the bars in the other direction. In the event I do become stuck in a railing, I will simply rotate my body 180 degrees so I’m face-up and can bring my head back toward the rest of my body. It’s a simple technique, and there’s a video by rescue tools manufacturer Holmatro that demonstrates it perfectly. The stuck person may need assistance, though, as they may not have enough leverage to do this themselves.
Make the opening larger
When someone’s head is stuck in a fence, railing, or anything else, you or they may try to bend the bars so they can pull their head out. This comes with some safety risks, though, and Mielke says it’s important for everyone involved to stay calm and not panic. And if the material can bend, make sure it doesn’t pinch the head or neck of the stuck person as it flexes.
“Go very slow, talk to them the entire time, and make sure you’re not actually making the situation worse,” Mielke says.
If you’re not able to make a difference with your own raw strength, you can use a lever or construct a windlass—specifically a Spanish windlass—to amplify your power. All you need is a strong piece of cordage, rope, or tubular webbing, and a strong wooden stick or metal rod to use as a lever. Firefighters will have these tools, but you may too.
To build this type of mechanism, you’ll need to create a loop around an immovable object and the object you want to move, Mielke says. If someone’s stuck in a metal fence, you’d loop the cordage around something like a sturdy post or a tree, and the closest bar that’s against the person’s head. Then put the lever inside the loop.
Before you go any further, Mielke recommends placing a blanket over the cordage. This way, if the loop snaps, the cloth absorbs the impact instead of the person you’re trying to free.
Using a Spanish windlass is simple, and you may have seen the same technique used to tighten a tourniquet: turn the lever so it twists the cordage, shrinks the loop, and starts bending the bars. If you need help visualizing this, Brothers in Battle, a firefighting group, has a video demonstrating the windlass technique on their Facebook page.
Cut them free
As a last resort, you or the emergency personnel you called may have to cut the stuck person free. Hand tools will do the job slowly, and power tools will get it done quickly, but the presence of power tools always raises the risk to everyone nearby. If you don’t feel comfortable handling a saw so close to a person’s body, call in the pros.
If you absolutely have to cut wood or metal close to another person, cover their face so no sawdust, splinters, or sparks get on their face or in their mouth or eyes, Mielke says. You’ll also need to protect them against vibrations—any time you cut something, it vibrates. He says his firefighters carry a kitchen cutting board with them to put between anything they have to cut and the person they’re trying to rescue. Whether you have one or not, you’ll need to put something between the stuck person’s head or neck and whatever you’re cutting. If you don’t, the vibrating wood, metal, or plastic could cut or otherwise injure them.
It really doesn’t matter whether you get the job done, the victim does it themselves, or you call firefighters to assist: as long as there are no more stuck heads and the trapped person is alive, it’s a successful rescue.