This is the first in a three-part series on rope rescue; the first segment will cover some of the basic training philosophies exhibited in the Fire Department of New York’s Special Operations Command (SOC) basic rope rescue curriculum and the curriculum of the Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy (GCERA). The second segment will further examine basic rope rescue training, and the final installment will cover some advanced rope rescue curriculum as well as some specialized courses. Note, in the case of the FDNY, although this is the curriculum taught at the technical rescue school. The individual companies in SOC use slight variations in accordance with the most likely scenarios that they will encounter.
Rope rescue is considered a core discipline taught to new members of SOC. In addition to it being an important stand-alone discipline, it can and has been a useful component of all of our disciplines. It is used on the fireground for self-rescue and to rescue other firefighters and civilians. It can be used in swift water rescue and scuba rescue to both position rescuers and extricate victims. It can also be used for the final removal of victims in situations such as trench rescues, confined space rescues, vehicle extrications and collapses.
To start, it is important to note that unlike some emergency training where the danger is simulated, a fall from the top of a structure will cause just as much damage during a simulation as during a real emergency. This real world danger requires real world supervision. The GCERA and FDNY have different methods of accomplishing the same goal. The former maintains a student to instructor ratio of 7:1 to ensure adequate supervision. The later bases the number of instructors on the number of levels on which the scenario will take place.
To illustrate training philosophies, I will concentrate more on the FDNY curriculum. The GCERA curriculum varies because it is generally customized for the specific client. The curriculum that I will be discussing is from a one-week course given to new members of FDNY Special Operations. In addition to the rope skills learned as firefighters, members attending this rope course have previously graduated from our three-week rescue technician school where they have received their first exposure to technical rope rescue. This exposure includes equipment familiarization, knots, and participating in some very basic rope evolutions.
As to the equipment that is taught during these courses there are several different philosophies. At the beginning of the FDNY course, students are mandated to utilize specific equipment during each scenario. To ensure that they are exposed to all equipment that will be available to them during real world operations. Later in the course they are free to choose whichever equipment they desire. GCERA clients are free to either use the equipment that they would use at an actual incident or to experiment with new equipment.
Following the introductory lecture during the first day of this course, members conduct personal skills on rope. Such skills as ascending (switching to rappel), rappelling with lock offs, edge negotiations, inverting and knot passing and self-rescue are included. Even though these skills are seldom utilized by our units in actual operations, they are considered important and their completion is mandatory1 . The successful completion of these skills ensures an individual’s basic understanding of both the equipment and principals involved. When conducting evolutions as a team, individual deficiencies can be missed. This does not occur during individual skills training such as when every participant has to rappel past a knot. Those who do not understand the principals involved cannot successfully pass the knot. These individuals will hang on the rope until understanding is achieved and they can get themselves to the ground. Then they are off to the next station where they will once again have to prove their understanding of the principles involved.
The main focus of day two is anchoring, safety lines and lowering systems. This order of instruction is part of a building block approach to training. Basic anchoring is a necessary skill when building any rope system. Students will receive a lecture and hands-on training in the classroom before heading out to work on scenarios where they are responsible for anchoring for the rest of the course.
At this point the rescue school policy of a live load always having two points of attachment is introduced. This is generally accomplished by having two lines attached to the live load (the main line and the safety line). It can also be accomplished in several other ways. As an example we have a structural climbing course that will be covered later is this series. Participants climb attached to one dynamic kernmantle line. The primary point of attachment is the climber’s hands and feet with the line providing the secondary point of attachment.
Another example compares between a lanyard for positioning and a lanyard acting as a safety. Without the support of a lanyard the rescuer would fall. It requires a secondary point of attachment. In the latter case, the line does not hold the rescuer in place and only comes into play if the rescuer slipped and fell.
A final example is from an operation I took part in. Two men had been operating inside a cement mixer when it was accidently turned on causing multiple trauma to the victims. After being packaged the victim in question was attached to a rope system and lifted out of the mixer. Only a main line was used. As the victim was lifted, members inside the mixer held onto the victim providing a secondary point of attachment until he was out of reach. Members operating on top of the mixer had hands on the victim, maintaining the secondary point of attachment.
When assembling the main line and safety line establish two completely redundant systems. No single piece of equipment that, no matter how unlikely, should icause catastrophic failure of the system if it fails. Teach the advantage of two anchor points for the main line. In our urban environment this usually means two points of attachment to a bomb-proof anchor although it could mean a primary and secondary anchor. In my experience the end of the main line that is anchored has been the location of all of the near failures experienced by members of my department. Several reasons cause this. The angles that anchoring and directional are placed can add stress on the system. Attaching a known piece of equipment into an unknown is where the main force of overcoming inertia (Newton’s first law of motion) will be experienced during hauling. This is where more variables (increasing the potential for human error) will be encountered.
What works best of FDNY may not be the best way for all teams. Some teams utilize SRT (single rope technique also known as SLT single line technique). These are often wilderness teams and military teams that may have to carry their equipment for days before utilizing it. The FDNY itself uses SRT at fire operations. My initial interest in rope rescue came from being a rock and ice climber, during which a single line is utilized.
While the students have previously been exposed to the safety line, now is their main introduction to it. Most of the safety line attributes are covered in the preceding anchoring section.Some training principles should be incorporated into any curriculum design. One principle is stressing procedures to deal with real world emergencies before students have any likelihood of encountering them. Students should practice with the safety line and experience having to activate it to catch a surprise failure of the system. Another example of this would be emergency procedures that we teach to our scuba divers before they are allowed to operate outside of the pool environment.
In conducting lowering operations in various situations student should apply the simpler of the two main operations of lowering and raising loads. In lowering, they should also practice their newly acquired anchoring and safety line skills. This station is also a good example of teaching skills in layers. The beginning of this layering process is when the students get a preview of the next day’s lectures at the hands-on stations. As an example, before the lowering evolution the instructor gives a brief explanation and demonstration of patient packaging when the mannequin is first placed in the Stokes basket. This serves as a precursor to the next day’s patient packaging lecture. After the evolution is completed the instructor gives a brief explanation of the hauling system that the students will operate to reset the scenario by hauling the mannequin back up and into position. Resetting of the system is also conducted at the safety line station utilizing another variation of the hauling systems. These skills will be covered in detail in the next day’s lecture, followed by demonstrations and hands-on stations on the individual skills, and finally applied in multiple scenarios.
This article has covered the initial stages, of a rope rescue training course, which is designed to familiarize students with rope rescue equipment and techniques laying the foundation for what is to come. The next installment will follow the students’ progress as they are presented with scenarios of various types and of increasing difficulty.
James Kiesling is a captain with the Fire Department, City of New York’s Special Operations Command. He holds a bachelor of arts in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an associates degree in occupational studies in fire protection technology from Corning Community College.C 1. FDNY SOC generally utilizes lowering instead of rappelling for rescues. This is part of a team rescue concept. The reasoning is that several members conducting a lowering operation under the supervision of an officer with several bags of equipment at their disposal will not only have more eyes on the rope rescue system to help prevent an accident but will also have more hands and equipment to deal with any problems that should occur than a single member rappelling. This is not to say that this is the preferred method for all teams as every team has their own strengths and weaknesses. In this case, our SOP’s plays to the FDNY’s strength in manpower.