Bailout basics: Why you need a bailout system and tips for training with it
As more mid-rises go up, firefighters increasingly need a way to safely exit a window or balcony
Early in my career, I learned not to rely on another company to get me and my crew out of a bad situation, and later into my career, I learned that even when there’s a rapid-intervention team (RIT) on scene, I still need to know how to save myself.
If you’re not convinced, I recommend searching YouTube for “Black Sunday 2005 FDNY” and “North Loop Fire 2007” in Houston. If those videos can’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
To those guys out there saying, “Just put the fire out and things get better,” you are not entirely wrong; you are only wrong in the assumption that the hoseline will make the seat of the fire every time or even at the right time.
So many firefighters seem to forget that many functions on the fireground are performed without a hoseline: primary search, secondary search, search for extension, ventilation, forcible entry taking place in multiple locations or several floors above, forward recon and more – all typically accomplished without dragging a handline along with them. And all functions that really rely heavily on the attack team to accomplish their assignment – one that, if not accomplished in an expedient manner, could put other crews in a sketchy position.
My position, as it has been for a long time now, is train your crew to perform under the worst of conditions, and be prepared for those instances when the attack crew cannot accomplish their assignment. That way, when the time comes, you are trained, prepared and equipped to bailout of a two-, three-, four- or five-story building in an efficient and expedient manner.
Changing skylines necessitate enhanced equipment
I recall while serving as a pipeman that I thought I needed some kind of personal escape system simply based on my area’s potential alone. Bailout systems were just coming onto the market and were expensive. There were a few mid-rises and high-rises in Midtown that could’ve warranted the purchase of a bailout system, but it was mostly one- and two-story structures, and I felt a simple piece of webbing would suffice.
This is not the case today. The Midtown area is undergoing a transformation. Most single-family occupancies are being built at least three stories tall. Also now dotting the skyline are many multi-family mid-rises built atop three-story parking garages that span six city blocks.
I saw this transformation and made the decision to purchase the bailout systems for my crew.
Bailout systems have been around for over 20 years now, but very few departments equip their members with the necessary equipment and training needed to perform a safe bailout when interior conditions deteriorate.
Some bailout systems are very basic, some are considered hands-free for the bailout only, and then there are the entirely hands-free systems, which include the act of lowering. I am not suggesting one system over another, although I do recommend a hands-free bailout system, meaning you don’t have to manually belay yourself as you bailout the window or balcony. More importantly, I encourage you to push your department to invest in your safety with any type of bailout system.
Training for a bailout requires video, lecture, set-up and safety precautions for the training event itself. Most bailout kits will include a link to a video that covers training on the system.
I also advise having a member or two participate in a train-the-trainer class offered by some bailout systems, so they can then train the other members of the department.
While you are physically learning to operate a bailout system, a full-body harness should be used as a safety precaution for the safety/belay line.
Begin your training with proper manipulation of the new bailout system – how to anchor, estimate and operate the hands-free braking system. A safe way to learn proper manipulation of the braking system is to have a member put their entire body weight on the system but have their feet remain on the ground.
Once members get a good feel for manipulating the braking device, then move on to properly exiting the window. You will find that it is more difficult than one would think. It will require multiple training opportunities to perfect the maneuvers.
Here’s a tip: When exiting the window, place your favored shoulder into a lower corner of the window frame with the head on the outside of the window and use your strong arm to guide you down the exterior wall while maintaining your anchor point and your weaker arm to control your exit and then simply slide down the exterior wall.
When the system is weighted by a person’s body weight, the harness and braking device become the pivot point and the person then pivots hips and legs out the window. The trick to properly exiting the window is to maintain your anchor and avoid having your boots hang up on the window frame. This will be eliminated with repetition.
Training on exiting the window should start on a lower floor or a prop specifically designed for bailout training. I recommend starting easy and working your way up to the more difficult steps as confidence and control increases. The first set of reps should be in bunker pants, helmet and gloves only. Second set of reps in full bunker gear with the third set of reps in full gear and SCBA.
Training exercises should continue until the member is comfortable, confident and efficient in the entire bailout procedure. Training should also be ongoing in a quarterly manner, as this is a skill that can be lost or diminished quickly.
Knowing how to bail yourself out of a bad situation is critical. Situational awareness will be key in these moments. Plan ahead, equip yourself, equip your crew, and train, train, train to be efficient and confident with this option of escape. Train on it like any other equipment you carry and until you are comfortable and it becomes second nature.
Bottom line: Get a bailout system. Push your department to provide them! Train, train, train until everyone is proficient!