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5 tips to get the best rope rescue equipment

Follow this expert advice before dropping any money on rope rescue gear to make sure you know what you need and don't need


Whether your department is just starting to provide rope rescue services, or you have been working in the area for a while, the equipment options can be overwhelming.

"First and foremost, I would identify my community's needs in terms of rope rescue services and what level of training is needed," said Dale Stewart, founder and owner of AHS Rescue.

"An authority having jurisdiction, for instance Colorado, may have something completely different than say Arizona as far as terrain goes," Stewart said. "So if you can identify what you're looking at, then you've got to decide what level of resources you're going to commit to this ongoing program. If it's not going to be sustainable, why even go down that road, because the equipment and training are expensive?"

"Get in touch with a vendor who uses the equipment and start developing a relationship. You want to buy from someone who has that experience, not someone whose just a salesperson," said Matt Burns, managing owner at High Angle Associates.

"Not only will that help you get good advice that can help in the buying process, you can also save money, too," Burns said. "Working with a vendor early on, you might find that they can give you a better price because they've learned what you need and what you can afford."

Here are five key things to consider when buying new rope rescue equipment.

1. Get the right training
Just as any officer would never send a firefighter into a structure fire without SCBA training, they should never place one of their people into a rope rescue situation without the appropriate training. And that training has to be ongoing.

"One of the things I consistently see is that after three or four or five years — depending on the size of the department — that initial training starts to break down," Stewart said. "And then the equipment just becomes interesting because they don't have anyone who has the skills set to use it."

NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications does not adequately prepare firefighters for emergency incident requiring rope rescue work. Rope rescue isn't something they can, just figure out when we get there.

NFPA 1006: Standard for Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications and NFPA 1670: Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents are the applicable standards for all technical rescue operations, including rope rescue.

Look for reputable technical rescue training providers who offer certification programs compliant with those two standards. Consult with your training provider regarding their equipment recommendations and preferences before taking the plunge to buy rope rescue equipment.

Why? Well, you wouldn't purchase a pumper from one apparatus manufacturer and then have another manufacturer's rep come to deliver the training on how to operate the new pumper, would you?

Having the instructors show up on the first day of class to discover that all of the new equipment you purchased isn't ideal for the techniques they will be teaching could be equally disastrous.

2. Determine your level of service
Rope rescue falls on a spectrum from low angle to high angle. Simply put, the tipping point is this: what is supporting the majority of the load?

In a low-angle situation, the majority of the weight of the rescuers and patient is on the ground, and the ropes make life easier. In a high-angle situation, the majority of the weight is on the technical rescue system, the ropes keep you alive.

After consulting with your department's personnel and the selected training provider, you will have a better idea of which level of service is necessary and realistic for your department. A department that's committed to only low-angle services will have very different equipment needs from one that provides both low- and high-angle rope rescues.

3. Have personal protective equipment
The standard structural firefighting ensemble is often adequate for low-angle rope rescue incident. However, even for low-angle rope rescue work, but especially for high-angle rescue work, your people are going to need PPE that's lighter weight and more ergonomically suited for the task.

Rescue coveralls or specialized technical rescue turnout gear (which has the appearance of structural firefighting turnouts) is a better PPE option. A helmet, eye protection, sturdy footwear, gloves and a cutting tool are all necessities for everybody on-scene.

NFPA 1855: Standard for Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Technical Rescue Incidents provides guidance and direction technical rescue protective equipment. Before purchasing for technical rescue PPE, do your market research with an eye for equipment that meets those specifications.

It is a good practice to have enough harnesses for all rescuers. But at a minimum, an agency providing low-angle services needs four harnesses for the rescuers carrying a litter; an additional two may be required to protect personnel who may need to access the patient in advance of the litter.

Most agencies now use full-body harnesses specifically designed for rescue. These devices have quick-donning buckles, lots of room to adjust straps over turnout gear and multiple steel D-ring attachment points.

Harnesses for patients can be improvised with webbing, but it is better to use a patient rescue harness, which is specially designed for this purpose. Do not use a rescuer harness on the patient.

All rope rescue equipment should meet the standards of NFPA 1983: Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services.

4. Have ropes and software
There is a daunting selection of ropes available for rescue. Your fundamental choice will come down to dynamic (high-stretch) versus static (low-stretch or very-low-stretch).

"We've all seen changes in this industry — the rope fiber industry — that has advanced our skills capabilities," said Stewart. "The difference between nylon and polyester, for instance, just the stretch factor between the two fibers."

Stewart also spoke of rope technology that has advanced the tenacity of rope, that is, its resistance to mechanical damage. "Take, for example, the 6.6 fiber used by Pigeon Mountain Industries that is very cut-resistant; it's very tenacious," Stewart said. "Most other rope manufacturers use a 6.0 fiber so it's something that PMI asks for from their rope manufacturer."

The length of rope you require will be dictated by the locations you intend to access. Many agencies find that a 200- to 300-foot rope is adequate for most low-angle situations. A rope that is too short will make life unnecessarily complicated, so if you can afford it, a 300-foot rope might be the best choice.

The rope diameter will affect its weight and breaking strength. You will also need a selection of webbing and accessory cord. The diameter of the rope dictates the diameter of the accessory cord, so consult with an expert prior to purchasing both. Load release straps and anchor straps are a good addition to your inventory as well.

5. Get hardware
You will need a selection of large, steel rescue carabiners, rescue pulleys, braking devices and accessories such as an anchor plate. These must be designed for rescue, not for recreational use.

"We tell our customers that in the long run, buying pulley and other hardware with ball-bearings is often the way to go," Burns said. "The equipment is going to be more dependable and it's going to last longer."

"Any department that's looking to get into the rope rescue business, whether that's low-angle or high-angle or whatever, should get started by contacting knowledgeable experts in the field who are experienced with using the equipment," Stewart said. 

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