Firefighter escape systems: Who should have them?

In theory, you can't put a price on safety; in reality, everything has a cost and must be ranked against other needs


On Jan. 23, 2005, a rapidly advancing fire forced six FDNY firefighters to bail out of a building's fourth floor.

Three escaped serious injury. Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew died from injuries suffered from the fall; Firefighter Joe DiBernardo died several years later from complication related to his fall injuries.

In the weeks following the tragedy, FDNY firefighters tested 40 products to find the right equipment to help avoid loss of life in similar situations in the future. Those efforts proved unfruitful in finding an easy-to-use system, particularly one that could be operated by a firefighter with gloved hands in a hostile fire environment.

That failure provided the motivation for a collaborative effort between FDNY firefighters and Petzl, a climbing gear company with a division that produces rescue apparatus. FDNY firefighters Chris Delisio, George Grammas, Jimmy Kelly and several others worked with Petzl to design and test a new firefighter personal escape system.

After additional rigorous testing by FDNY firefighters, FDNY issued the system to all its firefighters in 2007. In 2006, Time Magazine named the system as one of the best safety inventions of the year.

Not familiar with personal escape systems (PES)? Well here is some basic information that's applicable to commercially manufactured PES.

What's in the box
A PES is an all-inclusive setup that gives a firefighter the capability to bail out of an upper-floor window in the face of a hostile fire or to evacuate a civilian by rolling them out a window (like a firefighter bailing out of a window). When used to evacuate a victim, the system can be brought back up to the window for the firefighter to self-rescue.

These systems have five common components.

  • An anchor hook with hitching slot.
  • A descent control device.
  • Fifty feet of heat- and cut-resistant rope (typically 7.5 mm diameter).
  • A connection carabiner.
  • A carrying pack that contains the above and fits into the bellows pocket of turnout gear pants.

When firefighters find themselves in untenable conditions, the anchor hook can be tied off to or hooked around an object or placed at the window sill to create an anchor. The combination of a pre-rigging system and the anchor hook are critical to reduce the time for a firefighter to use the system.

On its website, Petzl claims to have over 40,000 of its EXO system in fire departments across the U.S. and Canada.

Following on that success, other companies have entered the marketplace with their own personal escape systems, such as the Sterling F4 Personal Escape System, the RPI Personal Escape System and the RIT PRESS Firefighter Escape System.

These systems are compliant with the requirements of NFPA 1983: Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services. The companies who manufacture and market these personal escape systems recommend that fire service personnel receive the proper training in the use of the equipment before receiving the equipment.

With an average per-unit cost of $400, firefighter personal escape systems are by no means inexpensive. The cost to outfit a fire department with 50 members would be roughly $20,000. In these days of austere fire department operating budgets, such an outlay requires analysis and planning.

Budgetary triage
Gordon Graham, the renowned subject-matter expert of risk analysis and reduction for public safety agencies and a driving force behind FirefighterCloseCalls, has greatly increased the body of knowledge for the fire service in respect to risk management. His risk/frequency matrix is widely used in fire service training programs and leadership development courses.

An emergency firefighter bail out in the face of hostile fire conditions certainly qualifies as a high-risk/low-frequency event using Graham's matrix, even for a fire department with a high number of annual fire incident responses.

Given that, a fire department's leadership must also add a sound cost-benefit analysis to its consideration of whether to purchase a personal escape system for every member of the department.

Improving firefighter safety and reducing line-of-duty deaths and injuries is, and must remain, a focus for every fire department. It is also a very emotional issue that is driven home by every serious firefighter injury and LODD.

In a perfect world, every fire department would have the financial resources to ensure that its firefighters had the best equipment of all types necessary to do the job safely, effectively and efficiently. But we don't live in a perfect world.

We live in a world where fire department leaders must make difficult fiscal choices based on available funds. For their departments to remain operationally functional, those leaders are required to apply the elements of triage — doing the greatest good for the greatest number with available resources — daily when it comes to how funds will be allocated.

One size doesn't fit all
For a large fire department, like FDNY, with a history of high fire responses and an equally high number of situations where firefighters have needed to bail out or evacuate victims from elevated windows, the decision to purchase a personal escape system for every member appears to be a sound one from both a risk/frequency and a cost/benefit perspective.

Historically, fire departments large and small have modeled themselves after the large municipal departments, particularly on a regional basis, regarding apparatus, equipment and standard operating guidelines. Departments in the northeast have looked to Boston, New York and Philadelphia; for those out west it may be Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix or Seattle.

There's nothing wrong with any sized fire department's leaders seeking out relative information and examples of best practices from other fire departments to keep from reinventing the wheel.

However, it's increasingly important for fire service leaders to not so much copy what other departments are doing, but to review what other departments are doing using Graham's risk/frequency matrix together with a careful cost/benefit analysis. In other words, make data-driven decisions.

In that context, a firefighter personal escape system for every member may be the right tool for your department. Or your available resources may be better spent on staffing, apparatus, firefighting equipment or training that can have a positive impact on firefighter safety.

Things like CAFS, thermal imaging cameras, portable radios, RIT packs or firefighter rehab equipment, all of which have been proven to help firefighters do the job more safely, effectively and efficiently, may take precedence over PES.

After all, isn't the best firefighter protection the real bottom line?

About the author

Batt. Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's EFO Program. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com.

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