How to buy rope rescue equipment

By Sean Michael
Incident Response Technologies

Around the world, fire/rescue departments provide a wide spectrum of rope and technical rescue services. Some departments carry ropes only for utility purposes, such as raising equipment to a roof. Others have some "first responder" rope rescue capabilities, perhaps by being able to access a vehicle off an embankment but not provide for a full litter-raising system to evacuate the patient.

Others are fully capable of high and low-angle rescue in all conditions. Whether your department is just starting to provide rope rescue services or you have been working in the area for a decade, the equipment options can be overwhelming.

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

1. Get the right training
Like everything in the fire service, the key to safely conducting rope rescue operations is getting the best training available for your team. Chiefs and officers would never consider sending a firefighter into a structure fire without SCBA training, and they should never consider sending a potential rescuer into a technical rescue situation without the appropriate training either.

Rope rescue isn’t something we can “just figure out when we get there,” and the standard Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 curricula often don’t adequately prepare rescuers for rope incidents.

There are a number of reputable providers of technical rescue training offering certification programs compliant with NFPA 1006 Standard for Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications and 1670 Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incident). If your department is considering offering rope rescue services, it is crucial to consult with your training provider regarding their equipment recommendations and preferences.

Obviously, if you are rolling out a new rope rescue program and will be training your staff, you need to have the right equipment ready for them to use during their courses. 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 would be disastrous!

2. Determine your level of service
At the broadest level, rope rescue can be described as falling on a spectrum from low-angle to high-angle. A simple way of understanding the breakpoint is looking at 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, and the ropes keep you alive. After consulting with your stakeholders and training provider, you will have a better idea of which level of service is necessary and realistic for your department. An agency that provides only low-angle services will have very different equipment needs from one that provides both low and high-angle services.

3. Personal Protective Equipment
Standard turnout gear is often adequate for most responders at a rope rescue incident, but in many cases, rescuers will need lighter-weight, more streamlined equipment. This is particularly important in high-angle rescues.

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

NFPA 1951 mandates particular standards for protective equipment for technical rescue incidents, so you should consider looking for equipment that meets these specifications.

It is 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, and an additional two may be required to protect personnel who may need to access the patient in advance of the litter.

Most agencies now utilize 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 practice to use a rescue patient harness, which is specially designed for this purpose. You should not plan on using a rescuer harness on the patient.

All rope rescue equipment you purchase should meet the standards of NFPA 1984 G (the G stands for “general use,” which assumes a two-person rescue load, as opposed to P for “personal use”).

4. 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). For all low-angle rescue applications, you will need static rope.

The choice of low versus very-low-stretch should be made in keeping with the training you have been given, as the techniques for using each type vary. Dynamic rope is designed to absorb the shock of a falling climber, and these ropes are only required in very specialized types of high-angle rescue such as mountain rescue.

NFPA 1983 covers ropes and hardware used for personal protection.

The length of rope you require will be dictated by the locations you intend to access. Many agencies find that a 200-300 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.

Be sure to protect your rope by following the manufacturer’s inspection, cleaning, and storage instructions and by keeping it in a rope bag. Don’t forget edge protection to minimize abrasion while on-scene.

The rope diameter you select will affect its weight and breaking strength, and your training provider will likely have good input on their preferences. You will also need a selection of webbing and accessory cord, and your training provider can help you in this respect as well.

It is important to note that 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. Hardware
You will need a selection of large, steel rescue carabiners, rescue pulleys, braking devices, and accessories such as an anchor plate. Remember that all should be designed for rescue, not for recreational use.

Some departments are now choosing aluminum carabiners, while in the personal escape systems, there is often a controlled descent device.

A Stokes litter with a litter harness to attach it to your rope system is also a necessity if you intend to evacuate patients.

Beginning to offer technical rescue services is exciting! Find the best training you can, and work with your trainers to select the equipment that meets your department’s needs. Stay safe, and good luck!

  •  Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or e-mail with your feedback.

Sean Michael has 10 years of experience in emergency services including ski patrol, mountain search and rescue, fire/rescue, and air and ground EMS. He is an owner and regional sales director at Incident Response Technologies, LLC., is currently a medical student and was previously the Operations Division Chief for a technical rescue agency in Boulder, Colorado.

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