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Life safety rope: 3 options for how to deploy it during rescues

All companies should carry a rescue rope for emergency situations for themselves or victims in need of a quick save


I have always been one to take a look at my surroundings, more specifically, new construction and construction types and features in my territory. It seems my territory changes every day, as I am seeing construction features that have never been in my district, or city for that matter.

Not only do I pay attention to these changes, I plan and respond with new training for my crew. Do you? We all should.

In my district, real estate is prime and expensive. Developers are building six-story wood-frame, multi-family dwellings with interior hallways and center courtyard complete with a pool on the top floor of a three-story concrete parking garage. Some even cover a six-city-block footprint.

One constant and reliable major oversight of every construction project is fire department access. It’s as if they go out of their way to limit aerial access. Long setbacks, tight parking lots filled with cars, curbside parking, dog walking pocket parks, decorative entrances and overhead powerlines often impede access needed for emergency operations at these buildings … and now, buildings being built on the third story of a parking garage.

This creates a big problem for occupants living in apartments that face the courtyard. What are their escape options? Better yet, what would be your plan for rescue of the occupants who require rescue from the courtyard window or balcony? For rescues in these occupancies, you must have a plan – and that plan should include a life safety rope.


Any crew that is commonly assigned to operate on the roof or above the fire floor should carry a life safety rope. This rope could mean the difference between life and death for any occupant trapped at a window or balcony and any firefighters cut off from their exit by fire. A simple bag with 200 feet of rescue rope, a couple of extra-large locking carabiners and some simple knot-tying knowledge could make a world of difference for someone.

Photos/Sandra DelBello

Rescue rope for all

Before I go any further, I need to stress that this discussion of life safety rope deployments should not be viewed as only for the technical rescue company. It does not require a technical rescue team. It only requires a three-person engine or ladder company. This is as basic as it gets. In fact, if a technical rescue company isn’t one of the initial-arriving companies and you choose to wait for a technical rescue team, you’re likely writing off the rescue operation altogether.

You only need to be trained in basic rappelling techniques, properly equipped, and have a radio to perform this operation safely. Keep in mind, though, having 100% buy-in from your crew is another plus.

All companies operating above a third floor, and especially above a fire floor, should carry a 200-foot rescue rope on all high-rise and mid-rise buildings. All engine and ladder companies should wear bail-out harnesses that are considered Level ll rescue harnesses.

The plan should be to carry the rescue rope on all fire-related responses to these building types and deploy as needed. Why? While assigned to one function, we could easily be reassigned to perform an immediate rescue that would be extremely time-sensitive.

Already being in or on top of the building places the crew in an advantageous position to make a rescue quicker than a formal stand-by rescue company. The potential time savings will be greatly appreciated by any occupant hanging onto the window frame, waiting for rescue or looking for a soft landing spot if forced to jump.


In critical moments, and depending on the width of the edge that the rope will be passing over, a single firefighter can serve as both the anchor point and the member who lowers the rescue firefighter. Another member will always be required to observe and direct the operation so that the recue firefighter does not inadvertently pass the occupant. Note: Once you lower the rescuer a foot, there is no pulling them back up with this operation. This is a lowering operation only.

Rescue rope set-up and deployment

There are a few options for an engine or ladder company. My recommendation is to keep it simple. The building is burning. The situation requires you to minimize the equipment and set-up time.

Option 1: Firefighter 1 is in a harness, rescue rope secured to the harness with a carabiner to the harness connection point. The anchor is Firefighter 2, also in a harness, with an extra-large locking carabiner, using a Munter hitch to lower the member to the occupant awaiting rescue. With this option, Firefighter 2 is the anchor.

Use option 1 when you have a large window frame or wide parapet wall and no immediate anchor. The friction of the rope passing over the wide edge of a parapet wall and a bunker coat would be more than enough friction to manage the weight of two grown adults.

Option 2: Firefighter 1 is in a harness, rescue rope secured to the harness with a carabiner to the harness connection point. The anchor is a 6-foot roof hook laid across an open doorway. Firefighter 2 uses a short anchor strap and extra-large locking carabiner that is secured to the roof hook and a Munter hitch is used to lower the member to the occupant awaiting rescue.

Option 2 would be employed if you were running the rope over an edge that did not provide much surface area, thus you would have less friction to manage the weight of two adults. The 6-foot roof hook laid across an open door would then be utilized to take the brunt of the weight as an anchor point.


Sophisticated systems are not an option in this situation since we must travel light, as we will most likely be assigned to or performing other initially critical functions prior to discovering occupants requiring this rescue. A Munter hitch on an oversized carabiner is sufficient for a two-person load; however, there are simple braking devices on the market that can be used.

Option 3: Firefighter 1 is in a harness, rescue rope is secured to the harness with a carabiner to the harness connection point. Firefighter 2 uses a braking device of their choice attached to a substantial anchor point to lower the member to the occupant awaiting rescue.

Option 3 can be used if you so choose with either the firefighter as the anchor point or if you have a substantial anchor point on the building.


Many rooftops on mid-rise and high-rise buildings have objects that can be utilized as substantial anchor points. Sometimes, however, we will not have the bombproof anchor points we would like or what we have isn’t our textbook training aids. We can, however, make do with what we have.

The member going over the edge will be able to go over the edge using both hands to control any shock-loading and to correct balance on the way down, using a radio to communicate with the top team to put them in the best position to make the grab. Hand signals can be used as well.


The rescue firefighter should always proceed over the edge in a controlled manner so as to not shock load the rope or surprise the firefighter acting as the anchor.

When the member reaches the occupant requiring rescue, the rescuer wants to direct the occupant to wrap their legs around the rescuer and their arms around the top of the shoulders.

If the occupant is weak or frail, the rescuer will have to wrap their legs around the victim with their arm under the arm pits of the victim. Think “bear hug.” This method will be a little different descent for the rescuer, as they will not be able to control balance or spinning. They are literally along for the ride.

In all three options, an adjustable loop with a built-in or pre-rigged connection point could be used to maintain or take the full weight of the occupant off the rescuer and move it to the rescue rope, while the rescuer and occupant still maintain the “bear hug.”

Again, when you are called to perform such a rescue and you encounter an occupant hanging out a window with smoke chugging out over their head, you will not have time to set up an elaborate lowering system or even a safety system. You will be fortunate to even make it to the occupant in time to perform the rescue in the manner discussed.

Also, as a company initially assigned to some other function, such as search or ventilation, you will want to be traveling light. So, keep it simple. Time is your enemy.

This rescue option does not call for nor require a technical rescue team. It only requires that you recognize the problem in your response area and plan accordingly. As in all aspects of our profession, training is the key to our safety and success. This method of rescue, however, will require complete understanding and many reps to become efficient.

Help yourself or your brothers and sisters

One more thing about carrying this life safety rope. If you are working above the fire, it gives you an option if you find yourself and crew cut off from a safe exit from the building. It also provides you with a way to help any brother firefighters if you hear they are looking for an exit from and upper floor if they find that they have been cut off by fire.

Throwing a rope over the edge to provide a firefighter that finds themselves in trouble can mean the difference between life or death or serious career-ending injuries.


Always use some form of rope protection when a rope goes over the edge to prevent abrasion and provide additional friction to aid in controlling the rope’s speed as it passes over the edge. The bulkier the better for control and protection.

Set up for this option could be much the same as for an occupant, only much simpler because the firefighter in trouble should have at least a basic knowledge of ropes and at minimum be wearing some kind of escape belt. If they’re not, one must ask why they wouldn’t want to give themselves a fighting chance, but at minimum even dropping down a rope with a loop tied at the end could make all the difference.

As always, train with safety in mind. Start low. A full-body safety harness and belay for both the member going over the edge and the victim should be used during training reps.

Stay safe!

[Read next: Bailout basics: Why you need a bailout system and tips for training with it]

This article, originally published in December 2020, has been updated.

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.