Trending Topics

Rope rescue: Mid-height rescues, ‘FD style’

Video shows techniques that rely on common equipment, resources available at departments; no fancy gizmos required


Rope rescue pickoffs can be accomplished within the boundaries of more common fire department capabilities.

Photos/Dalan Zartman

“FD style” sounds like we are getting ready to discuss a special hot dog or pizza. But we are actually going to discuss an essential rope rescue application that stays within the boundaries of more common fire department capabilities.

I am a huge believer in specialization, always advancing in techniques and resources. However, I am also a huge believer in dealing with the reality that most fire departments don’t have all of the latest and greatest gadgets and training. I also know that departments are often forced to adapt to what they have, and find safe and efficient ways to make it work.

The rescues addressed here are typically called “pickoffs.” But before we delve into a scenario and pick-off video, let’s review the gear.

Gear and resources: Keeping it simple

There are a million ways accomplish the goal using very advanced gear, but they require equipment and training that many fire department rescue teams simply don’t have.

To start, let’s establish what I believe most fire departments have. Most fire departments that are conducting rope rescue operations have at least a limited number of newer descent-control devices. These are devices that allow loads to be lowered or hauled, and they auto-capture the load when the device is not being actively operated.

There are many examples of these: Petzl I’Ds, multi-purpose device (MPD), D4s and D5s, Maestros and Clutches. These examples should be familiar to most of you reading this. Although many fire departments have these, they are not in unlimited quantities and have to be selectively deployed during the operation for mission-critical tasks. In other words, every rescuer is not equipped with one on their harness.

Many of these serve dual purposes as effective rappelling and ascending devices but are not often used in those applications because there aren’t enough of them. I still encounter many departments using brake bar racks and rescue figure 8s as their primary device for rappelling and lowering. If you can move away from racks and 8s as an organization and collectively update your inventories to include more versatile and efficient devices, please do so. It will radically impact your rescue capabilities.

Because many fire departments have moved toward the newer devices for this system hub, they have become hyper-focused, in my opinion, on always lowering and hauling rescuers and victims, and have neglected the importance of individual rescuers capably ascending and descending rope to perform access and rescue. It can still be done with what you have and can be more effective in certain circumstances than fixed systems.

So, as the rescue team, instead of building out a system, simply utilize existing lines that are deemed safe and compliant or deploy your own fixed lines and then rig into the line with your descent-control device. Whether you are rappelling to the victim or ascending to the victim, you will still want a belay and will need to ensure the victim also has a belay.

There are a lot of ways to accomplish this, it can be a midline knot connected to yourself on a fixed belay system with a tail that will extend to the victim and get rigged in. It can also be a fixed line with ASAPs connected to it for yourself and the victim. The bottom line: You need to ensure that redundant and compliant rigging is completed with two points of contact to both yourself as the rescuer and the victim.

Let’s shift now to build out a rescue scenario with two distinct variables.

The scenario

You are called to the scene where an individual is suspended at mid-height on some type of rope or cable. This might be a recreational rappeler/climber, an industrial worker performing some job at height, or another rescuer who ran into problems during their descent or ascent. They might be stuck because of medical emergency, a gear malfunction or a traumatic injury.

Here are the two variables:

  • Variable 1: The person is using a device to move up and down on the rope, and the rope is fixed.
  • Variable 2: The person is attached to the end of a rope or cable that is either fixed as fall protection or is a moving rope that is running through a fixed device.

Let’s work through ascending and descending with these devices step-by-step.

Ascending: Rig the device to yourself (the rescuer) with the anchored portion of the rope being the anchor end and the hand control coming back to you. Now rig a rope grab onto the rope at near extended arms reach above your position. A rope grab can be a Prusik hitch, an ascender or whatever rope grab device you have in your inventory. Connect a pulley or, in a more minimalist approach, just a carabiner to the rope grab. Pass the hand control side of the rope through the pulley or carabiner so that the rope is now directed back down toward you. You have now created a theoretical 3:1 mechanical advantage (MA) because you are both the load and the source generating the pull.

If you’re using the newer devices we are discussing, they will allow the rope to be pulled through and will auto-capture your progress when you pull and advance up the rope.


Use different variables and scenarios during rope rescue training.

When your device is drawn up against the rope grab and pulley, simply reset by advancing the rope grab. There are a series of body mechanics that you can use to help ascend more efficiently. These are all illustrated in the attached video.

Descending: This is much more straightforward. Rig the device the same way, and just simply use the manufacturer’s recommendations for managing friction and speed through proper hand and rope positioning as well as the integrated control features of the device.

Transitioning: This references converting from ascending to descending and vice versa. These devices can enable you to move in both directions if you have the proper ascending components with you. Transitioning is seamless because these devices allow you to manipulate which direction the rope travels without unrigging the device itself. This allows for very quick and safe rescues if you have ascended to the victim, rigged them and transferred their load, and are now ready to descend with them.

Now, let’s finish the rescue by discussing each variable.

Variable 1

This situation includes a victim who can be mobile if their device is still operable and you are familiar with manipulating it. When you get to the victim, you want to be slightly above the victim in most cases. Most fire departments have pickoff straps for these applications. Adjust the length of the pickoff strap so you can put the victim’s rigging point on their harness within your arm’s reach.

This strap will have two distinct buckles or rigging points on it. One is shaped like a V and one is shaped like a U. The U goes to you and the V goes to the victim. This orientation allows you to tension the strap back toward yourself. Ensure that the U is rigged in as an extension of your main line and not connected directly to your harness. The latter will put their load on your connection in an undesired way. This should be pre-rigged prior to your deployment so that you do not have to add another connector or dangerously consider forcing a bad connection.

When you are in proper position related to the victim, connect the pickoff strap or other appropriate connector (this can be safety-compliant webbing, cordage, or other engineered connectors). Pull out all slack in the strap and either make the belay connection to the victim or evaluate their existing belay if it is in place and make sure two contact points are in place and properly rigged.

Then simply access the victim’s device and operate it in a lowering fashion using proper hand position control to transfer their load onto the connector. Then remove their device and prepare to rappel down with the victim. Before you lower yourself, remember that you have picked up an additional load that will require more friction control to maintain proper speed and movement.

Variable 2

The set up and approach for this are the same as variable 1, but we have now lost the ability to simply lower the victim onto the connector. We will have to haul the victim up and transfer their load. Departments that are equipped with AZTEKS or other micromechanical advantage systems can utilize them very effectively in this scenario.

But if you do not have these systems, you can accomplish the same thing with some other basic maneuvers. If you rig in the ascending application we previously discussed, you can then rig the connector to the victim and basically do a series of step-up ascents. These require some athleticism but make short work of the load transfer without a lot of gizmos.

Once you have ascended a short distance with the victim, the progress and their load has been captured, you can now easily and safely remove their previously loaded primary connection and descend with them.

Watch more

For more detail and clarity, watch the attached video and don’t hesitate to reach out to me with questions.

Stay safe and train hard!

Dalan Zartman is a 20-year career veteran of the fire service and president and founder of Rescue Methods, LLC. He is assigned to a heavy rescue and is an active leader as a member of both local and national tech rescue response teams. Zartman has delivered fire and technical rescue training courses and services around the globe for the last 15 years. He is also an international leader in fire-based research, testing, training and consulting related to energy storage. Zartman serves as regional training program director and advisory board member for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He is a certified rescue instructor, technical rescue specialist, public safety diver, fire instructor II, firefighter II, and EMTP. Connect with Zartman via email.

A detailed look at competitive bidding, asset management, equipment selection and tool training
It’s helpful to develop a tool training schedule to ensure members’ skill remain automatic
The mission often requires a dynamic loadout of equipment based on probable risk factors and the construction and occupancy type of the fire building
An increased number of fires revealed an insufficient number of wildland-trained firefighters