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How to survive: Entanglement scenarios

Use the swim method, grab your wire cutters and get help from other crewmembers

Most frontline firefighters don’t give entanglements much thought. How can I say that? Simple. Observation, really. More often than not, I find firefighters with empty pockets. That’s right, just carrying air. They might be carrying a short piece of rope because they have been conditioned to think that they will inevitably get lost in a building, but it typically will be tangled beyond use when you ask to see it.

Entanglements, on the other hand, happen quite regularly for interior operating companies. Entanglement can be as simple as one wire caught up in the eagle on your helmet or as complex as multiple wires on your SCBA, dangling accessories or multiple extremities. To simply try and fight them only worsens your situation.

The following is an example I personally encountered on a ranch-style house and the actions I took to escape.

A personal experience

We had put a good hit on the kitchen and living room. I took an attic ladder and wiggled my way up into the attic space and was sitting on ceiling joists while making my attack on the attic.

After a few minutes in the attic, my vibe-alert began activating. I felt comfortable enough to remain in the space because we had already knocked out the bulk of the fire. When my vibe-alert stopped activating, I then told myself it was time to exit.

As I was wiggling out between the rafters and trying to balance on the attic ladder, a wire became entangled between the hand-valve and frame of my SCBA. Because of my perceived predicament, I tried to force the issue by lowering my full-body weight onto the wire. My shoulders had cleared the ceiling joists, but my head and the majority of the SCBA were still between the ceiling joists. The action I took next was, in my mind, the fastest and one with the most likely success. I released my waist strap, loosened my shoulder straps, unclicked from my regulator, dropped to the floor and quickly exited the building. I only did this because I knew where I was in relation to the front door, and I knew the conditions between me and the front door.

Obviously, the better course of action would have been to regroup my thoughts, get back into the attic, reach for my cutters, cut the wire, and then climb down the ladder. However, as I stated earlier, most firefighters don’t give entanglements much thought and don’t carry cutters. On this day and in this case, I did not have cutters with me. Call it dumb, lazy, complacent or whatever you want – you wouldn’t be wrong. A lesson learned and not lost on me.

A lucky escape

Here’s another example that I recently observed: A crewmember of another company became entangled while making the attack at the landing of a heavily involved second floor of a log cabin. The firefighter had become entangled to the point that he could no longer work the nozzle on the three rooms involved. He told his officer, and their focus shifted to disentangling him.

This firefighter was lucky. He was lucky that they were using an automatic fog nozzle that was set on 95 gpm. While it wasn’t enough to extinguish the fire, it was just enough to keep the fire from extending any further. He was lucky because there was so much fire that the orange glow provided plenty of visibility for his crew to see what was going on and the smoke was venting through the open roof so visibility never became a factor. He was also lucky that another crew was up there to continue the attack while the rest of his crew disentangled him. Again, none of the attack crew had cutters, and the firefighters had to manually remove every wire entanglement before the firefighter could exit the second floor.

Methods of escape


Photo/Vince Bettinazzi

There are only a few methods of escape once you become entangled. The good thing about that is that you don’t have to take up much space in your memory bank when you learn them.

  • Swim method: The swim method is just as it sounds. When you walk, crawl or find yourself entangled, immediately stop. Do not try to force your way through the entanglement. Slowly start moving backwards while at the same time, move your arms in a swimming circular motion. I have seen many firefighters try to continue fighting fire as if nothing was going on, becoming increasingly more entangled to the point that they could no longer move forward with the attack and now had to focus solely on the entanglement for an extended period. I find it hard to believe that they did not realize they were becoming entangled.
  • Wire cutters: The other option is cutting the wire or wires with your cutters. Don’t try to bring the cutters to the wires. Grab the wire or wires with your free hand and bring the wires to the cutters. To save time, I typically cut on both sides of me, as very few wires that we become entangled in are free on either end. This eliminates cutting then trying to move, then trying to locate the wire again and then having to cut again. It saves a little time and effort this way.
  • Ask a firefighter: You would think this would be obvious. However, it’s not a common practice from my observation. The only time I have seen a firefighter ask for help is when they were entangled and didn’t have cutters of their own.

Encountering multiple wires and pushing forward

When encountering multiple wires, after using the swim method to remove yourself from the entanglement, if you have a long tool, you can crawl with your back to the floor using the long tool to keep the wires held above you as you move under them. Of course, you will want to communicate this information and leave the long tool for the rest of the crew so that they don’t become entangled themselves.

If you encounter only a few wires, the best option is to cut them as you find them. This will be the best option to prevent the entire crew from having to individually deal with the same wires you encountered.

When the wires are hanging low, perhaps from a failed drop ceiling that was previously hiding hundreds of miles of communications and electrical wires, staying low with your back/bottle to the ground is the best option for a short hallway or to escape a room. If it’s a larger area like an entire floor of an office building, you’re going to need to take all your tools and training into consideration.

Tools of choice

There is no one “best” tool on the market for the fire service in regards to assisting us in an entanglement. However, there are tools that will work, and we should already be carrying them when we enter a structure:

  • Flat head ax: Used to hold wires over our head and body while walking or crawling.
  • Roofhook: Used to hold wires over our body while crawling/scooting on our backs.
  • Wire cutters: Used to cut our own entanglements and those of our crew.

Whether you are entangled, trying to escape or make the push, these methods and tools offer good options. However, if you are not prepared with tools in hand or readily available in your pocket, you could find yourself in a position you don’t want to be in with no way out.
As a company officer, crew or individual, you should make sure everyone has a pair of wire cutters. The best and fastest method of escaping an entanglement is to simply ask the person next to you for help cutting the wires.

If you don’t have a set of cutters, go get some. Also practice the other techniques addressed above. You must practice and train in the use of these methods to understand that there are little tricks you will need to develop for yourself when you find yourself in an entanglement.

Stay safe. Get out and train.

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.