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Establishing the Rope Rescue Anchor System


In any rope rescue operation, members must complete numerous steps from the initial response to the incident’s conclusion with the victim brought to safety. In a rope rescue operation, establishing an anchor point or anchor system is first and foremost, because the lives of all involved depend on it. The anchor is the basis for any successful rope rescue operation.

Training towers used to practice rope rescue evolutions are often designed with anchor points built into the structure. Unfortunately, as a result, the rescue trainees take the existence of a solid anchor point for granted and fail to appreciate its importance. Often, rescuers fail to develop the critical thinking skills needed to improvise in less-than-ideal conditions.

Rope rescue operations have been called off because the rescue team failed to recognize a suitable anchor point. Since these are potentially lifesaving situations, failing to establish a suitable anchor could cost a rescuer or civilian his life. The ability to identify, set up, and assess an anchor point’s capability is a key rope rescue concept. Although not all-inclusive, the following is a review of some basic anchor terms.

Anchor. All of the hardware and software components used to attach a rope system to an immovable object.

Anchor point. The object used for an anchor. For example, a steel I-beam, a tree, a boulder, a wall, or any large well-anchored object. A “bombproof” anchor point is one that is capable of holding the load under any circumstances (photo 1).

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(1) Photos by author.

Backup anchor. A second independent anchor that is also connected to the load, so if one anchor fails the second one will hold. Backing up all anchors under a live load is a fundamental rope rescue principle (photo 2).

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Directional anchor. An anchor that permits repositioning to a better vantage point. A directional anchor typically employs pulleys or carabiners so moveable rope systems can be pulled in the desired direction (photo 3).


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Structural anchor. An anchor attached to large building components or integral structural support components such as columns, structural steel, or standpipes/sprinkler risers. In urban and suburban settings, when anchoring to a structure, use the building’s support members (photo 4).

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Since in many cases a technical rescue operation occurs inside or on the outside of a structure, let’s consider what anchor points we can use (the following list is not all-inclusive):

  • Steel beams and beam projections; structural steel is the strongest anchor.
  • Stairwell support beams.
  • Stairwell risers and standpipes.
  • Structural concrete columns.
  • Elevator and machine housing—e.g., elevator rails embedded in concrete walls are excellent.
  • Wall sections between windows, which allow you the strength of the full wall.


When using any structural component for an anchor, carefully examine it for any signs of deterioration, such as corroded metal, weathered stonework, and deteriorated mortar in brickwork. Don’t use vents made of sheet metal, flashing, gutters, lightweight brickwork, or other weak structures.

Picket or holdfast anchor. A series of stakes that are driven into the ground to form an anchor, generally used in a wilderness or rural setting when other anchors are not available. A commonly used natural anchor is a tree or large rock, around which you can wrap the webbing or anchor rope. Trees and rocks should be large and massive enough to be considered “bombproof” (i.e., will hold under all circumstances).

Fire apparatus. Present at most rescue operations, fire apparatus can serve as a portable anchor. However, consider the following basic ground rules before using apparatus:

  • Ensure the parking brake is set.
  • Chock both front and rear wheels if possible.
  • Shut the apparatus down.
  • Anchor only to clean, dry structural parts of the apparatus. Do not anchor to bumpers, tow hooks, or components with sharp edges or that are coated with lubricants such as axle grease or oil.





Make an individual single-point connection by tying the rope directly to the anchor point with a figure-eight follow-through knot.

Another anchor option is the single-point tensionless anchor; the tensionless hitch allows the rescuer to tie off the end of the rope without reducing the strength that comes with the knot. The strength of the hitch depends on the number of wraps, the surface friction, and the diameter of the object around which you are tying. The tensionless hitch is a little different than other anchoring systems, because it wraps around the anchor, then pulls from one side. This places a rotational force on the anchor along with the normal tensile strength. To finish the knot, tie a figure-eight follow-through loop in the end of the rope with an additional safety and clip into the rope before the first wrap.




Let’s focus on some equalizing basics. For drill purposes, if a situation arises in which anchors are sparse (although rare in the urban environment, it could be an issue), then you may have to consider sharing or equalizing the anchors, using a two-point equalizing system.

The two-point self-equalizing system consists of webbing, anchor straps, or an anchor rope attached to two independent anchors, then connected to a piece of webbing about five to 10 feet in length, which is attached to a carabiner that is attached to an end line knot. Ideally, it will be perpendicular to the standing line, equally distributing the load between the two points.

You must make an X in the webbing and the system carabiner must be clipped in-line across the middle or waist of the X. This will prevent the carabiner from slipping off the webbing if one of the anchor points fails.

Another option when anchors are sparse is to use a remote anchor. Use standard ½-inch kermantle rope attached to a remote anchor, then bring the anchor to your point of operation with an in-line figure-eight knot, then attach your anchor plate to this knot. You have essentially brought the anchor to your point of operation.




Establishing the anchor system is a key component in a successful and safe rope rescue operation. Rescue teams should take the time to develop these skills and ensure that all members of the team can perform this vital task.

TOM DONNELLY is a 24-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant in Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Rescue Company 1. A member of FEMA USAR NY-TF-1, he has served as a firefighter with Rescue Company 2 and Ladder 176. Donnelly is an instructor at the FDNY technical rescue school and has been an instructor with the Suffolk County Fire Academy for 16 years. He has a bachelor’s degree from Saint Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, New York.


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