Firefighting, Survival Zone, Technical Rescue, Water & Ice Rescue

Starting a Rope Rescue Program


The 21st century has brought new responsibilities to fire departments across the country: all-hazard responses to biological, fire, hazmat, medical, technical, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incidents.

During many of these events, you may need to perform a rope rescue. Whether you use a low- or high-angle system to lower a 500-pound patient down a set of stairs on a stretcher (as our department once did), pick off a window washer from a dangling platform, or raise an injured worker from a confined space in a paint factory, proficiency in the technical rescue discipline is important.

Preparing for rescue scenarios specific to your response area is a priority. Small-town fire departments like mine, the Huron (OH) Fire Department (located on Lake Erie), have their own local rescue concerns. For example, our department has walked through, climbed, and preplanned rigging for rescue inside and outside of our jurisdiction’s water towers. The water tower in photo 1 is around 100 feet high and holds 500,000 gallons (photo 1).

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(1) Photos by author.

If the captain of a lake freighter has a medical emergency while in the wheelhouse, he may not be able to descend the switchback vertical stairs to the deck. If we had to rescue this patient, the 40-foot elevation from the deck to the wheelhouse and the limited number of anchor points would be critical obstacles (photo 2).

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At a local amusement park, maintenance personnel may often operate at great heights. If an injury or medical emergency occurs, the fire department would have to perform rope rescue. In the off-season, the park allows us to train on the roller coasters (photo 3).

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As rescuers, we throw a lot of muscle at problems and it usually works. But for some of these unusual emergencies, rope rescue techniques may be the safest way to mitigate the situation.

If you come from a small volunteer, combination, or large metropolitan department, low staffing issues are already raising safety concerns. How can our best rescue companies or technical teams overcome these challenges? Through evaluating projected staffing levels, training, organization, and planning, we can successfully operate efficiently and effectively when called on.




Does your department have the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) recommended number of firefighters on the scene of a working fire within the specified time-frame? Sure, we all may strive to reach those numbers, but reality says it’s probably not happening in more than one place throughout America. Expect a similar turnout for a technical rope rescue.

Evaluate your projected staffing levels, how many of your firefighters are trained in rope rescue, and the equipment you have available. If rope rescue has not been your department’s technical forte, determine what your existing staff can do.




Find a way to take your department to the next level. Make it a goal to train all department members to the rope rescue awareness level, at which personnel will be able to do the following:

  • Recognize existing and potential rope rescue situations.
  • Identify the resources necessary to conduct safe and effective operations.
  • Apply the incident command system (ICS) to rope rescue incidents.
  • Understand how to maintain site control and manage the scene.
  • Recognize general rope rescue hazards and the necessary procedures for mitigating these hazards before, during, and after a rescue.
  • Know the types and uses of personal protective equipment (PPE) used at a rope rescue incident.


If you have already achieved this goal, then strive to train most of your department to the operations level of rope rescue. Although a bit more advanced, training to this level will offer valuable skills such as self-rescue, ascending/descending ropes, constructing and using belays, lowering and using mechanical advantage hauling systems, and packaging a patient in a stokes basket (photo 4).

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One step further is to train a select number of firefighters to the technician level. Several firefighters and officers would be the so-called “rope gurus,” preferably distributed among the shifts or at each station. Or you could designate one company to perform this function (e.g., rescue, urban search and rescue, truck). These members should be well versed in all aspects of the rigging process. Once your department has achieved this training level, plan scenario-based training that will challenge the rescuers’ skills.




Plan and organize your equipment for the worst-case situation. Maybe the call will come in at 0230 hours, six months after your annual rope refresher, when your most knowledgeable rope rescue technicians are on vacation. This will certainly mean some cobwebs in the cranium, but an organized equipment cache and a plan will help you recall your previous training.

Organize your equipment by putting it into separate bags according to function instead of throwing all the hardware into plastic containers and having to sort it out at the emergency scene (photo 5), such as in the following.

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  • Personal bags. One for each rescuer who will be working at a height or near an edge. A good number of bags is eight. Each will contain a harness, a helmet, gloves, prusiks, webbing, a body cord, an oval link, carabiners, a rescue guide, and an operational plan (photo 6).
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  • Rescuer bag. Contains equipment necessary to package the victim, such as a victim harness and helmet, webbing, prusiks, a pickoff strap, a rescue guide, and an operational plan (photo 7).
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  • Edge bag. Contains equipment that will help pad sharp or 90° edges and anchor points. It includes edge rollers, entry ease plates, three-foot sections of out-of-service three- and five-inch hose, webbing, anchor straps, a rescue guide, and an operational plan (photo 8).
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  • Belay bag. Contains equipment needed to set up a tandem prusik belay, a rescue guide, and an operational plan (photo 9).
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  • Lower/haul bag. Contains equipment that personnel will use to set up a lowering system and a mechanical advantage system such as a 3:1 (Z-drag), a rescue guide, and an operational plan (photo 10).
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  • Officer bag. Contains extra equipment such as pulleys, carabiners, load-releasing hitches, webbing, prusiks, and anchor straps that may be needed in different situations. The contents of this bag can be divided up for where they are needed during the operation (photo 11).
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Once training is underway and the equipment is organized, start planning how the crews should operate together. Use the ICS, put a highly trained rope rescuer in charge of operations, divide up other operations-level personnel among the other operational functions (rescuer, belay, lower/haul, edge), designate an awareness-level rescuer as the safety officer, and make cheat sheets that reference the rescue guides for quick reminders. Incorporate all these hints and proven tricks of the trade into your organization’s operations.




By increasing your rope rescue knowledge, you will be a better firefighter and rescuer. We use ropes in many different areas of our profession, as mentioned above. Many other utility, self-rescue, and technical rescue uses can and should be a constant rope training focus. Train like you expect to operate on the scene of an emergency.

PAUL HASENMEIER is a 10-year fire service veteran and lieutenant with the Huron (OH) Fire Division. He is a paramedic, a fire inspector, a SCUBA diver, and an instructor. He has an associate degree in fire science, has worked in numerous technical rescue disciplines, and is a member of Ohio’s Region 1 Urban Search and Rescue team. He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering and School Bus Fleet magazines. He was a classroom presenter at FDIC 2008, the New York Fire Chiefs Conference, the Ohio Fire Chiefs Conference, the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation Conference, the Ohio State Firefighters Association Conference, Fire Rescue Canada, the Fire Department Safety Officers Conference, and other regional and national training events.


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