By Jason Hoevelmann and Jeff Weffelmeyer
“Do we really need this thing with all of the other safety classes we have had?” “I don’t want to carry around this extra weight.” “I have been on the job for (X number of years) and have never had to jump out of a window.” And, of course, there is this partly true, sometimes misleading statement: “If we just put out the fire, we won’t have to jump out of windows.”
There is no doubt that we must be good at our primary job of fire extinguishment and we must train and drill constantly on the fundamentals that are our staples in the fire service. We have to be professionals at water supply, deploying and moving hoselines, coordinated ventilation, searching occupied spaces for victims in terrible conditions, among others.
However, a statement made by the late Paddy Brown of the Fire Department of New York is also true: “We can do this job right and still get killed.” We believe in sound fireground skills and the need for ultra-proficiency in the basics of our job; we cannot adopt the philosophy that “if we don’t believe something cannot happen to us, we won’t prepare for it.”
Firefighter bailout is a technique that we all hope we never have to use. This skill is definitely in the high-risk/low frequency category, and many believe that a bailout kit or device is not necessary because the need for bailout has never arisen for them or anybody they know.
I have found that sharing real-life incidents in which firefighters had to bail out of a building has shown some of the “unbelievers” that perhaps the need for knowing the skill should be reassessed. One of the incidents involved the fire on “Black Sunday” in New York City.1 The realism of those stories hits home and illustrates you never know what may come your way.
There are some basic things we can do to prepare and be ready for a bailout situation:
• Perform a good size-up on arrival and then ongoing size-ups as new units arrive.
• Understand the conditions and know the full capacity of the resources you have available so you can make the most effective decision concerning deployment.
• Use sound firefighting skills and techniques during suppression and search to prevent the need for bailout situations.
• Have a device or system you have trained on and are familiar with on your person so you can quickly deploy if conditions dictate.
• Know your buildings: How much rope do you have in comparison with the height of the buildings involved?
• Know what your partners are carrying in regard to their escape systems.
• Train. Train. Train.
Many of the departments that look at bailout kits and training get spooked pretty quickly by the costs and the need for facilities. You can have an escape system without breaking the budget, and you can train regularly without the need of a multistory building. An escape system can be as simple as a 50-foot section of 8mm rope (other sizes are available; ensure that the rope is rated for at least a one-person load); a large carabiner or hook from a harness; and a friction device. You can use the larger hook that is part of a harness, whether outside or inside your gear, as your friction device.
The components need to be rated appropriately and trained on by the user regularly. Many commercial devices on the market accomplish the same thing: the removal of a firefighter from an elevated location. Do your research, and try them out before purchasing.
With regard to the facility, all you need is a low prop, similar to that used for basement drills to be proficient at using your bailout kit or system. We built our prop 10 feet high, which puts the sill of the window six feet from the ground. This low prop is an economical alternative to a building and will provide your members with as many repetitions as they handle without the need for safety lines and access to a multistory building.
The low prop also provides the following benefits: to change the size of the window to increase the difficulty, to store and use them indoors, and to build speed into your repetitions. Even if you don’t have a kit or system, this low prop is great for performing window hangs and drops as an alternative.
Bailout is not the first step in our firefighting training and is not the first go-to skill when we talk about things going bad really fast. We still want to flow water, take refuge in tenable spaces, keep moving and calling for help if necessary. But, if it comes down to the window, you must have the training and equipment to perform this skill under incredible stress and untenable conditions. It has to be a reality in your training.
We can look at other dangerous occupations that have some sort of personal escape device. A fighter jet pilot comes to mind. The bailout device is called the ejection seat. The military spends millions of dollars to train their pilots and billions to give them a plane to do their job. In addition to the years of training, pilots are required to train on the proper ejection seat procedures every six months. If they fail the training, they are grounded until they pass.
Do you think pilots complain about having to wear the extra weight of the parachute or say they want to get rid of the ejection seat because they have never had to use it? The answer is no. Why do some firefighters have a hard time wearing and training on bailout systems? I don’t understand it, but I say it’s because of complacency. We can go to 20 fires and not need a bailout system; we get comfortable and think we don’t need it. Then on the 21st fire, guess what? We need it and don’t have ithttp://1.usa.gov/slNQNy.
1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report is at http://1.usa.gov/slNQNy.
Jason Hoevelmann is a 25-plus-year veteran of the fire service and has been instructing for more than 18 years. He is a career battalion chief with the Florissant Valley (MO) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. He is on the board of directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is a co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC, providing hands-on training for firefighting operations and safety and survival. He has a BS degree in fire administration from Eastern Oregon University, and has presented nationally and in Canada.
Jeff Weffelmeyer is a 15-year member of the fire service. He has served the past six years with the St. Louis (MO) Fire Department, assigned to Rescue 2. He is a staff instructor for Engine House Training LLC, a certified Missouri fire instructor, a rescue specialist with MO-TF1, and a member of the regional Strike Team 2. He was a bailout instructor for his fire department.