Firefighter Personal Escape Training: Ladder Bail Out Safety


(1) The entire fall protection system in place. (Photos by Joseph B. Ross Jr.) A second instructor constantly monitors the belay.

As we read about training practices initiated as a result of a tragic firefighter death or injury, we often find that fire service innovators are scrutinized for introducing new skills-skills that could help firefighters reduce or eliminate fireground deaths and injuries.

In the mid-1980s, two Maryland firefighters were severely burned in a townhouse fire when they became trapped on the second floor as a result of a flashover. Most of the press coverage and incident critique focused on the trapped firefighters and their injuries; little was said about the three other firefighters who safely bailed out on ladders from the second floor. Quite possibly, if the two trapped firefighters had received formal survival and rescue training that included survival escape methods, such as the ladder bail out and personal rope escape, they may not have sustained severe burn injuries.

(2) After making sure the belay line is secured on your Class III harness, slide your right hand under the second rung from the top and grab the third rung with the same hand.

In the Reifert Street apartment fire in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in January 1997, firefighters attributed their near-tragic but successful escape to lessons learned from a departmental survival and rescue training program. This training program was a result of a board of inquiry’s list of recommendations made after the tragic Bricelyn Street fire that occurred in February 1995, in which three Pittsburgh firefighters died.

(3) Once your right hand is secure, extend your left hand/arm to the fourth rung on the right side of the ladder.

In all of these incidents, firefighters were adversely impacted by a hazardous event that occurred during a structure fire, such as a flashover, a backdraft, a collapse, or an explosion. To prepare firefighters and officers for reducing the consequences of a sudden hazardous event, the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute (MFRI) sponsors a 24-hour Fire Fighter Survival and Rescue Program. We have taught the program, now in its third year, to hundreds of firefighters across the state. It has been very well re-ceived.

(4) Grab the fourth rung, and follow through with the remainder of your body out the window.

Although the program focuses on what firefighters can do to keep themselves from being impacted by a sudden hazardous event, we also train students in firefighter survival techniques such as the ladder bail out and personal rope escape. Lately, there have been a number of articles and Letters to the Editor regarding the pros and cons of the ladder bail out escape maneuver. Regarding the ladder bail out, our program has been very successful with the headfirst pivot method. This method teaches the firefighter to get his head and upper body out of the window onto the ladder. Once he stretches out headfirst on the ladder, the firefighter pivots on his arms and hands to an upright position and slides down the ladder in seconds.

(5) While locking your right arm around the second rung and with the remaining pressure on your left arm, pivot around to the upright position.

Of all the ladder bail out methods, we believe this maneuver is the quickest and the easiest to learn and remember. Our program also advocates that the ladder bail out should be first tried on the training ground, not on the fireground. The MFRI program requires full personal fall protection in place when training for the drill. This fall protection is also required for the personal rope escape and for both the rescuer and the victim in the ladder rescue evolutions.

(6) Once upright, use the inside of your boot and arms to slide down the ladder beams to safety.

The basic goal of personal escape is to teach firefighters to remove themselves from an interior position that is becoming or has become untenable. Training and experience will influence firefighter recognition time to help him determine when these conditions are imminent. We remind all students that these skills are dangerous if not done correctly and with supervision.


We teach that in the event of a sudden hazardous event, each firefighter should have already identified in advance an alternate avenue of escape from the structure. If the original entry point is cut off, he must use an alternate escape route. Various options are available at this point: stay and call for a rapid intervention team; breach a wall; or find, clear, and exit a window. There is only a small window of opportunity available. Time is of the essence!

The MFRI training program has two state-certified level II instructors for each personal escape skill performed. The instructors work together to facilitate effective one-on-one instruction with the student and to act as safety officers in the evolution.

(8) Weave anchor webbing through cut-up fire hose to reduce chafing. Secure the hose around an interior four-inch standpipe riser.

The MFRI program requires a structured sequence for training students in personal escape.

  1. The instructor shows and demonstrates the skill.
  2. The student practices the skill (slow-motion, no SCBA).
  3. The student practices to develop the technique.
  4. The student practices to master the technique (wearing SCBA and breathing air).
  5. The student is placed under real time pressure and conditions (real speed and smoke).

(9) Secure a tandem prusik belay consisting of two prusik loops to the belay line, which passes through a prusik minding pulley. A shock absorber attaches the system to an anchor. If the instructor minding the line becomes sidetracked, the prusik system locks up, prohibiting the student from further descent.

All evolutions are conducted with full fall protection and a fall arrest system attached to the students.

The student should reach a point during the training that is as close to “real speed and conditions” as possible so that if an incident happens in real life, the firefighter will have experienced as close to the real thing as possible and hopefully will know how to react.


Listed below are the setup procedures to teach the ladder bail out and personal rope escape methods taught in the MFRI Survival Training Program.

  1. Explain why this is done and the warning statement on the use of these skills. At least two certified instructors must teach these skills, one administering a safety line belay. Follow a lesson plan in full without deviation. Failure to use all safety precautions could result in injury or death. Freelancing will not be tolerated!
  2. Set up fall protection with 1/2-inch to 5/8-inch kernmantle rope and hardware, or use a commercial fall protection system. Establish an anchor point above the escape window. Place a prusik knot (double) around the lifeline, and attach it to the anchor point above the escape window. The prusik knot will be the braking device in the event of a slip or fall.
  3. Assemble the tools necessary for the ladder bail out or the personal rope escape-ladder, halligan, and lifeline for the firefighter to use as a personal rope. (We use the lifeline because of the number of students performing the skill.) Attach the lifeline to an anchor point inside the window where the firefighter exits.
  4. Have all students don a Class III harness over their personal protective gear. Assist and inspect all students before they enter the window to exit.
  5. Attach the fall protection to an instructor, and advise the fall protection attendant that an instructor is on the fall protection system. The instructor must demonstrate and test the system before students perform the skills.
  6. Attach the fall protection to the firefighter, and advise the fall protection attendant that the firefighter is on the fall protection system. Allow the firefighters to perform the skill.
  7. Inspect the system after every use. This system has already prevented students from receiving slip and fall injuries.

(10) The ladder heel is tied into steel eye hooks embedded at the base of the training tower. This setup alleviates the need for a heel person, which allows the second instructor to concentrate on the belay.

Because of the risks inherent in the ladder bail out and personal rope escape, it is paramount that you sequence this training step by step and use full fall protection equipment and the methods described here.

The MFRI program advocates that firefighters be trained for every conceivable problem that could occur at a structure fire. Although the course provides instruction that will assist incident commanders and firefighters in performing proper fireground size-up, sudden hazardous event recognition, and effective decision making, firefighters still need to learn personal escape and survival methods.

MICHAEL T. BAKER is a captain in and 29-year veteran of the Howard County (MD) Fire Department. He spent seven years as the county training officer and is an NFPA Level 3 certified emergency instructor, an NFPA fire officer II, and a part-time instructor for the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute (MFRI). Baker has an associate’s degree in fire protection technology. He co-developed the MFRI Fire Fighter Survival & Rescue Program and is a lead instructor in the curriculum.

JOSEPH B. ROSS JR. is an industrial training specialist with the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute. He spent 30 years with the Anne Arundel County (MD) Fire Department, retiring as division chief of special operations. Ross is past chairman of the Maryland Council of Fire & Rescue Training Academies and a professor in the EMS/fire/rescue program at Anne Arundel Community College. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection technology and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. Ross is a state of Maryland Level II emergency service instructor, a certified fire protection specialist, and a certified NFPA fire officer IV. He co-developed the MFRI Fire Fighter Survival & Rescue Program and is a lead instructor in the curriculum.


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