High-Angle Rescues, New York City


High-angle rescue operations come in many forms. One that occurs often involves workers on the outside of a structure, typically on scaffolding. Post-accident situations typically leave scaffolding severely tilted, hanging to one side, or completely vertical. Workers may be found suspended by their safety lines or hanging onto the scaffold or even the building. They may be injured by falling material, and the anchor may have been compromised.

The first critical duty of a first-arriving unit is to secure the victims to prevent them from falling while the rescue progresses. If you can remove a window and reach out (or extend with a pike pole) the snap hook of the rescue rope or life saving rope (LSR) or lower it from the roof to the victim (photo 1), the victim can be instructed to clip it to his harness or rope system.

1. The first-arriving ladder or engine company attaches the life safety rope LSR. to the worker’s rope, allowing the rope to slide down to the worker. (Photos by author.)

If you attach the rope to the victim’s rope, the LSR or rescue rope will slide down his line. Once the LSR/rescue rope is attached to the worker’s harness, tension the rope at the roof or window level (photo 2). Anchor the rope to a substantial anchor; use three half hitches or some other reliable method (photo 3).

2. Tension life-saving rope to prevent slack in it.



Now you have secured the victim until the rescue company or technical rescue team arrives to coordinate the units conducting the raising operation (photo 4).

3-4. First-alarm units tie off the LSR to a substantial anchor, using three half hitches, as described in evolutions.

In the high-angle rescue environment, the objective is to bring the victim to an area of safety, with or without an attendant. (The attendant is the firefighter who will be lowered to the victim’s position to attach the victim to the high-angle system.)


The operation described necessitates three separate rope lines. The rescuer will be sent over with two lines: one main line and one safety/belay line. The safety belay line will be set up with a prusik-minding pulley and tandem prusiks (photo 5). Many technical rescue teams or rescue companies use a load-releasing strap or hitch with a knot called a “mariner’s knot” at the anchor should the safety line become loaded.

5. The high-angle lowering system is set up to an anchor.

The main line and the safety belay line are rigged so that both the rescue firefighter and the victim will eventually be attached directly to these lines. The lowering device best suited for a two-person load is the rappel rack, which will be managed at roof or window level by the firefighter assigned (photo 6). Once all safety checks have been made on the rescuer (attendant), the rescue firefighter begins to dismount the parapet or window edge to tension the system. It becomes critical for the officer to coordinate this operation and to maintain communication between the rescuer and the lowering firefighter (photo 7).

6. The rescue firefighter prepares for the lowering operation.


7. The rescue firefighter, designated as the member to be lowered—also known as an attendant—prepares to dismount to reach the victim.

In this evolution, a mechanical advantage system is set up from a separate anchor point (photo 8). This mechanical advantage system is then attached or “piggy-backed” (hence, the term “pig rig” to describe this approach) to the main line. Some agencies and units use an alternate method whereby the lowering rope is converted to a raising system (for example, like a 3:1 or 6:1 Z-rig) after the rescuer has reached the victim; the belay/safety line continues performing that function during the raising operation (photo 9). A separate anchor point is used to maintain line management.

8. The mechanical advantage system is attached to a separate anchor. This system is used to haul the rescue firefighter and the victim back to an area of safety. Using a separate anchor for the retrieval system allows for better rope management.


9. The mechanical advantage system is attached to the main line. Note the four lines over the side of the structure; good rope management is crucial.

Once within reach of the victim, the rescuer places the end of the belay line onto the victim (photo 10). Once the belay line is connected, the rescuer is lowered farther until he is able to hook the main line to the victim (photo 11). At this point, after thoroughly checking to ensure that the victim is secured to the rescue system, the rescuer detaches the initial fire service rope holding the victim. This is to prevent the initial rescue or LSR from interfering with the high-angle system.

10. The rescue firefighter is lowered to a position just above the victim’s head. At this point, the rescue firefighter connects the victim to the high-angle system.


11. The rescuer makes attachments to the main line and safety line. Using a safety line on the victim allows for two attachment points for redundancy to help ensure safety.

If there is any concern that the victim’s harness is compromised in any way, the rescuer firefighter uses a harness (typically a rescue harness, a diaper harness, or some other harness typically carried by rescue and squad companies). This device allows the victim to be completely secured to the high-angle system (photo 12). In this case, the use of the diaper harness allows the victim to be completely encapsulated in the torso area and then attached to the main line and safety belay to the front connection as shown (photo 13).

12. If the victim’s harness is suspect, the rescue firefighter uses a diaper harness, which wraps the victim, allowing the high-angle system to be attached directly to the diaper harness. This takes the worker’s harness completely out of the operation.


13. Notice the attachment point of the diaper harness; it goes under the victim’s arms and between the legs, encapsulating the victim safely.

Once the mechanical advantage system is attached to the main line, the victim and the rescuer can be hauled to the roof level (photo 14). The rescue firefighter arrives at the roof level first. At this point, the rappel rack is locked off for safety; the rescue firefighter will have enough slack to place himself onto the roof or an area of safety without interfering with the victim. At this point, the victim is maneuvered onto the roof or to an area of safety; a piece of webbing may be placed around the victim to assist him to the area of safety (photo 15). Once the victim is on level ground, appropriate medical care can begin.

14. The rescue firefighters use the mechanical advantage system to haul the main line to the roof’s edge.


15. Moving the victim over the parapet or into a window can be difficult. A piece of tubular webbing can facilitate moving the victim onto the roof or into a window.

Like many other operations, high-angle operations require a great deal of teamwork and coordination; they can also become personnel intensive. It is important to remember that no two operations are alike.

This is just one type of rope operation rescue units may be called on to perform. The rescue environment is an ever-changing one, and rescue plans have to be flexible to deal with conditions as they arise. Having predetermined rescue company areas of responsibilities helps to reduce confusion and duplication of effort. (See “FDNY Sample Position Assignments.”)


The morning of September 26, 2006, was a clear windy morning. Within a time frame of several hours, units from the FDNY Special Operations Command and Manhattan’s Third Division would be called to perform two high-angle rescue operations.

Incident 1

Manhattan Box 849, 850 8th Avenue: a high-rise office building of mixed occupancies (photo 16); a setback at the 48th floor.

16. The view from 8th Avenue and West 49th Street. The window washers were located at the 48th Street level.

Two window washers were cleaning the 8th Avenue side of the structure in the vicinity of the 46-48th floors. During the course of their work, the scaffolding let go, causing the scaffolding to become off-tilted in an almost vertical position. Both workers were hanging by their manila rope safety lines. When the first-arriving units, Engine 54 and Ladder 4, came on-site, they were told in the lobby of the situation on the 48th-floor setback. Ladder 4 immediately secured an elevator with access to the 48th floor, as per firefighting procedures. Both companies brought their LSRs.

Rescue 1 arrived behind the first-due units and made contact with Battalion 9, the incident commander, who advised Rescue 1 of the situation. As units arrived on the 48th floor, it was evident that a high-angle rope rescue was going to be implemented. Engine 54 and Ladder 4 deployed their LSRs down to the workers and then were able to secure them back to a substantial anchor. While this operation was in progress, members of Rescue 1 began preparing for a high-angle rescue. Because of the number of obstacles encountered on the setback, it was necessary to rig the high-angle rope system into the building (photos 17, 18). The narrow hallway did not allow for a great deal of working room, but it would have to suffice. As per normal Rescue 1 positions for a high-angle job, the rescue can firefighter was designated as the rescuer. As he was preparing to be lowered, the rescue irons and hook firefighters, with the assistance of Squad Company 18, also assigned as per the dispatcher’s matrix, set up the lowering and retrieval system.

17. In incident 1, because of obstacles on the setback, members had to set up the high-angle system in a narrow hallway.


18. The doorway in which the high-angle system was set up; it led to the setback.

Because two victims had to be hauled up, the rescue company opted for a separate main line for the rescue firefighter and a separate one for both victims. Flexibility and the ability to make adjustments are key at these operations. Once the rescuer was lowered to the victims, safety lines were attached to the victims, and the first-alarm unit’s LSR was disconnected as both victims were in the high-angle system. The first victim was raised and maneuvered over the balcony. This was somewhat difficult, but the use of tubular webbing around the victims as they approached the setback greatly assisted getting both victims onto the setback. The system was reset, and the second victim and the rescuer/firefighter were brought up. Once the victims were on the setback, appropriate medical care was started. Because the first-alarm units maintained control of the elevators, emergency medical services units were able to be brought directly to the 48th floor.

Communication between members conducting the high-angle rescue and the incident commander (IC) were constantly maintained. Coordinating with the first-arriving units played a key role in the success of this operation.

Incident 2

Manhattan Box 1056, 215 East 75th Street: a 15-story high-rise multiple dwelling built in an “O” shape (photo 19).

19. In incident 2, when the scaffold collapsed, one worker was at the seventh-floor level, pinned between the scaffold and the wall. The other worker was at the fifth-floor level. Because of the distance between the victims, separate high-angle systems were set up on the fifth and the seventh floors. The workers were hanging in a completely enclosed shaft.

At approximately 1030 hours, the high-angle response matrix was assigned for a report of two workers hanging in the shaft. Arriving simultaneously, Ladder Company 25 and Rescue Company 1 were met inside the main lobby by maintenance personnel, who reported that two men were hanging, one at about the fifth floor and another at about the seventh floor. The Battalion 11 chief (the IC), who arrived just behind Ladder 25 and Rescue 1, ordered the officers of Ladder 25 and Rescue 1 to coordinate a rescue operation to get to the two men.

The officers quickly devised a game plan to get to the men as follows:

  • Rescue 1 spilt its unit into two teams; each was equipped with a full complement of high-angle equipment.
  • Ladder 25 assigned his outside team (roof and outside vent firefighter) to the roof to secure the scaffolding anchor with a utility line (photo 20).
  • The officer of Ladder 25 would coordinate the operation at the fifth-floor level, while the rescue company officer would coordinate the operation at the seventh-floor level. Having rescue company teams at each floor would facilitate getting high-angle systems set up.
  • The Battalion 11 chief/IC was given the plan and gave the order to proceed.

20. This was a 15-story high-rise multiple dwelling. Ladder companies went to the roof and tied back the scaffold anchor with their life-saving rope.

This operation was completely different from the first incident in that the high-angle systems would have to be used directly from window level, necessitating that the systems be set up in apartments. Rescue company members used the front wall, the exposure 1 side of the building; they secured an anchor rope around two windows and the front wall, thus using the fall weight of the front wall as their anchor.

Safety belay systems were quickly set up. Members of Ladder 25 and Rescue 1, by safely belaying FDNY members, were able to reach the workers from the A line apartments on the fifth and seventh floors and attach both workers to the safety belay of the high-angle system. Once attached to the safety belay, members of both companies could move the scaffold away from both workers and literally pull them to the window with FDNY high-angle rope. When Squad 18 members arrived, personnel assisted by getting retrieval systems set up in case the systems would be needed to haul the workers up and in; they also reinforced the roof anchor positions with members of Ladder 35, who also assisted on the fifth and seventh floors as well as in the roof positions. Employing the tactics as laid out in the FDNY training bulletin “Scaffold,” as well as high-angle rope rescue systems, the two workers were maneuvered into the fifth and seventh floors, where they were medically assessed, packaged in stokes baskets, brought to street level by FDNY units, and turned over to EMS units.


should constantly be reviewed.

  • The use of high-angle rope rescue equipment, once again, proved its worth; it has saved lives in the 15 years FDNY has been using it.
  • Coordination and communication among the first-alarm units and the rescue and squad units, overseen by the IC, were key to success at this technical rescue operation.
  • Review information for a structure just as for a firefighting operation; a structure’s features play a huge role in determining which high-angle tactics are employed.
  • Just like in most operations, the game plan may have to be adjusted. There can be no one set policy for all high-angle incidents.
  • Rescue and squad companies are very proficient in the high-angle techniques used today; don’t hesitate to use them if necessary.
  • At both of these operations, officers of all units used the incidents as good learning tools by reviewing the operation before leaving the scene and showing the tactics and techniques employed. Company-level critiques or reviews are invaluable to the learning process.
  • The high-angle rope rescue techniques described in this article meet all applicable standards of National Fire Protection Association 1983, Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services, 2006 ed.


Rope rescue techniques have existed in the FDNY for almost 100 years. The techniques and tactics employed in the high-angle environment are meant to deal with the modern-day technical rescue events confronting its units.

FDNY Sample Position Assignments

Below are some sample high-angle assignments based on a six-person rescue unit with suggested equipment. Use a plan that works for your jurisdiction. Having some fixed areas of responsibilities allows for good teamwork and coordination. Most importantly, have a game plan for a response of this type.

Rescue 1 Can: Class 3 harness, mechanical advantage system bag, and glass kit.

Position: operates with rescue company officer to gain access to victim; will be the rescuer if someone is to be lowered.

Rescue 1 Irons: Class 3 harness main line bag and safety line bag.

Position: operates with hook firefighter to coordinate setting up the rope system. Responsible for setting up rope system.

Rescue 1 Hook: Class 3 harness equipment backpack.

Position: operates with irons firefighter to coordinate setting up rope system, responsible for anchor system.

Rescue 1 Roof: 240-foot rope bag, can be used as an additional safety line.

Position: assists with attachment of mechanical advantage system and safety belay system.

Rescue Chauffeur: assists as needed, brings stokes basket to location of operations, reinforces positions as needed.

TOM DONNELLY is a member of the Fire Department of New York, where he serves as a lieutenant assigned to Rescue Company 1. He previously was a firefighter with Ladder Company 176 and Rescue 2. He is an instructor in the FDNY Technical Rescue School and has been an instructor with the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy for 15 years. He has been a volunteer firefighter with the Deer Park (NY) Volunteer Fire Department for 23 years. He has a B.S. degree in human resource management from St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, New York, and has been an FDIC instructor for several years.

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