Improvising Anchor Points

By Mike Donahue

In technical rope rescue, anchor points are the foundation of everything you do. Without them, you cannot accomplish anything. From the day you learn to tie your first knot in training, two terms are embedded in your head: “bombproof” and “questionable.” Those two words refer to the strength rating of a particular anchor point. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is anchor points become a black-and-white component of an operation that is full of many different components. You’re trained to look at a possible anchor point and say “bombproof” or “questionable.” If it’s bombproof, you’re good to go. If it’s questionable, you need to back it up.

Unless someone shows you, then teaches you that there’s another way to look at things, you’ll remain trapped inside that black-and-white box. Different environments will pose different challenges when it comes to choosing and creating anchor systems. Finding or creating an anchor point in the country will be different than doing the same in a urban setting. Finding or creating an anchor point in a Class 1 building (fire resistive) such as a hotel will be different than doing the same in a vacant residential home.

As a rope technician, you need creativity to travel outside that black-and-white box, which will be the focus of this article.

When I teach rope programs, I present to students something I call “The Window of Physics,” (Figure 1), which is a window you can rig to any configuration as long as you adhere to the laws of physics. Operating in this window will provide you the opportunities to be creative to achieve a specific mission.


Remember that anchor points will be exposed to the following forces, sometimes at the same time (Figure 2):

  1. Tension.
  2. Compression.
  3. Torsional.


To operate outside the black-and-white box, counter-rig any of the forces the anchor point is seeing from the list above. If you can’t do this already, you’ll need to practice and hone the ability to recognize how a system will work and the resultant forces that will be applied to the anchor point. This is an important skill because it will tell you how you will need to counter-rig to stay inside that physics window. Taking risks or rigging outside the Window of Physics is unacceptable; doing so jeopardizes the safety of not only the crew and victim but the entire operation as well. When it comes to rigging physics, you should understand it, apply it, and respect it.

Let’s look at some examples of anchor points that demonstrate what you’ve just read above.  When operating in older residential structures, solid anchor points can be a bit challenging to find based on the victim’s location. You always have the choice to move the victim to a location that will suit your rigging operation better. There are, however, times where that just might not be an option, and you’re forced to make that location work. Photos 1 and 2 are examples of improvised anchors in a vacant residential dwelling. Photo 1 shows an anchor point created by removing the floor and wrapping the underlying joist. That joist was deemed bombproof after close inspection. The egress point for the victim was 50 feet directly in front of this point. This was an ideal spot, making the rigging setup easy.

(1) Photos by author.




Photo 2 shows an example of an overhead redirect. The victim was being removed from division 2 by a tensioned sloping high line. The rope closest to the egress point needed to be elevated to create a more friendly transition of the victim through the window. The pictured overhead anchor was created by wrapping a joist in the attic, then breaching a hole in the ceiling through which to pass the anchor strap. That anchor was also deemed bombproof after a close inspection.

Because this was a vacant house, it was easy to create damage. This was done to show students that anchors are sometimes hidden all around them. When presented with a situation where anchor points are an issue, place yourself in the location where you would desire an anchor point. Instead of standing in that spot and looking around for an anchor, perform a 360° walkaround in that area; different vantage points can produce different ideas.

When you examine an anchor, your mind is generating ideas on how to rig that point from the spot and angle in which you are positioned. Walking around the desired area will provide your mind a 360° window from which to generate ideas. What your mind see’s is what it thinks about. Sometimes tools from a completely different field in rescue can be used. Figure 3 shows a large strut base being used for an anchor point. The base is staked down, preventing any movement. Setting this plate is quicker than building a picket system. However, it’s not meant to replace it; it’s just another option you can try. You’ll also see the plate being backed up. Although it is strong, it’s still a questionable anchor, and you will need a backup. There are times you may be operating in an older or newer structure where anchor point placement is critical. If there are no suitable points available, you can build a “wedge anchor” (Photo 3).



A wedge anchor is comprised of a 4 × 4 wedge and ¾-inch plywood secured together with 16d nails. Drill a ½-inch hole in the wedge and through which you pass a piece of rope, creating a connection point. The wedge anchor is designed to accept the load force and then distribute it down the wedge and into the ¾ floor plate. By doing this, you’re spreading the load out over a larger area. You should back up an anchor such as this using an identical anchor. Remember, you’re creating questionable anchors, so back them up.


I must stress that when creating these anchors, you must calculate how physics will play its role once the anchor point is under its load. If you discover an issue, you must address and take care of it prior to loading of that anchor point. If you cannot resolve the issue, go to plan B. Under no circumstances should you disregard a found issue; it’s unsafe, unprofessional, and jeopardizes everyone involved in the operation.

Think smart, rig smart!


Mike Donahue has 18 years of fire service experience and has been a career firefighter in the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, for the last 13 years, working out of Rescue Company 1 for the past 11 years. Mike teaches a Middlesex County College as an adjunct professor and acts as the fire service program coordinator. Mike is the owner of Progressive Rescue and can be reached at



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