BY JACQUE S. GREIFF
A personal escape system is primarily a rope and a way to get down that rope. The fact that it is called a “personal system” implies that it is small enough for a responder to conveniently carry with him all the time.
When ropes were first used in the fire service, they weren’t called escape ropes. Firefighters often slid down a rope to get off a roof, and the rope was usually 3/4-inch-diameter hemp; it certainly was not a personal rope!
In time, truckies and rescue personnel began carrying a rope that they use to “slide” from the roof, or more commonly, from a fire escape. With the development of nylon and other synthetics during World War II, smaller, lighter-weight ropes became available. Consequently, a “chunk” of nylon laid rope became a staple among the folks on the truck.
Rope technology improved throughout later decades. The strength that could be achieved with a 3/4-inch manila rope could now be obtained with rope that is 3/8 of an inch or less. These stronger, smaller, lightweight ropes made it possible for every firefighter and rescuer to carry a personal rope.
A question I often hear is, “What type of escape line should we purchase for our RIT team?” My answer is, “It depends.” Many considerations must be factored into that decision. We sought to acquire some of this information through a series of tests.
Ideally, firefighter training and standard operating procedures should make it unnecessary for drastic escape measures. Firefighters who carry an escape rope for emergency situations should be fully trained (and given refresher training) in how to use the rope to escape under punishing conditions during realistic, yet controlled, fire conditions. However, we all know that despite the best of training and the exercising of precautionary measures, Maydays occur and that escape, if possible, will have to be accomplished through “extraordinary” means.
ROPE’S PERFORMANCE IN AN EMERGENCY
To determine some of the characteristics that would help to answer the question: What rope tested would be best suited for emergency escape? Firefighting Instruction and Rescue Educational Services (F.I.R.E.S.) developed a testing protocol. Among the questions we set out to answer were the following: How would the various ropes perform? How much time would elapse between setting up the rope system and the actual escape? What were the temperatures of the ceiling and at the windowsill? What were the conditions of the ropes? Under which circumstances (if any) would the ropes fail? What were the conditions of the entrant and the equipment after testing?
The live-fire tests were conducted at the Harrisburg (PA) Area Community College (HACC). The facility’s burn building had recently been rebuilt. The old “gas-fired system” was removed and replaced with a ceramic-tile interior covering, which makes it possible to burn wooden pallets without damaging the building. The tiles also retain the interior heat and allow just a pallet or two to keep the rooms extremely hot, once the room has been brought up to temperature.
This burn structure is also equipped with a computer system that is wired throughout the building. It monitors numerous thermocouples in each room and gives a precise temperature reading at any of these locations. The computer reads the temperatures and breaks down precise information about each room on a second-by-second basis; this information can be printed (also in line graphs) when needed.
Realizing that this type of testing could be dangerous, the eight firefighter participants-in addition to my instructor wife and I, and several instructors from HACC-constituted a handpicked, very experienced group. Four were instructors from Altoona, Pennsylvania. Three of these were F.I.R.E.S. instructors with thousands of hours of rope experience. The other firefighter was a Pennsylvania State instructor. The other four participants were full-time, paid career firefighters from Prince George’s County (MD) Fire and Rescue. They, too, had many years in the fire service and were experienced rope instructors. Two from this group were also F.I.R.E.S. instructors. All but one of our eight-member entry group were paid professional firefighters.
All those involved in the testing had their own preconceived notions about what to expect. Some thought that several or all of the ropes might fail. Others expected that a few of the firefighter participants would lose control and be caught by the backup belay line while falling. Several expected that there would be no problems at all, since the participants were seasoned instructors with years of firefighting and rope rescue experience. A few just didn’t know what to expect.
The tests ropes and several of the escape devices were provided by PMI (Pigeon Mountain Industries), California Mountain Company (CMC), and SSP (Smith Safety Products). We sincerely appreciate their participation and help. Several other companies declined when we asked them to participate.
More than 100 rappel tests of the different escape lines and the various rappelling devices had been conducted by F.I.R.E.S. instructors the day before the Harrisburg tests. These descent tests were done from a 20-foot-high platform on the back wall of my garage. Each rope was wrapped around a 4-inch 2 4-inch anchor post in a tensionless wrap and then clipped into a 40,000-pound eyebolt. A total of 131 tests were conducted. The original testing took nine hours. A 7/16-inch (11mm) PMI EZ Bend rope with a PetzlT Grigri was used as a top belay for all test rappels. Testing of the prototype from Philly Strand (CMC) (about two weeks after the initial testing) took a little more than two hours.
We tested to see how much control we could expect with various devices while descending on these smaller ropes. We tried a number of descent devices on each rope. For fairness, we repeated each test with three vastly different test subjects: (1) an exceptionally healthy middle-aged male in his middle 30s who had never been on rope before the test day (see Figure 1); (2) a healthy middle-aged female, 42 years old, who was very experienced on rope (see Figure 2); and (3) me-a healthy middle-aged male firefighter, 48 years old, in full turnout gear and SCBA (not on air) who had lots of on-rope experience (see Figure 3).
The Testing Scale
The testing results were based on a 1-through-7 scale:
- 1 = no control while on rope.
- 2 = on the verge of no control.
- 3 = acceptable (fair).
- 4 = average mean (middle of the scale); OK.
- 5 = very good.
- 6 = great control, just about perfect.
- 7 = too much control, almost impossible to move.
Figures 1-4 show the complete testing results.
Harrisburg Tests Briefing
We began the “burn day” by reviewing the results of the descent tests of the day before. Next, the sequence of devices to be used was established. The decision of which device would be used with which rope was based on the following factors: the type of rope, the rope manufacturer’s recommendation, and the device each instructor felt comfortable using for a specific test. We discussed any “standards” that were in place or being taught as a means of egress in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and other states. We also discussed “specific” methods or devices individual instructors wanted to try.
Each instructor wore a Class 2 harness under his bunker pants. A full belay was rigged from the tip of an aerial ladder. The tip was approximately six feet to the side of the egress window and 20 feet above it. The PetzlT Grigri was attached with a “shock absorber” between it and the anchor point on the aerial ladder. The belay was done with a piece of 7/16-inch PMI E-Z Bend. This was attached to a 20-foot, 5/16-inch (8mm) steel cable attached to the end of the belay rope. An SMC large steel carabiner was attached to the loop in the end of the cable. This kept the “hot end” of the belay safe for the test subjects.
The following methods were used to anchor the escape lines:
- A sturdy pallet in a doorway. This would simulate cutting a hole in a wall and using the stud as an anchor point. We cut away several boards on the pallet with an ax and used the large middle upright to simulate this type of situation.
- A 3-inch 2 3-inch 2 40-inch piece of cribbing placed in a doorway. This would simulate wrapping the escape line around a piece of furniture, a piece of structural debris, or a tool in a doorway.
- The escape line wrapped around a halligan bar and placed diagonally in the lower corner of the escape window. All escape lines were equipped with a brass snap-clip so they could be wrapped three or four times and clipped off, saving time and eliminating the need to tie knots. All ropes were in a small “drop bag” that would fit in a turnout pocket. Access to the room was through an exterior metal grid stairwell, which led to the hallway immediately outside the burn room. A larger open area immediately inside from the exterior balcony was the “safety area.” Two-person teams entered the burn room. A “safety” person stayed in the hallway with a charged backup hoseline. The charged line and the safety person were used twice during the testing.
The following equipment was used for the tests:
- PMI P.E.R. 7.5mm (40 feet) personal escape rope made specifically for escape. It has a heavier sheath (bright yellow) with a tighter weave and will take a lot of abuse for a little rope.
- PMI Personal Escape descenders for its 7.5mm P.E.R.; the two create a system.
- PMI 5/16-inch (8mm) rope (40 feet). We requested these specifically since we know that firefighters are ordering this rope for use as an escape rope.
- SSP 3/8-inch (10mm-the minimum size the company says should be used for escape) (40 feet), fluorescent green escape line. A ScotchliteT tracer makes it highly reflective, even in smoke. SSP suggests using its Flat 8 with this rope. That is what it includes in its escape kits.
- SSP 5/16-inch (8mm) rope (40 feet), which we requested. SSP provided them for the testing even though the company didn’t recommend anything less than 3/8-inch (10mm) for use as an escape rope.
- CMC 5/16-inch (8mm), polyester-sheathed rescue escape line.
- CMC’s prototype 7.4mm KevlarT Escape Line, from Philly Strand, which arrived later and was tested after the above equipment. (Note: This is now fully tested and on the market from CMC.)
- a CMI flat/square 8 and its tiny Ultra-8.
- SMC extra-large aluminum Figure 8 with ears, which many rescuers carry.
- SMC large “Deaf” 8 (no ears).
- SMC Escape 8s. These small, lightweight, and strong figure 8s were built specifically for this purpose and were new when we did the testing in October 1999. CMC supplied two of them and recommended that the device be used with its rope.
- A two-year-old piece of 5/16-inch (8mm) accessory cord out of our inventory.
- Body wraps with the various ropes.
In all, we had six different devices to try with the seven samples as well as test body wraps on the sample escape lines.
MSA, Scott, and Draeger SCBAs were used during the testing.
A fire involving eight wooden pallets was “started” in the largest bedroom of the HACC burn facility. While the room was reaching the required temperature (we monitored the temperature by computer readings), the brass snap-clips were tied to the ends of each escape line. The ropes were then stuffed into CorduraT drop bags. The instructors rotated their duties throughout the various evolutions-hopefully, to control subjectivity.
We know the following: that during the average house fire ceiling temperatures are 1,200°F to 1,500°F at ceiling level; that there have been some recorded temperatures of up to 2,500°F; and that these temperatures often produce average temperatures of 500°F to 750°F at waist-to-chest level. The goal was to produce “average” temperatures. If we were going to err during this testing, we would err on the side of conservatism.
One of our instructors asked why we weren’t going for those excessive room temperatures, since “50 percent of all necessary bail outs would probably be because of excessive temperatures.” Although this is true, the safety of our instructors was paramount. We were just trying to get some sort of equitable assessment of the equipment that was being tested.
Each test essentially involved six people: the test subject and his backup in the fire room, at least one safety person in the outer hall (two were usually present), one person downstairs to monitor the times and computer readings, and the belay person up on the tip of the aerial ladder.
I monitored the entire scene, making sure that every spot was covered, everyone was ready, and all were working on the same page. I also informed the timer/computer monitor about entry, exit, completion, and other phases.
We completed 11 bail-out tests. We attempted to make all entries with ceiling temperatures at between 1,0007F and 1,2007F, resulting in a waist-level temperature near the escape windowsill of 6007F to 7507F.
During our initial test, the room was not up to temperature; when the door was opened for entry, the sill temperature fell off drastically-from 450°F to a low of 250°F (three minutes into the test). Throughout the day, test sill temperatures varied from 750°F to 312°F. They averaged just a fraction of a degree under 490°F throughout the entire day (average of 39 readings). The ceiling temperatures reached a one-time high of 1,245°F and a low of 987°F (starting temperature). The average ceiling temperature was 963°F (38 readings) for the day.
Obviously, the one temperature that mattered was the windowsill temperature. The firefighters would have to kneel next to the window to rig their descent devices. The firefighters had to get above that temperature level when they sat on the sill (or went out headfirst) during their exit from the room. The window was acting as a flue, with the heat heading up and out of it, just as it would in a flue in the average house. The sill temperature was at the level where the test ropes were (waist high). The ropes would be exposed to these temperatures. (Note: These temperatures were obviously higher as the ropes got closer to the fire.)
There was one component that we could not recreate to simulate an actual bail-out condition. During a real fire, the escape/bail out would probably occur when you were 10 to 18 minutes into the fight. You would be tired. By time you felt the need to bail out, you would be pushing your physical, mental, and psychological limits. Now you need to bail out. Think about the ramifications of reality vs. our test times!
The average test time-the time the firefighters were actually in the room-was only about one minute and 57 seconds. We had a high of three minutes and one second and a low of just over one minute and 10 seconds. You don’t just run into a building, hook up, and bail out. Even with these time intervals, the test subjects, as experienced as they are, had some very real problems.
Effects on Personnel and Equipment
Four firefighters received first- and second-degree burns-the result of getting up into the window to exit the room. The window was obviously the place where the heat and fire were trying to escape the room. Three of our firefighters burned their shoulders and upper arms. At least two suffered steam burns (one coat had an old neoprene vapor barrier). Two firefighters received first-degree burns to their faces, in front of their ears (under their hoods). One firefighter was lying on the floor holding the halligan bar in the corner of the window and received second-degree burns of the lower back and upper buttocks. He was holding the halligan because it often slipped out of the corner of the window on the cement block (tiles in this case) of the burn building. (Note: His clothing had gotten wet before he put on his turnout gear and entered the building. He had not changed into dry clothing.)
The gauges of five of the eight SCBA cylinders used during the testing melted, as did the ScotchliteT off many of the coats. Six firefighter coats were discolored. At least three had small burn holes. One helmet was destroyed.
It was surprising to us that the ropes held up so well. The damage to the escape ropes was far less than was anticipated. There was some bubbling, sheath damage, hardening, and melting. But the integrity of the rope’s cores remained. This damage was limited in scope. As a rule, the ropes held up very well. Remember that all our tests were for one person at a time. We did not test for multiple escapes on the same rope. It was unanimously agreed that this situation might create a whole new set of problems. Manufacturers point out that a personal escape system should accommodate only one person. In reality, just the opposite might occur. Under stress, several firefighters might attempt to use the same escape rope.
Rappelling devices functioned as promised, once the firefighter got them to the window. However, it was too hot to rig “while in the window.” All the firefighters found that they had to kneel next to the window to survive the heat during hookup. The problem is that once hooked up, it became difficult to work the device up to and into the window, where the firefighter could proceed with the bail out. The situation was discussed at length, and various methods were tried. It seemed to be a universal problem-no matter what the device. This is where all the firefighters took a beating and got burned. Moving the device two to three feet was a problem! If you plan to use these systems, you need to practice with them in the manner in which they will be used.
The smaller ropes and little rappelling devices were difficult to hook up while wearing full turnout gear. Wet firefighting gloves are much bulkier than rescue gloves, affording the firefighters less feel and dexterity. This can create major problems in situations like these. Often, the firefighters had to remove the prerigged devices from the rope and move them to other locations on the rope. This took a fair amount of concentration and work. Let’s also remember that this was not 15 minutes into a working fire; this was after only about 11/2 minutes in the fire room.
The other major problem was trying to find the “little hole” in the rappelling device. The lack of good vision, bulky turnout gear, having no feeling with the hands because of the bulky gloves, and the little hole all combined to create some major frustration for the experienced rope instructors. It often took many attempts to successfully complete a hookup.
The large size of the second-stage regulator (the large black round device clipped into the clear part of the face mask) of the Scott Air-PakT blocked the firefighter’s view when he tried to look down through the facepiece at the hookup.
An Unrelated Problem
During the testing, another unrelated problem surfaced. Obviously, most of us don’t wear harnesses under our turnout gear. Many of us wear “Last Chance”-type belts as part of our uniform. Most of us had assumed that if the belts were needed in this type of emergency they could be used. In fact, the consensus among the participants, after numerous attempts at ground level, was that if we needed to access our belts we would not have been able to get to them. With full turnout gear on, a coat over the bunker pants, secured SCBA straps, and firefighting gloves, it made it nearly impossible to access the belt. Doing it within a reasonable amount of time and under the prevailing severe conditions was entirely out of the question. It just doesn’t work!
Some Surprising Results
The test findings were a surprise to all involved. Although the participants were “hard core” firefighters from busy companies, they were pushed to their limits in a short time, even at the temperatures given above. They reached not only their physical limits, but some were close to their psychological limits as well. At one point, a firefighter, who had more than 16 years of experience, said that he had considered jumping out of the window before hooking up. He added that he would not have stayed in that room if it had not been a controlled test. He was briefly shaken by the experience.
It is important to remember that these firefighters were not fighting the fire. They were not behind a nozzle. They had no defense! It was only the fire and them. During the testing, their only recourse was escape. They could either bail out or leave through one of the doors. It took trust, experience, and a certain amount of dedication to complete the hookup and bail out procedure safely.
There were severe limitations in the two evolutions in which rappelling devices were not used. The SSP 3/8-inch (10mm) was used during the body wrap (evolution #3). The firefighter participating in this test, a Maryland State instructor who teaches this evolution, (Maryland uses (1/2 inch) reported that he was barely in control and that “more than one story could have been a problem.” Remember, this is the evolution being taught by most states.
Unfortunately, it is being taught with 1/2-inch (12.5mm) rope and the firefighter usually is not wearing an SCBA and there are no fire conditions. How realistic is that training? And, don’t forget that most instructors have that all-important belay on their students (as it should be). (Note: Injuries are still occurring during these courses! During 1999 in Pennsylvania, students in two classes suffered a dislocated shoulder and a broken leg. These courses were being taught with well-controlled conditions, good instructors, no fire present, and no SCBAs being worn.)
On evolution #7, the firefighter did a very successful foot slide. He created a large bight of rope and stepped into it. He then held the loop in place with both hands at about chest level. As he turned and slid off the windowsill, one of his gloves caught under the rope and became trapped between the rope and sill. He was able to remove his hand from the glove and proceed. This incident raised some questions: If his back (SCBA cylinder) had not been against the wall, would he have had less control? Or, might he have fallen out of this if he had been tired and weak? If it were more than one story, how would it have worked? This was a 3/8-inch (10mm) line. Would he have been able to control himself while on a 5/16-inch (8mm) rope? No one wanted to try the same test using smaller rope under these conditions on this particular day of testing.
When we were all tired and beat from the 11 tests, we decided to try one other set of tests “just for the fun of it.” We strung different escape ropes across the room and had a firefighter hang outside the window (just off the ground) and watched for the rope to break. Obviously, this was not very scientific. There was no way that we could keep the temperatures consistent for all the tests. And comparing 3/8-inch (10mm) with 5/16-inch (8mm) and so on was like comparing apples to oranges. But, our thought was, What if two or three firefighters decide to bail out on the first firefighter’s rope? How long might they really have before there is total failure?
We conducted six tests. One firefighter anchored the rope in the doorway in the back of the room, stretched it across the room, and threw the stuffed sack out the window. A second firefighter was standing on an attic ladder approximately six feet off the ground. He hooked in a figure 8 device, locked it off, and stepped off the ladder. This put the firefighter about three to four feet off the ground. Then, we waited for failure. The results of the melt-through tests are given in Figure 5.
OVERALL TEST CONCLUSIONS
Despite the test procedures’ many limitations, the fact that we performed only a limited number of tests, and the variables in the room’s heat, we were able to arrive at the following conclusions.
- The larger the diameter of the rope, the longer it takes to burn through. This is a pretty obvious fact, but it is worth mentioning.
- All the ropes but one (the PMI P.E.R.) gave a warning to the firefighter by dropping him six to eight inches before the sheath failed. Each successive strand failing dropped him a little farther. It took about 20 to 30 seconds for sheath failure to progress to total failure. That’s plenty of time for a firefighter to get to the ground. Note: This was a very inconclusive test; it was only one test on one P.E.R. rope.
- Our testing showed that these failures would probably not come into play unless you tried to use one escape rope for two or more firefighters. Doing this goes against everything the manufacturers tell us-and against common sense. In fact, our observations tell us that the second and third firefighters probably would not want to get on the rope. They sat in the room and watched the rope deteriorate. Remember, these are personal escape ropes.
- Essentially, we had problems with people, not with equipment. We had a failure of the firefighters. These failures occurred in rather short order, not “well into a fire.” As has been the case all too often in recent history, technology has progressed by leaps and bounds, but the human body is still the human body. Although turnout gear has vastly improved over the past few years, the human body can only take so much heat.
- All involved in this testing believe that a “safe zone” must be used to be able to bail out safely using a rope-based escape system. This haven could be an area to which the fire has not yet spread-a room, several rooms, a fire escape. You must have a safe area. Remember, you have no safety person, no belay lines, no option to exit to a safe hallway. If you wait until the fire pushes you to the last window, you will be seriously hurt or injured; there is a high probability of death. This would not be the time to deploy your escape system. If you are already physically and psychologically beaten and have no safe area from which you can deploy your escape system, you will be in a heap of trouble.
- Kevlar has a place in rope escape systems. It would be the answer in the following situations: if you have to breach a wall to use a stud for an anchor and the fire has reached the room or hallway outside of your safe area, if you anchor in a doorway and the hallway is experiencing heavy heat and fire, and if you need to tie to a hot, metal radiator. It will cost three to four times more than other rope materials, but remember, it’s your life.
Keep in mind that a personal escape system is a compromise. It must be big enough and strong enough to do its intended job. Yet, it must be small enough to be carried without too much bother. It must be out of the way so that you can carry out your normal firefighting duties.
Be proficient in the use of your rope bail-out system. Learn to use it during the conditions under which you would be expected to have to use it. After becoming proficient in its use while wearing jeans, hiking boots, and lightweight jacket, learn to use it while attired in full turnout gear with SCBA. Then learn to be good with it in heavy smoke and heat. And use it as the manufacturer suggests. After practicing, buy a new piece to carry in your coat pocket. If you don’t learn to use it in this way, you will have a 50-50 chance of getting hurt or a 50-50 chance of dying. The less (realistic) practice you do, the greater your odds of becoming injured or a statistic. An escape system is an emergency tool. Learn to use it safely and properly, or don’t carry it in your turnout coat!
For a full report of the testing, e-mail FIRES1A@aol.com or call (814) 942-1684.
JACQUE S. GREIFF is a captain on Engine 311 (a rescue engine) for the City of Altoona (PA) Fire Department. He worked on Rescue 331 for almost 10 years, the last two and a half as a captain. He has also worked as an acting assistant chief/shift commander. He is an officer of the Altoona Fire Department (Blair Co.) Hazardous Materials Team. Greiff is the owner and primary lead instructor of F.I.R.E.S. (Firefighting Instruction and Rescue Educational Services). His extensive educational/training background includes more than 5,500 hours of classes, courses, seminars, and exercises covering numerous areas of fire, EMS, rescue, and hazardous materials. A former Pennsylvania State instructor, he has taught more than 10,000 hours since 1980. Besides writing all of F.I.R.E.S. courses, he has written college-accredited courses and taught for 17 community colleges and universities. Greiff has served on American Society for Testing and Materials Committee F-32 covering search and rescue equipment, training, and certification. He also rock climbs and caves.
Live fire escape testing at Harrisburg Area Community College:
(1) Hooking in the cable just before exiting the second-floor bedroom window. (Photos by Rick Fritz.)
(2) Exiting the window. Note the steel safety cable on the left (coming from the aerial ladder belay line).
(3) Firefighter, barely visible in the smoke, prepares to exit the window for an escape line test.
(4) Firefighter gets his glove stuck under the escape line while exiting the window. Trapping your fingers under your own weight while on an 8-mm rope can be excruciatingly painful.