Personal Safety System Aims to Prevent Bailouts

On January 23, 2005, six Fire Department of New York firefighters who had been operating on the floor above the fire in a four-story, occupied multiple dwelling were forced to evacuate their positions through the fourth- (top-) floor rear windows. Lieutenant Curtis Meyran, the covering officer of Ladder Company 27, and Ladder 27 Chauffeur Firefighter John Bellew died as a result of their injuries. Rescue 3 Firefighters Jeffrey G. Cool and Joseph P. DiBernardo and Ladder 27 Firefighters Eugene Stolowski and Brenden Cawley were hospitalized with severe injuries.

These six members had been performing searches on the floor above the fire when, because of several problems, conditions on the fourth floor deteriorated rapidly. The six were left with no choice but to bail out the windows. Cool and DiBernardo were able to use a “self-issued” personal rope, but they lost control of their descents and ultimately fell to the rear yard. Cool, DiBernardo, and Stolowski endured extended stays in hospitals and in all likelihood will never return to firehouse duty. In 2000, the FDNY had pulled the department-issued personal ropes from service, since they had been in service for 10 years, which is the recommended life span of such a rope. The department did not issue new ropes at the time they pulled the old ropes from service.


(1) FDNY Personal Safety System. (Photos by Mike Hayes.)

Following the January 23 fire, FDNY immediately commissioned a study to develop new personal safety ropes. A team of experienced officers, under the direction of Assistant Chief Thomas R. Galvin, was assigned to devise a safe, effective, and quickly deployable personal safety system (PSS). Team members researched, developed, tested, and modified the new PSS based on information they had gathered from numerous officers and firefighters within the department and departments throughout the country. They also researched all incidents involving trapped firefighters over the past two decades.


(2) FDNY harness with D-ring attachment. System is always connected to firefighter.

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THE ANCHORING HOOK

The anchoring hook complies with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1983, Standard for Light Use Portable Anchor, and employs a 15:1 safety factor based on a 300-pound firefighter. The hook is seven inches by three inches and weighs 13 ounces. It is made of one-piece drop forged steel (like the 30-inch halligan commonly used by FDNY) and has a 5,000-pound load capacity at the tip with a 10,000-pound capacity in the saddle. It is constructed of alloy steel, which will not break but can bend under extreme load. Lighter-weight materials such as aluminum and titanium were considered, but they would have necessitated a much larger size to meet the load requirements.


(3) The anchor at the window.

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(4) The anchor at the window.

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THE ROPE

Each member’s personal kit will contain a 50-foot length of 7.5-mm kernmantle rope with a para-aramid fiber that possesses a high strength, dimensional stability, and an excellent thermal- and fatigue-resistant sheath and core. The smallest-diameter personal escape rope permitted by the NFPA is 7.5 mm. The rope selected by FDNY is noncorrosive, lightweight, and more resistant to cuts and high temperatures than any of the other ropes tested. In the course of testing different ropes, it was determined that the 7.5 mm new FDNY rope failed after 2 minutes, 23 seconds at 1,135°F with 300 pounds of weight suspended from it. A second piece failed after 2 minutes, 15 seconds at 1,124°F. This small range is acceptable considering the “noise” in the test. The old FDNY 3/8-inch nylon rope broke at 803°F after only 46 seconds of testing. This test was done in an oven to test the rope’s ability to withstand heat. Other tests evaluated the rope’s ability to withstand direct flame; the rope FDNY selected did better than the other ropes in that test.

The new rope is a static rope. The advantages of a dynamic rope were not necessary, since any energy created by a free fall and sudden stop will be absorbed by the braking device. The device will allow a certain amount of rope to pass through the cam and bring the user to a controlled stop. This system’s device absorbs the shock load; by allowing the rope to pass through the device and slowly come to a stop, the rope does not have to stretch to play the role of a shock absorber. This allowed a low stretch or static material to be used.

ROPE STRENGTH TESTS

Under the direction of Battalion Chief Andrew Richter, the FDNY Research & Development Team performed numerous strength tests on the rope. During the tensile strength tests, the rope didn’t break until an average of 5,975 pounds was attached in five sample tests. Tests employing used ropes broke at 4,600 pounds at the hook end. In the course of further testing, the rope broke at approximately 5,634 pounds at the 40-foot mark.

The drop test used for the old life-saving rope was modified to more closely resemble the scenario in which the new PSS rope will be used. The new test included five feet of rope with 18 inches of slack and a 300-pound load. With only six feet, six inches of rope used in the test for the PSS, the rope was subjected to a far greater force in this test, as opposed to the force in the life-saving rope test. Five feet of rope were stretched from the anchor to the edge, and a slack of 18 inches was left in the rope to allow for a free fall. The test was performed with five unused pieces of rope; each piece had to pass two drops. The fifth piece was subjected to nine drops without breaking.

THE DESCENT CONTROL DEVICE

More than 500,000 descent control devices were manufactured during the past 15 years, and they are in use worldwide. The device is compliant with NFPA 1983. It is lightweight, compact, and easy to deploy. It permits rapid horizontal movement and a self-braking function when the handle is released. The only way a firefighter can descend is to hold the handle in the fully open position.

Modifications were made to allow the device to operate properly with the 7.5-mm rope FDNY selected. A fall of less than four feet on a static rope or sling can create enough of a shock force to cause serious injury or death. This device has the ability to absorb the energy of a shock load within the guidelines of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard. The rope passes around a cam that, when loaded, locks the rope on a plate and prevents it from passing through the device until the handle is activated. Activation of the handle releases the rope and allows the user to continue the descent.

HARNESS PACKAGING ATTACHMENT

New harnesses were purchased for all members. The harness was modified so that the personal hook is trained to the left side of the handle with the hook support strap. The carabiner is positioned on the D ring on the right side of the harness handle. The rope is laid in the bag, which is attached to the harness on the firefighter’s right side. The hook is stored in a separate hook pocket in the bag with the tip of the hook secured in the hook tip keeper to protect the bag and the firefighter from the hook’s sharp point. The device sits on the rope separation flap of the bag with the activation handle away from the body. The carabiner attaches to the D ring of the harness. Two carabiner-securing flaps are held with self-fastening strips to the front of the bag to keep the entire device and the carabiner inside the bag.

THE TRAINING

After the Research and Development staff had tested at least 75,000 slides with what they thought was the finished product, a very detailed training schedule was devised to facilitate all 11,000 members (battalion chiefs, company officers, and firefighters) participating in an extremely well-planned intense classroom and hands-on eight-hour day at the Training Center on Randall’s Island.

The PSS training consisted of an administrative briefing about the program followed by a visual introduction to the equipment through a Power Point® classroom session. The components of the PSS were identified and described, and questions raised by members were answered.

The students then were given a two-hour “Get Out Alive” Power Point® presentation centered around recognizing changing fire conditions, the importance of proper fireground radio communications, recognizing hazards, adequate size-up, risk vs. reward, SCBA proficiency, proper FAST operations, ventilation, line placement, situational awareness, and Mayday procedures. This Firefighter Survival session focused on ways to keep members from ever needing the PSS. Deployment of the PSS was presented as an absolute last resort throughout the training. Not counting September 11, 2001, FDNY has suffered more than 50 line-of-duty deaths since 1980. This class is devoted to reducing that number in future years.

DEPLOYING THE PSS

After a short break, the members moved to one of six single-story sliding platforms. Groups of four to five students were assisted by at least one instructor and one assistant so that each student had one-on-one instruction. The members were taught that the preferred way for deploying the PSS is to wrap the rope and tie the hook around some substantial object in the room they intended to vacate. Wrapping the hook and rope around a substantial object increases the mechanical advantage and exponentially makes the system stronger. The hook’s open end is secured by tying two half hitches around the hook.


(6) High sliding station.

If a substantial object is not available, the hook is designed to dig into and hold on to any surface of the windowsill or casing. Research has shown that trapped firefighters often will not leave the window area to search for a substantial object; the hook, then, can be used for its designed purpose. This method should be used only when there is absolutely no other way out.

The students are issued a training PSS, which they will use for all but one of their slides for the day. These training kits are tan, to make them readily distinguishable from the personal kits that will be issued to every member for use in the field. Every kit is labeled with a bar code sticker, to facilitate maintaining an accurate record of which members receive the kits.

At the single-story sliding platform, the members are shown how to secure the rope and hook around a handrail similar to a towel rack. Once they have mastered that, they climb the ladder to the platform, where an instructor reviews the tie-off procedure and shows the students how to effectively exit the window. The training staff has painted a color/height above the floor/temperature indicator, which gives the students an idea of the temperatures they can expect to encounter the higher off the floor they are operating. Four-foot-high safety cushions are positioned under the training windows, and all members are belayed with a precautionary safety line for added safety during a descent. When members have demonstrated proficiency in all aspects of the procedure, they graduate to sliding from the platform on the fifth floor. Here, repeated slides are performed until the instructor and the student are completely confident in the student’s grasp of the system and the ability to use it correctly. When the members are sufficiently trained and ready, they turn their training kit in and are issued their personal kit. The personal kits are black and, like the training kits, are inventoried for quality-control purposes. The students get to perform one slide with their own kit before the training session is complete.


(5) Low sliding station.

As of September 2006, all FDNY firefighters from the rank of battalion chief and below have been trained in and issued their new systems. With this new system in place, the FDNY hopes never again to have a member jump out of a window without a tried-and-true safety device.


(7) Firefighter bailout.

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(8) Firefighter bailout.

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(9) Firefighter bailout.

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(10) Firefighter bailout.

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Patrick T. Grace, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Escambia County Fire Rescue in Pensacola, Florida, and a member of the Gulf Breeze (FL) Fire Department. He formerly was chief of the Port Dickinson (NY) Fire Department and a member of the Milton (FL) Fire Department. He has an associate’s degree in fire science from Pensacola Junior College and is a Florida-certified fire instructor, fire inspector, fire officer 1, and EMT.

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