Envision the following scenario: You’re working off a roof ladder on a pitched roof of a 2 1/2/-story house when the roof gives in some 20 feet away from you. Your primary means of egress is cut off by the fire, and your secondary ladder was never put in place or was improperly positioned. At best, you have one minute until the fire reaches the ladder from which you’re working. How do you use the equipment you have with you and on your gear to escape?

I asked my firefighters this question one day while out training. Their responses included the following: “Hang, jump.” “Scream for help.” “Jump to the next building if possible.”

I responded: “Okay, let me see you do it now.”

Of course, none of them did it. Why? It was too much of a risk, and they knew there would be brutal consequences.

So why would this type of thinking be okay if such an emergency situation actually occurred? Because it’s better to try something instead of sitting there waiting to die.


Recognizing the need for an answer for the above situation, the team sat and put their heads together to come up with some realistic means of getting off the roof. Four of the six firefighters in the group that day had rope on their gear and said they would try to do a bailout, as they would from a window, except that they would tie off to the ladder or soil pipe. This worked fine, except that it was time-consuming to get over the edge of the roof and was not as controlled as going out a window.


Having decided that there was nothing else to try, the rope geeks had an idea, “Let’s make a bar rack out of the roof ladder.” (A bar rack is a rappelling device that uses friction to control your descent when rappelling.) The only problem was that we needed someone to belay the rope and stay on the roof. In a real situation, I don’t think someone is going to offer to stay behind. Then came the idea to self-belay and throw the personal rope to the ground. It sounded plausible, and we were donning the appropriate safety equipment to allow us to experiment.

After about 10 minutes of trying a couple of ways to rig the rope through the ladder, we had something we felt comfortable trying. We knew in theory this should work. I volunteered to go first. I couldn’t believe it when I walked off the edge of the ladder. Not only was it seamless, but it felt as if there was little to no weight on the rope. It was equivalent to hoisting a 24-foot extension ladder, and if I had to stop, I was able to do so. It was much more controlled and safer than the previous versions of bailouts I had done.

We were able to do this in less than a minute after a few practices. Additionally, the beauty of this system is that it isn’t “selfish” like an escape bag with a figure 8 rappel device that only one person can use. We were able to reset the system for the next firefighter within 10 seconds of being on the ground just by untying ourselves from the line and giving a tug on the rope.

Photos by Joseph Howard Castello.

Note: Safety first! Just as in all other bailout techniques, this one is a last-ditch effort, and safety must be the primary concern while training in this bailout evolution. All firefighters on the roof who were to be lowered donned a class III harness (photo 1) that was tied into a separate anchor with a double prusik belay (photo 2).



We used 60 feet of rope. The firefighters who keep rope with them kept approximately this length of 9-mm rope in a bag or in their pocket with a figure 8 on a bight already tied in it; a carabiner was already attached for quick use. Following are the bailout steps:

• Properly place the ladder, from ridge to eaves (photo 3).

• Lace up five rungs from the bottom (photos 4, 5).


• Attach the carabiner to the gut belt. If you don’t wear a gut belt, tie a one-handed bowline around yourself (photos 6, 7).


• Stand on the last rung of the ladder before beginning to lower yourself (photo 8).

• Begin to lower yourself using a hand-under-hand method (photo 9).

• Just like any rappel, to clear the obstacle (in this case, the roof), keep lowering yourself until your butt is level with or below your feet before you take the first step down. In this way, you will avoid hitting your head on the roof or the ladder (photo 10).

• Once level, you can take your first step off the ladder (photo 11) and continue lowering yourself until you reach the ground (photo 12).


• Once on the ground, reset the system for the next firefighter by detaching your carabiner, giving a tug on the rope, and belaying the next firefighter.


You need an appropriate length of rope. The gut belt isn’t a bad idea. You learn by practicing, developing, and refining evolutions and procedures.

If we train properly (proper ladder placement, building construction, fire behavior), we’ll never have to use bailout techniques. Although an event like this hasn’t happened yet, be proactive, not reactive. Do not wait until the drill is named after a fallen firefighter to learn this skill.

JOHN McCLEMENT is a lieutenant with the Stickney (IL) Fire Department, where he has served for the past five years. He is a certified firefighter III and a rope technician with the Illinois OSFM.

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