VICTIM REMOVAL, PART 2: ROOF ROPE RESCUES
BY BOB PRESSLER
Occasionally, firefighters operating on the fireground will find themselves confronted with a trapped civilian or firefighter out of reach of our ladders and cut off from all other means of escape. As conditions worsen, the trapped person will attempt almost anything to escape the fire: The person will start to climb out and straddle the windowsill, leaning farther and farther out to escape the inferno sweeping through the building. If your department has not planned for such a scenario, the civilian will shortly plunge to the ground.
On November 7, 1994, in the Bronx, New York, a four-alarm fire ripped through a 20-story senior citizen housing project of fire-resistive construction. The fire, which started in an 18th-floor apartment and was being pushed by a 40-mph wind, quickly extended out of the original fire apartment and made the interior hallway impassable. Fleeing occupants of the building left stairwell doors open, which let the tremendous heat and smoke condition spread up to the 19th and 20th floors. One occupant of an 18th-floor apartment was unable to flee the rapidly deteriorating conditions and was trapped in her apartment. Arriving fire companies observed the frantic woman at her window.
Engine companies were met with high heat and heavy smoke conditions as they tried to leave the 18th-floor stairwell and advance down the corridor; the wind-whipped flames spread down the hallway with blowtorch intensity. An interior removal of this woman was impossible at this time, and she was definitely out of the reach of fire department ladders.
Members of Rescue Company 3 were ascending the stairway to the fire floor and floor above when radio traffic indicated that the woman appeared to be preparing to jump. Two members of Rescue 3 managed to reach the roof despite high heat conditions in the stairway and, after quickly performing vertical ventilation, prepared for a roof rescue.
One of the members of the rescue company`s roof team carries the lifesaving rope as part of his tool assignment. In FDNY, the lifesaving rope is 150 feet of 916-inch nylon rope with snap hooks at both ends. It has a 9,000-lb. minimum breaking strength and a 600-lb. working load. The rope is carried in a backpack along with a lifebelt and an antichafing device, which is deployed and passes over a parapet wall or roof edge.
The rope may be used for both lowering and sliding evolutions. For a lowering procedure, as was used at this fire, the operation would need to take into account the following factors: First, not only must the member who is being lowered be secured at the roof level, but the firefighter performing the lowering must also be secured–if not, the weight of the victim and rescuer may be enough to pull him from the roof. The rope bag is inverted on the roof in line with both the victim and a substantial object on the roof. One end of the rope–the top hook of the coil–is attached to the snap hook on the lifebelt, which will secure the lowerer.
Then the rope from the top of the coil is played out to the object, which will serve as an anchor point. This anchor point should be either a bulkhead, chimney, or hole cut in the roof to expose roof beams. Soil pipes, TV antennas, or flimsy sheet metal ductwork should be avoided. The rope should be secured to this object using a clove hitch and binder. At this particular fire, the only objects on the roof were large ventilation shafts (four by four feet) that extended through the roof and were capped with sheet metal. The base of the shaft where it passed through the roof decking appeared to be steel, so the anchoring knot was tied as close to the roof surface as possible.
The member to be lowered can either snap on to his personal harness, if he has one, or use the bowline on a bight and slippery hitch. At this incident, the bowline and slippery hitch were employed. The lowering firefighter snaps onto the static part of the rope and uses the hook on his belt (either personal harness or the lifesaving rope) to wrap the working part of the rope (four turns) around the hook on either his personal harness or lifesaving belt to control the rescuer`s descent.
The method used for getting off the roof will depend on whether or not a parapet wall is present; however, it is essential to remember to get the antichafing device in place. It should be positioned so that it extends approximately five inches over the roof`s edge. Once over the edge, lowering can be controlled by radio or a third party.
At the Bronx fire, the rescuer was lowered to the 18th-floor level, where he was confronted with an elderly woman in near panic and a window only opened approximately 12 inches. The rescuer was able to hook his feet into the window frame and pull his body into the window almost up to his waist, from which position he could open the window far enough to enter completely. The woman, who had to leave her position at the window for the firefighter to enter, had retreated back into her apartment. The firefighter, by calling out for her and groping in the smoke-filled apartment, located the victim on her bed and brought her back to the window.
Because of the woman`s size and the size of the window opening, removing the victim through the window would have been extremely difficult and dangerous. Instead, he removed the life rope from his body and the roof man pulled the rope back to roof level. The roof man then attached an SCBA to the rope and lowered it back down. The rescuing firefighter, after securing the victim`s air supply, searched the rest of the apartment and surveyed the door leading to the public hallway–it was buckled from the severe heat, and fire was visible around the door frame. He returned to the woman, closing the door to that room to place one more barrier between them and the fire that was threatening the rest of the apartment. Via portable radio, he was informed that conditions in the hallway were still deteriorating and that they were on their own. Fearing that the fire might enter their apartment before exterior handlines could reach their position, a handline was stretched to the apartment and window directly below them with the intent of passing the line up to the firefighter, if necessary.
Engine companies, knowing that people were still trapped on the fire floor, mounted an aggressive attack. With the use of three
212-inch handlines, the companies were able to move out into and push down the hallway to extinguish the apartment fires and to reach the victim and her rescuer. The woman was removed to the street and treated for smoke inhalation.
Even if the woman could have been removed via the rope, she would have had to be brought in on a lower floor because the rope would not have reached ground level.
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There are numerous methods for performing a roof rope rescue, just as there are many brands and types of rope and hardware available to the fire service. However, common to all roof rope rescues are tying off to a substantial anchor point; a belayer who–in constant communication with the rescuing firefighter either by radio or a third member of the roof team–controls the rate of descent; proper methods for getting into rappelling position and descending; equipment that complies with national standards; and proper equipment use (the individual components of these systems must be used within the recommended guidelines established by the manufacturers). These–in addition to experience, training, courage, and sometimes creativity–are the elements of a safe and successful roof rope rescue. n