Personal escape systems, essential equipment

By Assistant Chief/President Walter Schneider

Logan Fire Station of the Bellefonte Fire Department

You’re facing an untenable position – fighting flames on an upper level floor of a multiple-story structure. It’s real hot and it’s time to exit, but the way you entered is blocked. There’s only one way out – through the window and down. With the proper bailout equipment and preparation, this scenario is survivable. Without them, it can be disastrous.

Most of us will never need to bail out of a building during our careers, but knowing how to do it safely and being equipped with the right tools, a certified personal escape system is essential for every fire fighter. Keep in mind, the mantra of the fire service is “hope for the best and prepare for the worst”.

Fire incidents have steadily declined over the past 20 years, but that can lull us into a false sense of security. The likelihood of finding yourself in a bailout situation may be greater now than ever. Here’s why:

  1. Lightweight building materials used in modern construction can burn two to five times faster than materials used in older homes.
  2. Older construction can have substandard work, void spaces, nooks and crannies. Modifications are often made without going through an inspection and permit process. This can make orientation difficult and egress restricted.
  3. The average home has more “stuff” in it than ever before and the material in our homes have more stored energy than ever before. This means more combustibles per square foot. The fire is going to be hotter and spread faster.

We can’t do much to change those factors, but we do have control over our training, preparation and equipment.

Training – the best technique is prevention

The paramount rule of bailout training is prevention. Keep your head on a swivel, always looking for the warning signs. Never put yourself in a position that will compromise you or a member of your team.

The second rule is to know your best options for anchoring and egress. Learn the different techniques and what works best for specific scenarios. Practice until it becomes second nature and keep in practice. Always use fall arrest protection when training.

Inspect your escape system on a regular basis and keep it maintained per the manufacturer’s directions. It’s also important to keep it a “personal” system. It’s a lot easier to have confidence in your system if you’re the person who rigged it and maintains it. Use the toothbrush rule – never share it.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series written by Assistant Chief/President Walter Schneider, Logan Fire Station of the Bellefonte Fire Department, focusing on personal escape systems.