Personal Escape Systems Safe Lives

Most of us will never need to bail out of a building, but knowing how to do it safely, being equipped with the right tools and using a certified personal escape system is essential for every firefighter.

You're facing an untenable position — fighting flames on an upper level floor of a multiple-story structure. It's very 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.

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:

  • Lightweight building materials used in modern construction can burn two to five times faster than materials used in older homes.

  • Older construction can have substandard work, void spaces, nooks and crannies. Modifications often are made without going through an inspection and permit process. This can make orientation difficult and egress restricted.

  • The average home has more “stuff” in it than ever before and the materials 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.


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 stay 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 also is 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.


The ideal tool for bailing out is a personal escape system that is certified to meet NFPA 1983 Standard on Fire Service Life Safety Rope and Equipment, 2006 Edition. It's important that the entire system is certified, not just the individual components. Remember this a system and needs to perform as one flawlessly. The components of a personal escape system typically are:

  • Class II seat harness or escape belt.

  • Life safety rope — A rope dedicated solely for the purpose of rescue.

  • Load-bearing connectors — Carabineers, rings, quick links or snap links.

  • Descent device — Friction or mechanical device utilized to control descent on a fixed line.

  • Tether — Webbing that connects ascent device to a Class II harness or escape belt.

Over the years, I have seen many inventive firefighters develop their own systems using components from a variety of sources, including recreational equipment and hardware store purchases. This type of innovation often has been the genesis for advances in safety equipment and tools. The pioneers of personal escape systems are to be commended for acknowledging the threat and filling an equipment void, but homemade systems are not recommended because of the lack of testing, training, oversight and consistency.

The commercialization of personal escape systems during recent years has delivered an important level of quality control. There are a number of systems available to the fire service certified to meet NFPA 1983, 2006.

Like any other equipment acquisition, the selection of a personal escape system should start with a risk assessment to develop criteria. While each department is unique, the criteria for selecting a personal escape system likely will be based on ease of use, storage and attachment, weight, quality of components and whether or not the manufacturer provides training.

It's paramount for the system to be simple. As a whole, the fire service is not comfortable with rope. It's not a skill we use all the time. If you need to bail out, you don't want to be trying to learn the system in a smoke-filled hot room, nor do you want to put a complex system together while hanging out of a third-story window. You want to be able to anchor the system, clear the window and go.

Storage and attachment — This is a balancing act between three factors. The system must easily be accessible when you need it. If it takes time to get to it and deploy it, it's a hazard you don't want. The system needs to be out of the way when not deployed. You don't want it banging against you or snagging on debris. When not in use, the rope and hardware should be shielded from water, oils, dirt and other contaminants on the fireground or at a rescue scene. A dirty or degraded rope and dirty or corroded hardware are unreliable and dangerous.

Weight — Let's face it, we carry enough as it is.

Quality of components — You want to use a rope, tether and carabineers that have proven track records and are designed to work together.

Training — Make sure training classes are available through your manufacturer. You want to learn how to deploy and maintain your system from people who know it best.


There are two basic types of personal rescue systems: independent and integrated. An independent system attaches to a separate Class I or a Class II seat harness or escape belt. The rope and hardware usually are stowed in a bag that attaches to your harness or escape belt.

An integrated system employs the waist strap of your SCBA as the harness or escape belt. The hardware and rope usually are stowed in a bag that is attached to the SCBA straps or waist belt.

Each unique system has its strengths and weaknesses. There are numerous different options and models available to the fire service. I recently was shown a commercially developed personal escape system that is similar to systems I've seen put together by individual firefighters. The Personal Rescue System from Lion Apparel stows the rescue rope and hardware in a cargo pocket on the turnout pants that is designed to hold personal escape tools and keep them accessible. The inside of the pocket is divided into two compartments — one holds the rescue line, the other the hardware. Plus, it's removable so the pocket works like a drop bag.

To use the system, a firefighter opens the pocket flap and pulls out the pre-rigged carabineer and descender. The carabineer is attached to the lead end of the life safety line.

The carabineer is connected to the anchor, or the firefighter can wrap the rescue line around the anchor and hook the carabineer onto the rescue line itself. The rope is pulled taut and the lever of the descender is engaged as the firefighter backs away from the anchor toward the window. When he or she reaches the window, the pocket should be ripped off the pants leg and tossed out the window. With the descender in the locked position, the window is exited and descent to safety commences.

The chart on the left demonstrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of different types of personal escape systems.

These systems come in a variety of configurations with differing accessories. Prices vary, but any personal escape system is better than not having one at all. The important thing is to make sure the personal escape system you chose is the one in which you have the most confidence.

Walter G. M. Schneider III, Ph.D., PE, currently is agency director for the Centre Region Code Administration of the Centre Region Council of Governments in State College, Pa., and has served as a member of a number of volunteer fire departments and hazmat teams. He is a member of PA-TF1, the Pennsylvania team for Urban Search and Rescue, deployable by both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Type Strengths Weaknesses
Independent System stowed in bag

Attaches to a seat harness or escape belt to provide maximum security.

Bag shields rope and hardware from fireground elements.

Bags can get snagged during normal firefighting activity.

Coat hem can get caught on bag and not fully drape, compromising the overlap between the coat and pants.

Independent System stowed in detachable cargo pocket on pants leg

Always with the firefighter.

Attaches to a seat harness or escape belt to provide maximum security.

Pocket shields rope and hardware from fireground elements.

Personal system so you know where it has been and who has used it.

Detachable cargo pocket must be retrofit on existing gear.
Independent System stowed in a drop bag

Attaches to a seat harness or escape belt to provide maximum security.

Bag shields rope and hardware from fireground elements.

Bags can get snagged during normal firefighting activity.

Bags can bang against you during firefighting activity.

Bags can be left on the apparatus.

Integrated System using SCBA waist belt for escape harness

Bag shields rope and hardware from fireground elements.


Always with the SCBA in a hostile environment.

System is shared by several fire fighters.

Not very comfortable for use.

Waist belt needs to be very tight for optimum performance.

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