Sterling Rope Saves FDNY Firefighter

Sterling's FireTech32 rope with the Crosby Hook
Sterling's FireTech32 rope with the Crosby Hook (Sterling Rope Photo)
The Crosby Hook holds on an interior wall.
The Crosby Hook holds on an interior wall.  (Sterling Rope Photo)

A New York City firefighter who was forced to bail out of a burning building is alive today because he was equipped with a Personal Escape Rope (PER) made by a Maine company – Sterling Rope.

The firefighter was on the third floor of a three-story building in Brooklyn in January 2008 when his position above the fire became untenable and he radioed that he was trapped, according to Tim Kelly, a retired FDNY lieutenant who was a member of the department's PER standards development team.

Kelly said the firefighter, who has declined to be interviewed or identified, attached his PER anchor hook to a window sill and went out head-first. "He descended a short distance to a tower bucket at the fire floor, and they picked him off the rope," he said.

The firefighter, according to Kelly, used a device attached to the rope to stop his descent, turn upright and lower himself to the bucket.

The Sterling rope – called FireTech32 – is a key component of a FDNY personal escape system developed in 2005 in response to the deaths of two firefighters who were forced to jump four stories to escape a fast moving fire.

Carolyn Brodsky, Sterling's president, said her firm developed the rope after extensive testing in conjunction with a FDNY evaluation team.

"FDNY told us they wanted a high heat resistant rope in 7.5-millimeter diameter," Brodsky said. "It was a difficult rope to design because in testing it had to take three falls over a steel edge while holding a 300 pound load."

Working with the evaluation team, she said Sterling had to respond to changing specifications as needed. "There were all sorts of issues to be handled," she said, "including compatibility with ascenders and rappel devices and the need to fit into a bag hung on the firefighter's harness."

The result, she said, was the FireTech32, a 7.5-mm synthetic fiber rope of 100 percent Technora that retains more strength after exposure to elevated temperatures than Kevlar, a fire service standard fiber for years. FireTech32, according to the company, is heat resistant to 932 degrees Fahrenheit, has a minimum breaking strength of 5,647 pounds and weighs 46 grams per meter.

Sterling says the rope is highly cut-resistant and is easy to pack and carry with a great tensile strength and minimal bulk. The company has been manufacturing rope for 16 years, specializing in safety and fire technology applications, land and water rescue and technical climbing.

Sterling's contract with FDNY called for supplying 13,000 fifty-foot long PERs with anchor hooks, along with sixty 600-meter spools of rope to be used for training. Sterling completed the contract within a six-month period.

The large metal hooks are made by the Crosby Group and are attached to FireTech32 by a "sewn eye." Brodsky said the rope is threaded through the hook end and sewn back onto itself with Technora thread. She said a computerized sewing program makes the sewn ends stronger than knots.

Development of FDNY's personal rescue system came after two firefighters died in January 2005 and four others were badly hurt in the Bronx when they were forced to jump out a fourth-floor window to escape the flames. FDNY assembled a broad-reaching team charged with developing an escape system for firefighters trapped in multiple story buildings, according to Lt. Kelly. He served 26 years, 15 in FDNY special operations and rescue units, before his 2007 retirement.

"It turned into quite a large team of players because we had a large amount of material to examine," he said. "But we were able to go from nothing to a personal escape system within a year, which is pretty incredible. And has made a difference in some lives."

Changing Evaluators

The evaluation team broke down the entire escape system and set up criteria to evaluate and test different ropes, descent devices, anchors and packing methods. Weekly meetings were held to mix and match rope fibers, review specifications and determine breaking strengths and temperature extremes required.

"It took just under a year before we started putting the devices out there for evaluation," Lt. Kelly said. "Any problems that showed up were corrected and adjustments made by Sterling."

When testing the new escape system, he said the team kept changing its firefighter evaluators to get different viewpoints. He estimated about 600 of FDNY's 12,000 firefighters took part. The FDNY personal escape system consists of the rope, anchor hook and Petzl EXO self-braking descender device packed in a bag and clipped to the firefighter's SCBA harness.

The system, according to Kelly, is regarded as a last resort and can be deployed in seconds: "As fast as pulling a gun from a holster. It's all pre-connected, so you pull it out, set the hook and go out the window head first."

The Technora, he said, "is a fantastic fiber because it's light, has a high tensile strength, is heat resistant and incredibly abrasion resistant. It's difficult to cut conventionally, even with a very sharp knife."

Sam Morton, Sterling's rescue safety market sales manager, said many fire departments have used ropes intended for technical rescue or utility work for similar lifelines or as search ropes.

"They worked OK and accomplished the job, but we specialized the personal escape rope," he said. "Instead of a big, heavy static rope, we made it more heat and abrasion resistant as well as lightweight."

Morton said Sterling has drawn strong interest from fire departments around the country "because they know we produced a rope meeting FDNY's requirements, and that New York puts their equipment through a rigorous R&D process. So if it meets FDNY's requirements, it will meet anybody's."

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