Selecting Personal Harness and Escape Systems

Personal harness and escape systems have become critical components of firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) over the past several years. Recent firefighter close calls and unfortunate line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) due to upper level entrapment have brought these systems to the forefront of firefighter safety concerns. These new pieces of equipment have enhanced firefighters’ safety on the fireground to avert any life-threatening injury or death.

How Are They Spec’d?

When it comes to making a decision on which lifesaving harnesses and escape systems to add to your firefighters’ PPE, the decision depends on what will work best for your department. There is no specific harness and escape system that will work for every fire department or every firefighter. Different features and options are available to fit each department’s and user’s needs, so there is no one size and brand that fits all. Not all fire departments operate the same, are equipped the same, or have the same response demographics. So, each department needs to determine what type/brand of harness and escape system setup works best for it.

If you are trying to determine and select the best harness and system that will work for your department, take all the associated factors into consideration. This process will require you to do your research and fact finding to determine what is most compatible with your needs.

Take a research and development approach when making this determination. Do not focus on manufacturer specifics but on generic capabilities. There are so many intricacies associated with these systems that you must take a detailed and thorough approach to each component while establishing your specifications. Break down the personal escape systems by their individual components, including the personal harness, to assist with becoming educated on all available options.

Taking the First Step

No matter which direction you take to purchase a personal escape system, one of the first decisions to make is whether to issue independent or integrated escape systems.

The independent system attaches to a Class I/II harness or escape belt issued to the individual firefighter, whereas the integrated system is incorporated with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Some personal escape system manufacturers have teamed up with SCBA manufacturers to integrate the actual certified systems into the SCBA. There are slight differences in deploying an integrated system vs. an independent system. One factor impacting these types of decisions has been economic/cost comparison.

You can break down an independent firefighter personal escape system into the harness/belt, anchor device, descent device, escape line, auxiliary hardware, and carrying method. You need to individually research all of these components as you proceed. You can purchase personal escape systems as complete certified systems or individual certified components to make complete systems.

The personal harness is a key component; you can use it with or without a personal escape system. Some departments equip their firefighters with personal harnesses first, intending to add personal escape systems in the future. This process works very well for departments that may not be able to afford the entire escape system right away but want to increase the life safety of their members. Personal harnesses can also provide firefighters with a multitude of options for self-rescue and firefighter rescue operations.

When you decide to go with an escape system, you need some form of harness or belt to establish a connection for your escape system. One type of harness is an escape belt that fastens around the waist and is intended for use as an emergency self-rescue device. Another type is a Class II personal harness that fastens around the waist and the thighs/buttocks and has a design load of 600 pounds of force. The escape belt limits the user to self rescue while the Class II harness allows for self, firefighter, and civilian rescue options.

Internal or External?

The next decision when selecting a harness is whether to go with an external or internal style harness. The internal or integrated harness can be built in or retrofitted into personal protective pants. The components of the harness should include a waist belt, leg straps, pompier hook, belt adjusters, and a floating D-ring for attaching the escape system. When considering a harness to be implemented with a personal escape system, be sure to have some type of A-frame that extends off the front of the harness that will extend the escape system descent device out in front of the user. This is imperative because it increases the peripheral vision of the system user, assists to maintain tension on the system, clears the system away from the personal protective coat to prevent entanglement, and provides for a better center of gravity. The harness is the foundation of the entire system—selecting the best suited harness for the user and escape system is extremely valuable.

When a firefighter has been forced to perform an upper-floor egress, he must establish an anchor to safely complete his self-rescue removal. The portable anchor component of personal escape systems has evolved into a couple of different pieces of equipment that offer a variety of anchoring options.

A portable anchor system is a manufactured device designed to support human loads. These anchors were originally accomplished by a carabiner attached to the end of the escape line. To sustain the anchor, the carabiner would be wrapped around a substantial object, building feature, or tool.

As technology developed, and the need for the escape system to be self-sufficient increased, manufacturers introduced anchor devices in the form of hooks. These hooks originated in the rigging industry and have since been manufactured for fire service use. By having the hook at the end of the escape line, the user can anchor off to a sill as a last resort without relying on a tool or wrapping an object for an anchor. The anchor hooks can be constructed out of steel or aluminum. Some users prefer the steel for the weight it provides so it can be used to clear a window, breach a wall to create an anchor, or remove restraint bars. Aluminum hooks are lighter but will lose strength quicker than the steel when heated.

A slot has been added to the spine of the hooks, commonly called a hitching slot, that allows the user to wrap the escape line around an object and girth hitch it back through the slot to form a suitable anchor. If the hook does not have the slot, users have to place two half-hitches back onto the hook after they wrap the object to create the anchor. This can become time-consuming and extremely difficult in a vision-obscured environment with firefighting gloved hands under intense conditions. When you are researching different types of anchoring devices, try manipulating them with the escape line and gloved hands to see which allows you to establish an anchor easier. You want to be able to establish your anchor remotely, under tension, and at the windowsill without any limitations.

Attaching the anchor device to the escape line can either be done by a knot or a sewn eye. Traditionally the anchor device was attached by a knot, figure eight, or barrel knot. The sewn eye has become a prevalent means of securing the anchor device to the escape line as well. The sewn eye is stitched with Kevlar®, which makes it very strong and compact. You should also be sure to have a knot/sewn eye placed at the end of the escape line. This will indicate that the end of the rope is near during egress and will also prevent any system tampering after it is set up for use.

Choosing the Escape Line

The choices when it comes to the escape line start with webbing vs. rope. Rope provides greater tensile strength, where the webbing is more compressible. Take into consideration what will provide you with the desired edge resistance. Technora® rope has become popular for its high heat and cut resistance. However, it is also very static and abrasive. The escape line is designed for self-rescue situations and for one use only. After you have used it in a real-time situation, you must remove it from service. The escape rope diameter per NFPA 1983, Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services (2006 ed.), should be no less than 7.5 mm and no greater than 9.5 mm. The maximum recommended length of escape line carried with your escape system should be no more than 50 feet.

Control the Descent

There is a wide array of descent devices on the market, each having different capabilities. Descent devices are the nucleus of the entire personal escape system and are often deciding factors on most escape system selections.

The two types of descent devices are friction and mechanical. Friction devices rely on the friction of rope around a friction bar. Mechanical devices are triggered by the weight of the user loading the system, and they provide an autolocking feature for self-braking descent control.

When determining the descent control device, the actual descent down the wall is the easy part. So, during your research phase, you don’t need a long distance to test a descent device. What you really need to consider are the ease of system deployment, how well the descent device allows horizontal movement across a room from a remote anchor, and how easy it is to extend the device out the window to clear the sill. These are the crucial areas departments must focus on, as these areas quickly become untenable with no room for error. Once you have transitioned the window, you have been removed from these conditions and have increased your chances for survival. Your escape will be brought to a halt if the device is not easily deployed, it becomes jammed, it prohibits your movement to your egress location, or it gets hung up on the sill. The only way of knowing how well these devices will run will be when you run them yourselves.

Other Components

Auxiliary equipment components have been incorporated with various systems to assist with ease of operation. Hardware components such as carabiners, tri-links, rings, and so on have been used to incorporate the system with the harness. If possible, use carabiners with captive bars since they allow users to rapidly disengage the harness from the escape system. An example of a situation where this is necessary is when the user needs to egress into an aerial ladder bucket or onto a ladder. The autolocking carabiner releases much quicker than a screw lock carabiner or tri-link, which, when loaded, may become too tight to be unscrewed. A tether or lanyard is also being considered as an option. The tether/lanyard, approximately seven or nine inches, is attached between the descent device and the harness. These tethers/lanyards provide the user with an extension when stored and extend the descent device away from the body for better control and vision when deployed.

Storing Your System

The methods you choose to store and carry your escape system are also important factors. You need to be able to add these escape systems as a part of your members’ PPE without drastically altering or hampering their normal operation. These systems will be worn every day in the stored position and hopefully never deployed, so operational flexibility and comfort are important. Several different methods of loading and storing personal escape systems have been developed that make them very compatible with routine use.

One of the original storage methods was a hip bag attached to the waist belt of the harness and situated on the user’s right or left hip. Later, a lumbar bag was developed and attached to the waist belt of the harness across the rear, with the descent device and anchor device resting on either the left or right hip. Another storage option is the escape system pocket bag, which has the personal escape system loaded into the storage bag and then placed into the personal protective pants pocket.

The most recent storage method has been integrating the system into personal protective pants. Many PPE manufacturers have worked with personal escape system manufacturers to develop this integrated escape system pocket. These pockets are located along the left or right leg either behind the pants pocket or in place of the pants pocket. These integrated pockets can be part of personal protective gear purchases or retrofitted to existing gear. The cost of retrofitting your existing gear can be included in your specification package for the escape system.

When considering a storage method, stress ease of deployment and access. Make sure that the personal protective coat does not interfere with access to the system. Some storage methods distend the waist area and prevent full closure of the personal protective coat. In determining the type of storage method, always remember access, change of user profile, and deployment effectiveness.

Train to Escape

When completing your specification process, don’t forget to include training. Some escape system manufacturers require authorization training for all users, while others only recommend it. All harness and escape system users should receive some form of training no matter what. This falls as a liability on the department should a firefighter be equipped with a harness and escape system and not know how to successfully deploy it under extreme situations. Several authorized escape system trainers throughout the country can provide this training either as end-user or train-the-trainer options. These programs can be written right into your specification so it’s included in your final purchase cost, or the training programs can be completed as a separate specification and bid package. Training should most definitely be completed prior to any firefighter being issued a harness or escape system—no exceptions.

Do Your Homework

The selection and specification of a personal harness and escape system are not, and should not be, easy tasks. Proper selection is a very time-consuming but valuable process that could mean life or death for one of your members. There is an abundant amount of resources available to help determine what fits your department’s needs. All personal harnesses and escape systems fall under NFPA 1983. Reference this standard to see what is required and to verify compliance.

Seek out information from other departments that have undergone this process to see what came into play and whether they have any suggestions to help with your selection process. Have several of your members test these systems, incorporate them into your existing PPE, and use them during some of your daily operations and training to make sure the harness and system will work for you. This isn’t like purchasing a nozzle or hydraulic tool; this is purchasing a piece of equipment that could determine whether your fellow firefighters will make it home alive. Don’t let anyone else make the decision for you. You make the decision because only you know what will work best for your firefighters.

DANIEL DIRENZO is a lieutenant with the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department, assigned to the Field Command Office. He is also a lieutenant/department training officer with the Bellmawr (NJ) Fire Department and a rescue specialist with New Jersey USAR Task Force 1. He is the managing member of Safety & Survival Training, LLC. He has been featured in Fire Engineering’s “Training Minutes” on personal harness use on fireengineering.com.

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