Large-Area Search Ropes

(1) The Marker Search Rope kit is 200 feet of 7.5-mm rope carried in a Cordura nylon bag with a quick-release shoulder strap. The bag has pockets for extra equipment.
(1) The Marker Search Rope kit is 200 feet of 7.5-mm rope carried in a Cordura nylon bag with a quick-release shoulder strap. The bag has pockets for extra equipment. (Photos by author.)
(2) The Marker Search Rope has two-inch steel rings sewn into the rope every 25 feet. A ¾-inch nylon ball encases the rope to indicate this is the first ring at 25 feet.
(2) The Marker Search Rope has two-inch steel rings sewn into the rope every 25 feet. A ¾-inch nylon ball encases the rope to indicate this is the first ring at 25 feet.
(3) The Burleson (TX) Fire Department uses a 25-foot heavy duty retractable dog leash as a search tether so firefighters can run search patterns off the main line. The leash is clipped on to the 75-foot marker ring.
(3) The Burleson (TX) Fire Department uses a 25-foot heavy duty retractable dog leash as a search tether so firefighters can run search patterns off the main line. The leash is clipped on to the 75-foot marker ring.
(4) Switching the drop bag from the back of the SCBA backpack to the front straps makes it easier for firefighters to deploy, manage, and retrieve their search lines.
(4) Switching the drop bag from the back of the SCBA backpack to the front straps makes it easier for firefighters to deploy, manage, and retrieve their search lines.

While visiting a friend with the Burleson (TX) Fire Department, he showed me the department's rope setup for large- area search. This was an area I hadn't drilled on yet with my crew. I understood the concept but if I was charged to run a large-area search operation, it wouldn't be without trial and error.

The Kit

The Burleson Fire Department uses the Marker Search Rope Kit from RescueTECH 1. The company carries a wide variety of equipment for technical rope rescue. I noticed that this was no ordinary rope. The Marker Search Rope is 200 feet of 7.5-mm RescueTECH Egress-Hybrid (aramid fiber and polyester) search rope. It has two-inch steel rings sewn into the rope every 25 feet. Next to the rings, the rope is encased with ¾-inch nylon balls to indicate distance and direction. For example, one ball represents 25 feet, two represent 50 feet, and so on. The balls are attached toward the exit side of the rope. This simple configuration allows firefighters to quickly assess distance and direction with gloved hands by using the phrase, "Ring then bump equals out to the pump."

There is an automatic locking carabiner snap device at each end of the rope. The rope is carried in a durable Cordura® nylon fabric bag with a quick-release shoulder strap.

There are many aspects to large-area search. We're only going to review some of the mechanics and problems encountered with search rope deployment. The primary purpose of the two-inch rings attached to Marker Search Rope (main line) is for firefighters to clip on with a smaller personal rope or webbing. Once tethered to the ring, firefighters can search to the left and right of the main line, executing a variety of search patterns. There's the right- and left-handed search, the hasty straight line search, the orbital search, the arch search, the aisle search, and the leap frog search. The names may vary, but these are the basic search patterns off a main line search rope. No matter which patterns firefighters use, a common problem is taking up the slack of the firefighter's personal search rope after he makes a sweep and returns back to the main line. Depending on the length of the tether, it's hard to gather in zero visibility and often gets tangled up before the next sweep.

Burleson solved this problem by using two, heavy-duty, 25-foot retractable dog leashes as part of its Marker Search Rope package. The firefighter clips the dog leash to the ring and deploys out from the main line. There's constant (mild) tension on the tether. As the firefighter sweeps around and returns to the main line, the tether retracts back into its housing.

Adapting the System

When I returned to Seattle, I started reading up on large-area search. Large- area search implies we're relying on the proper deployment of the search rope as our primary tool for the success of the operation in zero visibility. I prefer the term rope-assisted search. Rope-assisted search can mean the rope may be used in a variety of scenarios and smoke conditions, even in clear conditions. There are many realistic scenarios besides the smoke-charged commercial warehouse that may require us to use search ropes, so we still need to drill on them–for example, cold smoke conditions. A sprinkler system can hold a fire that has occurred in a mall, a theater, a school auditorium, a museum, or an underground garage and still put out a lot of smoke. The HVAC system could have spread the smoke (without heat) throughout the occupancy. Although there is no real danger of fire spread to the firefighter, visibility can still be limited. Many of these occupancies are large mazes with limited visibility where a search rope should be used to help firefighters stay oriented.

A ship fire is another place where firefighters can easily become lost and disoriented, even in clear conditions. A building collapse or searches after a major earthquake may require the use of rescue ropes to prevent fire crews from becoming disoriented in damaged buildings. Rope-assisted search doesn't always mean at a commercial building fire.

The Company Drill

Back in Seattle it was time to set up a drill. I managed to find a vacant school and got permission to use it for a rope-assisted search drill. I also decided to conduct the drill at night so there would be reduced visibility without blindfolding my crew. I like to start with a dry run to gauge our level of proficiency. This is a very realistic measure of your company's skill level. As expected, there was some confusion and lack of coordination. But after a few evolutions on the various search patterns, we were able to discuss and plan out what would work best for our team. With each practice session, our performance got better. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; better to make them in training than on the fireground when you have to do it for real. Here's what we learned:

• The success of rope-assisted search is going to be determined by your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) air supply. Once someone's air is low and the bell starts to ring, that stops the operation. That firefighter has to exit with his partner. It also means the other team is getting low on air. A good rule of thumb for air management is to divide your air supply into thirds: 1/3 of your air to enter and work, 1/3 to exit the building, and 1/3 as reserve in case you get in trouble inside the building.

• Many firefighters carry their personal tag line or search rope in a drop bag clipped on the side of the SCBA backpack. Don't leave it there. Unclip the bag and attach it to the front straps of the SCBA so it's right in front of you, making it easier to deploy, manage, and retrieve.

• Seattle firefighters carry 50 feet of personal rope in their drop bags. It's used for a variety of tasks including self-rescue. It is also the tether used to clip on to the main search line. A 50-foot tag line has pros and cons. Although we were able to cover more ground off the main line, it was hard to retrieve in reduced visibility. As the firefighters returned to the main line, the slack occasionally got caught on obstacles. Going back to clear it slowed down the evolution. Even during the arched sweeps, the tag line was getting caught up on obstacles. It became very frustrating for crew members because they would have to go back to check what was holding up the line. Many instructors recommend a shorter, more manageable tag line of 20 to 25 feet.

• As the tethered firefighters got farther away from the main line, it became more difficult for the officer to coordinate the search. In almost every evolution, one firefighter was farther ahead on the main line than his partner. The officer was reluctant to use the radio to coordinate the search. Most of the communication took place via the voice amplifier on the SCBA face piece. At times it was difficult to communicate with the entire team.

• The firefighters felt somewhat safe while being attached to a search rope. But they had to be reminded that they still needed to sound the floor as they made their sweeps, an important component of any search, which slowed down the evolution.

• We came to the conclusion that rope-assisted search is not a fast evolution. It takes a lot of time. The risk-benefit analysis needs to involve evaluating the survivability profile of the occupant vs. the time it takes to complete a rope-assisted search.

Know Your Way Out

It's challenging for an officer to clearly communicate a rescue plan so everyone on the crew understands what their roles are on the search line. It's best to keep it simple and make sure you have an exit strategy. That's the reason I like the Marker Search Rope with the balls and rings. You know exactly how far your team is in and you know which way is out. The search rope we carry is also used for other technical rescue evolutions, so we don't carry it pretied at measured intervals. The anchor knots are tied when the interior crew feels they need to tie a knot. How far we're in is anybody's guess. Nevertheless, you need to practice on the equipment you have today. The only way to be efficient and effective is to take your crew out and practice.

RAUL A. ANGULO, a veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He is also on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

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