The Search Rope = Survival

John J. Salka Jr. provides training on a basic, yet vitally important piece of equipment will save a firefighter’s life.


The first question that needs to be asked is, "Does your company have a search rope?" If the answer is no, you will be looking to purchase one when you finish this article. If the answer is yes, you do have a search rope, then that leads us to the second question, "When do you use the search...


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The first question that needs to be asked is, "Does your company have a search rope?" If the answer is no, you will be looking to purchase one when you finish this article. If the answer is yes, you do have a search rope, then that leads us to the second question, "When do you use the search rope?" This is not an action-packed article on structural fire tactics or rapid intervention operations, but it is an introduction and explanation of a basic yet vitally important fireground tool: the search rope.

What is a search rope? The search rope has been misnamed. Yes, we use it while conducting searches at structural fires, but the search rope would have been better named the survival rope. We don't use the search rope to locate victims or fire; we use it to find our way out of the dangerous burning building where we are conducting operations. Sure, it keeps us oriented, which lets us press on with our search, but the true value of this life-saving piece of equipment becomes evident when we need to escape or retreat from an untenable interior position.

Search ropes come in a variety of lengths and diameters and with a variety of carrying case types. We are going to look at some of the most popular of these options, discuss the benefits and shortcomings of each, and come up with realistic specifications for a search rope that will be useful and practical.

Rope Specifications

Let's start with the rope's diameter. Without getting too technical here, we want to use this rope by deploying it as we move into a burning building. The rope may be lying on the floor as it is deployed or it may be tied or looped onto objects and building components as we proceed to keep it off the floor. The rope must be small enough to be flexible yet large enough to be located with a gloved hand. It also needs to be small enough to let us pack enough of it into a single carrying case.

A diameter of approximately 5/16 inches for nylon rope or a kernmantle type rope of 7.5-millimeter diameter is the size we should be using. The rope should have a snap-type hook at each end so it can be easily connected to a substantial object or to another rope for extended operations. In addition to the snap hook at each end, a unit identification tag should be affixed to each of the snap hooks. This ID tag lets the incident commander or other unit easily determine which company is operating on the working end of the rope inside the building or hazard area. The rope must be carried in a bag or pouch that lets it deploy properly as the search team advances. Many search rope bags are equipped with a strap or handle so the firefighters carrying them can hold tools and the rope bag while maneuvering through a building.

Also useful on search ropes are distance indicators. These indicators can be knots or other tactile features that let operating firefighters feel or see how far on the rope they have traveled. A series of knots is tied in the rope at specific intervals indicating the distance from the end of the rope, which is secured outside the area or building; for instance, a single knot at the 25-foot mark, two knots (several inches apart) at the 50-foot mark and three knots at the 75-foot mark and so on until the end of the rope is reached. Additionally, a single directional knot can be tied 12 to 18 inches from the distance knots to indicate the direction to the exit end of the rope.

Knots are not high tech, require no special equipment, and cannot fall off or move on the rope. The only point that must be emphasized about the knot system is that with turns and other maneuvers inside rooms and down hallways and doors, a firefighter could travel 100 feet on the rope and still be a much shorter distance from the point of entry. The firefighter would still need to travel the 100 feet to escape, but the point of exit could be 40 feet away in a straight line.

When to Use the Rope

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