Besides hoses bearing water, few tools have proved as durable and as useful to New York City firefighters as rope. In longstanding rescue practices and on-the-spot improvisations, firefighters have relied on rope since the days when horses pulled engines and volunteers fought fires, right through last Sunday when two firefighters used a rope to escape a burning building in the Bronx.
In that fire, however, four other firefighters did not have ropes and jumped from the fourth floor. Two died. In the aftermath, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said that that he would consider making ropes standard gear for every firefighter. Doing so would give them a tool with a rich history, but would add more weight to what is already a hefty load.
The uses of ropes by firefighters have expanded for more than a century, just as the city has. With buildings rising to greater heights, firefighters used ropes to lower people to safety. They still do. Firefighters also tie a rope when they enter a vast smoke-filled space and hold the line so they can find their way out. And ropes are used to hoist equipment at emergencies.
But perhaps the most crucial use of rope is as a self-contained fire escape for firefighters themselves. Fire Department ladders outside buildings cannot always be mounted in time to reach trapped firefighters. But a rope, carried in a firefighter's coat pocket, can be quickly unfurled.
The lifesaving utility of a rope was apparent last Sunday. Two firefighters from Rescue 3 who were trapped by fire in a room on the fourth floor of 236 East 178th Street, Jeffrey G. Cool and Joseph P. DiBernardo, quickly fastened a length of rope to child safety bars attached to a window, each taking a turn to lower himself part of the way to the ground.
That sort of desperate utility led the department in 1990 to order that all 11,000 firefighters be equipped with a personal safety rope, but the department abandoned that regulation in 2000.
The nylon ropes, which were three-eighths of an inch thick and 40 feet long, came coiled in a pouch that could be stored in the jacket pockets of the gear that firefighters wore and were attached to harnesses around their waists.
Some firefighters liked carrying a safety rope for emergencies. "You knew that you had a way out," said one former firefighter.
But some firefighters complained about the rope's bulk, especially after 1994, when the department issued heavier protective bunker gear with jackets that had shallower pockets than the old coats.
Other equipment changes during the 1990's required firefighters to carry more, including tools to break down doors, infrared cameras to search for fire through walls, fire protective hoods and harnesses that looped around a firefighter's waist and bunker pants. A firefighting coat, pants, boots and a helmet weigh a total of 29