The LifeCender Personal Escape System

July 1, 2003
Pat O'Kane is man who has spent most of his life working with his hands, but he will be known in the years to come as the man whose mind sparked the concept that will save so many other lives throughout the world.

Born 42 years ago in Derry City, Northern Ireland, O'Kane left his homeland and worked as a steeplejack in Germany, where his specialty was scaling slate-covered church steeples and installing the initial connections that would hold the scaffolding that workers would need to perform their repairs. After three years literally at the top of his profession in Europe, he moved to the United States, settling down on Long Island, NY. O'Kane, experienced working at heights, landed a job with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey painting bridges and towers. Workdays would find him climbing the steel towers and cables of the George Washington Bridge or scaling the TV antennae of the World Trade Center twin towers, which continued another 36 stories above the 110-story-high roof.

Photo by Paul Hashagen A firefighter demonstrates the capabilities of the LifeCender Firefighter Escape System. A version of the system has been designed for the civilian market.

One workday would be different for Pat O'Kane and all Americans - Sept. 11, 2001. When the twin towers were attacked, O'Kane responded to the WTC site as part of the Port Authority's SEMAC (Structural Engineering Maintenance and Construction) crew. These high-angle specialists began setting up to support the rescue and recovery efforts of the army of responding emergency workers. Generators used to supply power to bridge-painting spray equipment were among the first power sources up and running at the site. With a police escort from the George Washington Bridge, the SEMAC crew brought more than 300 plastic buckets (also used for painting the bridges) to the site. These buckets would become part of the image ingrained in the public's mind through TV and news photos around the world as firefighters and rescuers began removing rubble by hand, using bucket brigades as the initial life-saving efforts.

As he was leaving the WTC site after a night shift that ended at 6 A.M., O'Kane pulled out his cellular phone to call Randy Goodman, a friend and his partner in an Irish/European importing business. Both men discussed the tragedy, and Goodman asked a question of O'Kane, knowing his background working at great heights: "Pat, was there any way for those people to get out of that building?" O'Kane continued driving, turning the question over in his mind. "Randy, there is a way, and I think I know how to do it!"

O'Kane continued working on the idea. The solution was clearly forming in his mind. "We can make a device, using products that are currently available; we just have to control the descent," O'Kane told Goodman during a subsequent phone conversation. For weeks, the two friends discussed the device in person, on the phone and via stick-figure drawings faxed back and forth. As the device began to gel, they decided it was time for a patent search. Randy knew an engineer in Michigan named Bill Burtakis and asked his technical advice. The calls led to a meeting and the idea "clicked."

O'Kane and Goodman patented the original controlled-descent device in November 2001. With the prototype they visited Jim Sorokac, a firefighter and instructor at the FDNY Division of Training. Sorokac introduced O'Kane to instructors in the FDNY Special Operations Command Technical Rescue School, who were pulling double duty working at the WTC site and training new members to fill more than 90 slots left open in the command as a result of the collapse of the towers.

During a scaffold-rescue scenario being conducted on the roof of a training building, the class took a break to watch a demonstration of the new descender. The trial run of the descender by one of the senior instructors of the rescue school and students generated considerable excitement over the device's potential. Various generations of the descender were demonstrated to a variety of audiences, including firefighters and casino/hotel owners.

Taking the project as far as they could themselves, O'Kane and Goodman realized it would need additional research, development and funding. In June 2002 they approached Bill Henson Sr., a successful businessman and inventor from Michigan to help develop the project further. Along with financial backing and technical resources, Henson has substantial engineering and design background. Henson led the design and engineering team, which further developed the original descender idea into a more compact, self-contained prototype. They formed a company called American Escape Systems Inc. and the descending device was now called the LifeCender Personal Escape System.

Photo by Paul Hashagen The compact LifeCender Firefighter Escape System is small enough to be carried in a bunker pants pocket. It includes 40 feet of ultra-high-strength escape line.

Through research, development and testing, the LifeCender Personal Escape System has evolved into a compact device that can be used hands-free by anyone over 50 pounds. Additional harnesses and systems are being developed that will allow infants, toddlers and pets to descend with an adult. The company's mission statement says, "Our mission is to save lives," and that is what this device will do.

The LifeCender Firefighter Escape System consists of a descending device small enough to fit in the palm of the hand; it can be carried easily in a bunker pants pocket. The device provides 40 feet of ultra-high-strength escape line, which can withstand high temperatures. The rope is stronger than steel cable of the same thickness. A braking system lets users slow or stop their descent. But the LifeCender has been engineered to provide a safe landing at full-open descent speed. The FFLC-40 (Firefighter LifeCender) specifications provide an escape line break strength of 5,600 pounds and a melt temperature of 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The price for the FFLC-40 will be under $150.

The system was demonstrated at a recent training seminar in Clearwater, FL, by several firefighters from across the country, which gave it positive reviews. As one firefighter from Manhattan, IL, remarked upon seeing the demonstration, "You guys have done what firemen have been trying to do for over 200 years."

American Escape Systems has also developed a version that is being marketed to the public. The Personal LifeCender employs the same specially engineered descending device in conjunction with an easy-to-use harness. The system comes in a compact carrying case that weighs less than six pounds. It can easily be stored at home, at the office or in a hotel room. The PLC-80 offers a safe descent down seven stories, and the PLC-30 will descend three stories. A 15-story unit will be available later this year. The harness is available in two sizes. The small size will hold a person who weighs 50 to 175 pounds, and the large size will accommodate individuals up to 300 pounds.

Another feature of the LifeCender Personal Escape System with the harness is that it can be used by firefighters to aid victims trapped on the upper stories of buildings and help them descend safely. It also can be used if the victim is unconscious because of the preset, hands-free descent speed and secure positioning of the harness. The LifeCender Personal and Professional models are scheduled to be available July 1. For further information, visit American Escape System's website at or call 888-201-1850.

Paul Hashagen, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY 1865-2000: Millennium Book, a history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service history books.

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