Personal Safety System for Firefighters, Fire Departments

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ed Henry
By Ed Henry
07/05/2011 -
You are in an untenable position — searching on an upper level floor of a multiple-story building. It’s very hot and it’s time to leave, but the way you entered is now blocked by fire. Now you have only one way out — through the window and down. Will a ground ladder be there? Will it reach you? Can one be placed in time? With the proper bailout equipment and preparation, this scenario is survivable. Without them, it can be disastrous. image

A Brief History

The Personal Safety System was developed by F.D.N.Y. firefighters in response to the tragic deaths of two firefighters on January 23, 2005. Lieutenants Curtis Meyran and John Bellew, along with four other firefighters, were forced to jump from the fifth floor of a burning building after they became trapped by fire in an illegally subdivided apartment. This event is known as Black Sunday. Within two years of this fire, New York State has mandated that all firefighters on the fireground have a Personal Safety System on them and are trained yearly in these skills.

Although this equipment has been around for a few years, it is still new to many departments nationwide. Fire departments and firefighters should understand that there are certain bunker gear concerns, harness requirements and training issues that need to be addressed in order for the system to be properly attached and deployed correctly. The two particular systems in this article are to be worn on the outside of the firefighter’s protective pants, and under the turnout coat. The reason for this location is so it can be easily accessed and rapidly deployed, while at the same time protected from a fire environment by the protective coat.

Thousands of hours have gone into the engineering and practical application of this device so that firefighters can safely exit a hostile environment in a burning structure. The self-evacuation system enables a firefighter to quickly escape through a window should the firefighter become trapped by fire. The lightweight system attaches to a firefighter’s bunker pants and includes a forged steel hook, thermal and abrasion resistant rope, descent control device and rope bag.


The fire service is full of innovative firefighters that have created their own systems using components from a variety of sources. This type of innovation shows how progressive the fire service is. The advances in safety equipment and tools will continue to improve, but homemade systems are not recommended or endorsed because of the lack of testing, training, and just the overall safety involved. The ideal tool for bailing out is a personal escape system that is certified to meet N.F.P.A. 1983 Standard on Fire Service Life Safety Rope and Equipment, 2006 Edition. It’s important that the entire system is certified, not just the individual components. At this time only two are certified as “complete systems.” They are the Petzl EXO, and Rescue Products International. There are many more on the market and a few more are close to making their systems certified. Remember this is a system and needs to perform as one flawlessly. The components of a personal escape system typically are:

  • Class II seat harness or escape belt.
  • Life safety rope — rope/cord dedicated solely for the purpose of self rescue.
  • Load-bearing connectors — Carabineers, rings, quick links or snap links.
  • Descent device — Friction or mechanical device utilized to control descent and allow hands free exit from a window.
  • Hook — designed to hold the firefighter’s weight and to anchor into a substantial object.

The commercially produced personal safety system in recent years has delivered an important level of quality control. There are two systems on the market that meets the certification standard of N.F.P.A. 1983, 2006: Escape Systems.

Like any other equipment purchase, the selection of a personal escape system should start with a risk assessment to develop criteria. Each and every department is unique in its own way. The criteria for selecting a personal escape system should be based on ease of use, storage and attachment (a pre-rigged system is best) weight, certified components and the backing of the manufacturer, along with training. It is paramount that the system be simple to check, understand and use. The overall view as an instructor is, the fire service is not well versed with rope rescue skills. It’s not a skill we use all the time. If you need to bailout, you don’t need to be the department rope guru in a dynamic situation such as this. To learn the system in a smoke-filled hot room is suicide and you don’t want to pull a system out of your pocket while you’re hanging out of a fourth story window and rig it together. You want to be able to anchor the system and roll out the window.

Storage and attachment — You should look at three factors. The system needs to be easily accessible when you need it. If it takes time to find and deploy, that’s time wasted. The system needs to be out of the way when not deployed. You don’t need it bouncing against you or snagging on debris. When not in use, the rope and hardware should be sheltered from water, oils, dirt and other contaminants.


The Golden rule of bailout training is prevention. Keep up your situation awareness; always look for the warning signs. Never put yourself in a position that will compromise you or a member of your team. The second rule is to know your best options for anchoring and egress. Learn the different techniques and what works best for specific scenarios. Practice until it becomes second nature and stay in practice. Always use fall arrest protection when training. Inspect your escape system on a regular basis and keep it maintained per the manufacturer’s directions. It is important to keep it a “personal” system. It’s a lot easier to have confidence in your system if you’re the person who rigged it and maintains it. Use the toothbrush rule — never share it.

Independent or Integrated Systems

There are two basic types of personal rescue systems: independent and integrated. An independent system attaches to a separate Class I or a Class II seat harness or escape belt. The rope and hardware usually are stowed in a bag that attaches to your harness or escape belt.

An integrated system employs the waist strap of your S.C.B.A. as the harness or escape belt. The hardware and rope usually are stowed in a bag that is attached to the SCBA straps or waist belt. If this style is for you, make sure that the S.C.B.A. maker is up to the N.F.P.A. 1983/2006 E.R. standard. Each system has its strengths and weaknesses. A new system on the market adds their system to the inside of the pocket on your bunker pants. The thought is clip the hardware to you harness, tie, not hook into the building, and then drop the bag out the window and slide down the rope with your “Kung Fu Grip.” Ask yourself, are you fast enough and strong enough to do all of this?

All of these systems come in a variety of configurations with differing accessories. Prices vary, but any personal escape system is better than not having one at all. The important thing is to make sure the personal escape system you choose is the one in which you have the most confidence in, as this is for your safety.

N.F.P.A.and O.S.H.A. are making a big push to have Personal Safety Systems for all firefighters by 2013. New York State has a law stating: all firefighters are to have a Personal Safety System on them at all times.

Hopefully, most of us will never need to bailout of a burning building, but if we do, the Personal Safety System will bring us home to our loved ones.

The Rescue Products International System uses all certified components and is in a sealed wrap and has serial numbers on all components for tracking and to insure its packed proper and is “firefighter/tamper proof”. It uses the CMC Escape Artist as the friction device and is the only system to use a type of webbing as the escape rope, this makes it the lightest system on the market and it also packets the smallest. This system uses a lumbar style bag that wraps around the firefighter and this also helps distribute the weight and keeps the profile slim. The R.P.I. system can be used on the right side or left side depending on how your pants close and how your harness closes.

The Petzl Exo is issued to every member of the F.D.N.Y. It also uses all certified components. The hook is made by Crosby Steel, the friction device is Petzl and so is the rope. It is packed by the firefighter who is issued the system and the rope fits into the pocket on your right side. Petzl is in the process of making a lumbar bag, as the bag in the picture tends to place all the weight on one side, and makes the firefighter a little wider when riding in the apparatus and in situations where the firefighter would need to “squeeze” through tight areas. At this time the Petzl system can only be used from the right side of your body. This system was designed just for the F.D.N.Y. and their gear closes to the left and most other fire departments gear closes to the right. With such a strong demand for firefighter safety, Petzl is in the process of changing this also.

The yellow hook is R.P.I.s and the red hook is Petzls.

You can see that the R.P.I. hook is a bit larger, and has a handle built in, this gives a few more options to make anchor points with. In your time of need the bigger hook is easier to find, grip and sink into the wall. Along with it being yellow it’s easy to see it in a smoke filled environment. The R.P.I. hook is made from exotic metals, this keeps the strength, but makes it lighter than the all steel Crosby hook. Note, that the friction devices are similar in size and weight, but the actions work different on each one.

For more information on the two products: and www.rpiinc.netEd Henry has been with Charleston FD since 2004. He is an instructor for both the South Carolina Fire Academy and Connecticut Fire Academy. He is a H.O.T. instructor at F.D.I.C. and Firehouse Expo teaching engine and truck operations. He also instructs at the Charleston F.D. Recruit School and has taught H.O.T. class at the S.C. Firefighters Conference in Myrtle Beach on Forcible Entry. Henry has a B.S. in fire service administration and is certified as a Fire Officer IV. He has been awarded the nation’s high honor, The Presidential Medal of Valor by President G.W. Bush, along with several other state accommodations.
Comments & Ratings

Issue 33.4 | Spring 2019

Past Issue Archives