Back to Basics: Firefighter survival — the hang and drop
By Mark van der Feyst
By Mark van der Feyst
Firefighter survival tactics are evasive, and should be considered risky when employing them. They are reserved for last ditch efforts when facing a life and death situation. A firefighter who is trapped with flashover impending or already occurred needs to escape the situation and environment as quickly as possible — by any means necessary.
In this Back to Basics, we’re going to look at a very risky and injury prone escape technique called ‘the hang and drop’.
This technique is an option that is available but should only to be used when there is no other option and you have to get out now. Whenever a flashover occurs, it has been shown that a firefighter only has about two seconds or five feet to get out. That is not a lot of time or distance to get out safely. The hang and drop may be the your only option.
We should use this option when there is no ladder placed at the window and no bail out kit attached to your gear. This is one reason why laddering every window at a structure fire is paramount in actions that can be taken ahead of time. Laddering all four sides of the building and every window will ensure a method for escape.
Some critics will argue that laddering every window is overkill and will require many firefighters to complete it. This is not true – one firefighter can effectively ladder every window. This can be the driver of the second arriving truck or even the first arriving truck. If the driver is not able to complete this entirely, then the RIT team can! This is part of their proactive fireground actions, to set up, open up the building and provide means of egress for interior crews.
Using this escape technique will produce injuries to any part of the body: broken bones, rolled ankles, back/spine injuries, etc. Doing this will guarantee being injured while escaping, but you will be out of the building and alive to recover. Don’t forget that we are wearing a considerable amount of extra weight such as our gear, SCBA and whatever is in our pockets. All of this adds to our total body weight and when you add in gravity when falling, you will have a substantial impact when hitting the ground.
This technique is applicable to a second or third story window. Anything higher will produce life threatening injuries, debilitating injuries or death. With a second story window at a residential structure, the height from the ground up to the windowsill will vary based upon the lay of the land, but on average will be about 13 feet.
The distance of the fall can be reduced by hanging before dropping. This will involve getting out of the window and hanging onto the windowsill with your hands only. Doing this will reduce the fall height by the length of your body. Getting out of the window will require the window to be cleared first using a hand tool or some object. Try and get most of the glass out of the way to avoid sharp jagged edges on the sill cutting through our gloves. As much as we want to avoid this, in the moment of escape (which is going to be quick), this can be overlooked as it could be a minor injury in the grand scheme of things.
Once the window has been cleared, staying as low as possible, you are going to roll out of the window head first, but maintain a hold on the windowsill with both hands. Once your feet are out of the window, you should be hanging by your hands. Now you can wait until a ladder is brought over to you, if you have been noticed by another crew, but this will depend on your strength. With adrenalin pumping through your veins at this moment, you may have some extra strength and endurance to hold on for a little while (a few seconds) while a ladder is brought over to you. Chances are you are not going to be able to hold yourself there with all of that weight and will drop.
When you contact the ground, try to tuck and roll to help reduce the shock to your body when you hit the ground. This sounds easy, but it will require practice to try and build some muscle memory to do it should the time ever come.
If you are going to train for this, or practice this technique, some prep work will be needed. In the photo, you will see a track and field mat being used. A pole vaulting or high jump mat will work best as it will have enough cushion to reduce the injury or contact with a solid surface like the ground.
Try and use a window that is not too high off the ground. This will reduce the fall height. If there is a window below the one that you are using, then cover it with OSB as seen in the photo to avoid any person from putting a leg through it or having broken glass flying around.
As mentioned in the beginning of the article, this technique is to be used only when there is no other option available and you need to get out now.
Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is currently a firefighter with the FGFD. Mark is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, FDIC and India. He is the lead author of Fire Engineering’s Residential Fire Rescue & Tactical Firefighter books. He can be contacted at Mark@FireStarTraining.com.