By: Jason Ilowite
When we reach way back in our memory banks to when we were new drivers, I would venture to say most of us dreamed about rolling down the road in a nice new luxury or sports car some day. We all, however, recognized the importance of learning on the older model, that certainly wasn’t new. It was during this process we learned the mechanics of being a successful driver, and those experiences allowed us to feel comfortable enough to purchase a nice new vehicle when we were ready. How in the world could this analogy regarding a typical teenage process have anything to do with technical rope rescue? Allow me to explain.
I distinctly remember sitting in my first high line rescue class as a member of a Fire Service technical rescue team. It was a mere 6 months or so after my initial rope rescue training in basic anchors, mechanical advantage, and raising/lowering systems. Due to the fact that there were no “in between” classes, the only option was to take the technician level class next which strictly dealt with horizontal rescue systems. I knew next to nothing about calculating forces on anchors, critical angles, safety factors, or really any true theory behind the skills I had been “trained” to perform. The reason for this is because “the why” had been left out of my initial training. I was instructed on “how” to build a basic pulley system, “how” to conduct a pick off, “how” to tie a basic anchor etc., but no one ever included the reason “why” I was doing what I was doing. Sitting in that technician level class I had started the process of driving the Cadillac before I had mastered being a good driver in something less than luxurious.
So Why is the Aforementioned a Troubling Trend in Fire Service Tech Rescue?
High lines are quite possibly the pinnacle of a rope rescue operation. They require each and every person involved, with constructing it to be very knowledgeable in every aspect of rigging.That doesn’t just include being able to perform skills, but also understand rigging theory. Currently, in the Fire Service in most places of the country, individuals are being taught to the operations level, which is all the basics and then go straight to technician, which is all high lines. All the while these individuals are balancing proficiency in vehicle rescue, confined space rescue, trench rescue, and possibly more. This creates a rope rescue practitioner who is more than likely not truly ready to embark on the very technical journey that is high lines. Why is it so vitally important that only the right people learn and construct high lines? This is the most simple answer yet: safety! High lines are really the only time in rope rescue that we have the potential to be operating within an unsafe safety factor if we don’t know how to tension properly. There is no other operation with rope that will put more stress on our anchors, and let’s face it we’re dealing with a rope under a lot of tension; if it fails, there will be no gently letting down… It will fail with gusto, to say the least. I have said in previous writings; technical rescue is not meant to be taught to the lowest common denominator. A subject as advanced as high lines is not suitable for the masses, but rather only those who are ready.
“High lines are really the only time in rope rescue that we have the potential to be operating within an unsafe safety factor if we don’t know how to tension properly.”
Back to my first high line class experience. Once again, “the how” rather than “the why” teaching was prevalent. As a novice-at-best rope practitioner, I sat naively through class and accepted each instruction as the right way as it came to me. As I developed as a rope rescue technician and attended training with people of all rope back rounds and from all over the country my eyes were opened, my jaw was dropped, and I vowed to try and rectify the generally incorrect way the Fire Department in my area was teaching high lines. I would like to identify what I consider to be the most important concepts to understand to successfully rig high lines below.
I am specifically referring to pre vs. post tension. It is vitally important that this concept is understood. Unfortunately, in the Fire Service, this is often overlooked. In order to maintain a 10:1 safety factor, we must not load the rope past 4kN. This requires us to tension the high line with 1 or two people pulling on a 3:1 initially, loading the system with the rescuer, and then post tensioning using the rule of 12 or 18 to the desired amount. Note: if at all possible use a load cell when rigging a high line. The rule of 12 or 18 is all theoretical, and when dealing with the forces we are going to put on our system we deserve to know exactly how much tension is in our track line. I have seen with Fire department teams that pre-tensioning doesn’t exist. They take their 6 people hauling on a 3:1 and pull the heck out of the track line until they can’t pull anymore. At this point, there is likely already 4kN on the rope before it is even loaded. They then load the system and go about their business. When the load is center span, the track line is almost flat and there is an astronomical amount of force on the track line anchors and no one ever knew. This is a horribly dangerous practice and needs to be rectified.
Not just know how to tie a tensionless wrap, but understanding why to use a certain anchor over another one. With a Kootenay high line system, everything must maintain full strength including, and especially the anchors. For example, if a single track line is in place, the anchor it is rigged to should be capable of receiving 40kN. This is not always a possibility as the anchor sits in nature so it is incumbent upon the rope technician to understand how to focus anchors, using tensioned back ties. Without this advanced anchoring knowledge, the team has severely limited their options and is much more likely to use an unacceptable anchor for a high line.
This could potentially be the most important and it closely relates to the amount of tension you put in the high line. If a team is rigging a high line they must understand the force multiplying potential that the angle of the track line could have on the anchors and the rope itself. As we know, at 150 degrees with a load hanging in the center, there is twice the load on either side of the high line carriage. Put that into perspective. The rescuer and victim will equate to roughly 2kN, when they are center span of the high line, at 150 degrees, there will be 4 kN on either side of the Kootenay pulley. As stated earlier, if we wish to maintain a 10:1 safety factor, we should not allow any more force than 4kN. So does your team know how 160 degrees would change this? 170? A team that is successful in rigging high lines is one that knows exactly the force being applied to various components of their system given the centenary angle of the high line.
Most often a high line requires the use of a high directional of some sort at the edges of each opposing station in order to give the track lines some elevation. It is crucial that the team be very well versed with the use and associated physics of their chosen high directional. Remember, the force we put in our track lines will exceed the amount of force seen in any other rope operation. You must consider the effect on your high directional. I watched a high directional pancake to the ground under the extreme compression generated from a twin track high line because the tripod was not rigged correctly, but that’s a story for another day.
Having a thorough understanding of all aspects of a rope operation to include general logistics, housekeeping, and communications is additionally of great importance, however, the items above are those that I truly feel need a mastery in order to delve into high line rigging. There are steps to take to bridge the gap so to speak from rope operations to rope technician. The most important being developing an extremely high level of competency in the basics of rope rescue taught in rope operations. Spend the time to master these skills, and get to the point where you even feel comfortable teaching them. Resist the temptation to take your high line class immediately after your operations class simply because it is offered, and to “get it over with”. Another wise step to take would be to investigate the use of offsets. These systems that come from the ingenuity of Reed Thorne from Ropes that Rescue employ basic raising/lowering principles in order to move loads horizontally. In many respects, offsets have the potential to accomplish exactly what a high line would without the intense manpower requirements, and stringent rules of a Kootenay high line system.
“Take the careful time and dedicate yourself to being an outstanding rope rescue practitioner.”
In sum, spend a little more time behind the wheel of that Oldsmobile! Take the careful time and dedicate yourself to being an outstanding rope rescue practitioner. Do not ever accept instruction that strictly deals with “how” rather than “why”, and if you must encounter that take the initiative to find out the why yourself and take it back to your team.If you are interested in learning more about high lines, here are a few courses available inside Rigging Lab Academy that will be of use for you:
If you are interested in learning more about high lines, here are a few courses worth checking out you’ll find inside Rigging Lab Academy:
High lines are not an operation that are designed to be rigged by those that do not think critically, but rather those that crave to know the theory behind everything they rig. The Fire Department is famous for being resistant to change, but together as a rigging community in Rigging Lab Academy, we can choose to elevate our game and treat high lines as the highly specialized operation that they are!
Jason Ilowite is a Firefighter with the Loudoun County, VA Fire Rescue department where he serves on the county’s Heavy Rescue Squad, and Technical Rescue team. Jason specializes in technical rope rescue. He can be reached at email@example.com