The Disappearance of the Bowline in Fire Service Technical Rescue
The age old debate. Amongst any technical rescue team in the country lies a great argument that often creates much tension with very little result. In one cornerstands the individual arguing that the bowline is unsafe, too hard to recognize, and not generally accepted by the fire service. In the other corner is the individual that believes there are more benefits to utilizing the bowline than the standard family of eight knots, and wants a culture change within their team. So who is right? There really is not a conclusive right vs. wrong regarding knot usage, we can simply educate ourselves on the pros and cons for each respective knot and come to our own conclusion. A bad practice however is to shun the usage of the bowline because the stigma that has been created behind it. The purpose of this article is to create awareness of some of the benefits of the bowline, and allow the reader to formulate their own opinion.
The bowline is an age old knot that was commonly used in maritime settings. It earned a reputation of being a versatile knot that could accomplish a wide array of sailing tasks. In regards to fire service usage, the story goes that when life safety rope first became available after the implementation of NFPA 1983, the rope was extremely stiff and non-pliable. As such, bowline knots were slipping because they were never able to set appropriately and there was a lack of understanding on a proper safety for the knot. The fire service then disregarded the bowline as a valid life safety knot. Interestingly enough however, despite a common argument from those who oppose the bowline, NFPA never directly addressed specific knot usage, and did not include a “no bowline” clause in any of its current literature.
An Analytical Look at the Bowline
One of the main deterrents from using the bowline for life safety applications is the fact that it is an inherently “loose” knot. This does have some merit, which is why the bowline must have some form of a safety. Most preferred is the Yosemite safety, which renders the knot completely safe when imparted. It is imperative that the user knows how to properly tie the knot with the appropriate safety. An additional argument I often hear states that the bowline is too easy to tie incorrectly therefor because of an increased risk of error it is unsafe. As with anything in technical rescue proficiency is a must. Rescuers should have the ability to practice, and perfect their knot craft without being mandated not to include certain knots based on assumption. Remember, technical rescue is not meant to be taught to the lowest common denominator. Rescuers should be critical thinkers capable of learning new skills. Let's take a look at some of the benefits of incorporating the bowline in to your rigging.
A common misconception regarding the bowline is that is has a significantly diminished capacity than that of its family of eight counterparts. There have been several tests
conducted on this such as the one from Dave Richards which can be found in his ITRS article at the link provided.
From his break tests, you can conclude that while the bowline broke at slightly lesser amounts than other knots, the difference was marginal. Many feel that the benefits of rigging with bowlines outweighs the miniscule difference in breaking strength. It can also be concluded that all knots diminish the overall breaking strength of the rope in some cases up to 50%.
The bowline has the ability to adjust gain (the total amount of space a knot occupies) to a minimal amount much easier than any family of eight knot. Because of this, the bowline is ideal for working under a high directional allowing the rescue team to make use of as much space as possible.
Ease of untying–
A well-known fact about the bowline is that untying after a heavy load was applied is significantly easier than most other knots. To some this may seem like a superficial benefit, but efficiency is efficiency. Dave Richards also stated in his ITRS paper regarding capacity of knots, that, “The most efficient end line knots, the Butterfly and Figure 8, have the disadvantage of being almost impossible to untie after a significant load of about 1,000 lbs. was applied.” (Richards 2004)
Multitude of applications–
The bowline has an exceptional ability to be a very adaptable knot. There is a bowline that can address almost any situation in rigging with ease. Below some practical uses are shown. Just by seeing these few examples, one could imagine all the places in their rigging where these principles can be applied. Is it different than what Fire Department based technical rescue programs teach? Sure is. However, I would encourage the serious practitioner who is interested in expanding their horizons to improve their personal ability to seek out the benefits of the bowline. Like anything else, in order to reap the full benefits practice and patience is necessary. The rescuer who has decided to completely eliminate the bowline from their rigging tool box, is the rescuer who has chosen to limit their rigging potential significantly. Perhaps the time has come to reintroduce the bowline in Fire Service based technical rescue programs. You decide!
“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.”