Firefighters are a different breed. Like soldiers and police officers, they rush into harm’s way when others are rushing out. But what happens when a firefighter gets into trouble? What resources do they have at their disposal to get them out of a multistory building when they can’t go out the way they came in? One of the more unique or specialized tools firefighters have begun to carry over the last 10 to 15 years is what’s known as a bail-out kit. A bail-out kit generally consists of a hook, a special fire-resistant rope, and a descending device. This kit is designed specifically to assist firefighters who need to quickly escape a structure when their main means of entry or exit has been cut off.
Even though these kits were designed for first responders, they can be equally useful to everyday citizens who find themselves in top-floor emergencies. Vertical rescue skills, like breaching a door with a Halligan tool or having to bail out the window of your high-rise building to escape danger, are very handy skills to have in a crisis or survival situation.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there were several large corporations that actively solicited equipment and training to ensure their vital employees would be able to get out of New York City high-rise buildings in the event of another tragedy like that of the World Trade Center. Ideas ranging from parachutes to airplane-style inflatable slides were proposed by various companies. I doubt any of those systems were ever successfully deployed in a commercial market, but I know for a fact that there are many firefighter-style bail-out kits sitting in various high-rise offices. I hope they never have to be used.
Imagine this scenario: You’re high up in a multistory parking structure when an earthquake hits, blocking the stairwells and exit ramps, such as what happened in the 1994 Northridge quake. No help will be coming for days, and you’re on your own.
Or maybe you’re on vacation in a high-rise hotel when a fire breaks out on your floor, or one of the floors below you. You’ve kept your hotel room door closed and put wet towels under the door to delay the smoke infiltration. That’s good, but eventually smoke begins to fill your room and your only respite is an open window on the upwind side. Will that 100-foot ladder truck be able to reach your 10th-floor window when it’s parked 30 feet away from the building? Will the firefighters be able to put out the fire before you and your family are overcome by the smoke? Do you become an active participant in saving the lives of your loved ones, or do you sit idly by and pray for salvation? And if you do decide to wait for help, is there sufficient personnel, equipment, and training in a foreign country’s fire department?
Above: With your left hand, cup the hook and place the point of the hook in the lower left-hand corner of the windowsill.
Or perhaps you’re at work on the fourth or fifth floor of your office when an active shooter scenario begins on the ground floor. The stairwells and elevators are a fatal funnel, so you need to avoid those at all costs. What do you do? Do you have the means to fight? Do you prefer to hide and hope the shooter doesn’t find you? Do you jump out the window from 40-plus feet up and hope against the odds that you’ll be seriously injured or killed?
Fortunately, there’s another way out. Perhaps, in the trunk of your car in the parking structure, carried along in your luggage on vacation, or tucked away with your office emergency equipment, there’s a bail-out kit. This could be the lifeline that gets you out of a horrible situation and home to your family.
Full Disclosure: I am a freelance employee and master trainer for RIT Safety Solutions bail-out systems, so that’s what I will use here for reference. There are several companies that manufacture similar systems, so research all the options and choose the one that best meets your needs.
A typical bail-out kit consists of a hook, a fire-resistant rope, and a descending device. You’ll need to couple this with either a commercial rappeling/climbing harness, or an improvised one made from rope or webbing. If you’re going the rope/webbing route, a 20-foot piece will suffice for most people. And, if you anticipate helping somebody besides yourself, I recommend a second 20-foot piece of rope/webbing.
Above: Pull the end of the rope out the window to keep the hook set in place. You need that constant pressure on the hook to keep it in place.
When I say the kit comes with a hook, it literally comes with a hook that’s specifically designed for hooking onto windowsills or standard 2½-inch pipes used in commercial buildings. When a firefighter has to use his bail-out kit, it’s a last-ditch effort to get out of a burning building to save his or her own life. As such, unconventional and improvised anchor points must often be used, giving new life to the tried-and-tested hooks of days gone by. There’s a variety of bail-out hooks on the market, available in either steel or aluminum. One common feature they all have is that the tip of the hook comes sharpened. This assists the hook with digging deep into wooden windowsills, old-style plaster and lath, or modern drywall. This sharpened hook also grips well on concrete and cinder block. The various angles and contours of the hook are there not only to provide it with great strength, but to be able to use it as a tool to break windows. One hard smash using the top of the hook can break commercial plate glass.
The tip of the hook I carry from RIT Safety Solutions can support 5,000 pounds. That rating is measured at the tip; in the saddle of the hook, we see higher strengths up to 10,000 pounds. If these hooks are strong enough to tow a car, they can certainly support the weight of a single person.
The rope used in these bail-out systems is also very special. The best systems have rope made from a Kevlar-type material called Technora. You see, traditional nylon rope begins to degrade at high temperatures — by the time it reaches 480 degrees F, nylon will completely melt through. In fact, the method used to cut nylon rope and heat-seal the ends is an electric hot knife. But these special Kevlar-type ropes don’t even break a sweat at typical oven temperatures. You can place one on a hot knife at full temperature and leave it there pretty much all day without severing it. NASA even uses this material on the parachutes of the Mars rover. The Underwriters Laboratory testing of the Technora rope I use is rated to hold a 300-pound load for six minutes, while being exposed to 1,112-degree F heat. This 7.5mm rope has an overall breaking strength of 6,000 pounds and is also highly resistant to chemicals that would eat away the average rope.
Above: Once you're out the window and safely on the system, this will be your view.
Descending devices vary by manufacturer, but one mandated feature that they all share is that they’re designed to automatically stop the descent unless a lever is pulled or a button is pressed. This safety feature will prevent you from free-falling to the ground should you become unconscious. Quite simply, if you do nothing, you’ll stop. The average kit weighs in between 3 and 4 pounds, so it’s not overly burdensome.
As mentioned previously, the inside curve of most bailout hooks is designed to fit around a standard 2½-inch pipe common in commercial buildings, but the hook can also be used on standard 2×4 or 2×6 wall joists. Steam pipes in the room? Excellent, the hook will fit nicely on that. Old-fashioned cast-iron radiators? Those make great anchors, too. If needed, the firefighter can set the hook into the hinge side of a door. If there’s no other option, any fairly heavy furniture can be tied onto, preferably a piece that can’t fit out the window.
There are tools you can carry that make a sufficient anchor, too. The Halligan tool, invented in 1948 by New York City Firefighter Hugh Halligan, is a jack-of-all-trades tool. It can be used for twisting, prying, punching, or wedging. While the main use of the Halligan tool is often seen as door-breaching with the forks, adze, or pick, it truly is one the most versatile tools I’ve ever seen. The Halligan tool can be driven into the wall and then shoved downward in such a way that it can serve as an anchor point, albeit at the expense of losing the tool. The Halligan can also be swung forcefully enough to bury the pick straight down into a wooden floor and if done correctly, can hold the weight of a single firefighter at a time. It can also be used, carefully, across the lower corner of a window for an anchor point. As long as steady pressure is maintained, the Halligan tool will stay in place.
These may sound like less-than-stellar anchor points to you, and you’d be right. They’re absolutely less than ideal. But when the only other choice is to burn to death or wait for the active shooter to find you, these improvised anchors start to look a lot more palatable. Firefighters in my region are required to train on these bail-out systems no less than once a year, and that training includes using the Halligan tool in most — if not all — of the ways mentioned above, This way, if the moment comes and they’re forced to use that bailout kit, they’re about as prepared as can be.
Above: Alternate anchor points can be used, such as radiator pipes.
As an example of how these kits can be used, we’ll briefly outline how to get out using a bail-out hook dug into a windowsill.
Once you’ve donned your harness or tied yourself an improvised one, connect the descending device to your harness.
With the palm of your left hand, cup the hook and place the point of the hook in the lower left-hand corner of the windowsill. Keep constant pressure on the hook, directed toward the outside of the window. You’re basically trying to push the point of the hook further into the wall. Don’t let go of the hook, and don’t let your fingers become trapped between the hook and windowsill.
With your right hand, pull the hooked end of the rope out the window to keep the hook set in place. You need that constant pressure on the hook to keep it in place.
Carefully go out the window head-first, keeping constant pressure on the rope with your right hand and your left palm on top of the hook further pushing it into the windowsill.
Above: If you're anchoring this style hook around a fixed point, you can put a bight (loop) of rope through the hole and then over the tip.
Point your head and right hand toward the ground as you roll out the window. It should be right hand, head, body, right leg, left leg, and then finally releasing the cupped hand over the hook.
Once you’re out the window and hanging on your kit, it’s critical that you do not assume a rappel stance or bound down the wall. This could cause the hook to slip.
Activate your descending device slowly, going straight down, dragging along the wall until you reach the ground.
For lowering your loved one out the window:
Place your loved one in a harness and connect the hooked end of the rope to their harness. Connect the descending device into your harness.
Have them gently roll out the window. You want slow steady pressure applied since you are now the anchor. Don’t worry, the additional friction caused by the rope running over the edge of a window sill takes a lot of the weight. As the anchor person, you want to stay below the sill of the window for maximum friction.
Once your loved one is fully out the window and hanging on the rope, carefully lower them to the ground. Then, instruct them to remove their equipment so you can pull it all back up for reuse with the next person, or your own escape out outlined previously.
Above: With any style hook around a fixed point, you can tie off with two half hitches.
Note: There’s a reason why firefighters are required to recertify annually on bail-out procedures. The techniques outlined here are inherently dangerous and extreme caution should be exercised. If you’re going to practice, and you should, use a ground floor window. The hard part is getting out the window, not the descent.
Using a bail-out kit to evacuate a structure under duress is a difficult and risky proposition. No magazine article — not even one of ours — is a replacement for professional training. Fortunately, these kits are in use by most firefighters around the country. If you think this is a tool that may be a good fit for you, talking to your local Fire Department for more information or even training is an excellent starting point. There are also a number of private companies who teach technical rescue skills to citizens and government entities alike. A quick internet search should furnish you with a number of options to get spun up on this unique piece of life-saving gear so you can slide to safety, no matter how high up trouble comes looking for you.