BY DAN DiRENZO
The personal harness has become an essential and crucial part of personal protective equipment (PPE) for today’s firefighters. The personal harness enhances fireground safety and rescue options. However, firefighters often wear it or are issued it without being aware of its full capabilities and uses. The personal harness increases firefighters’ abilities to rescue civilians, other firefighters, and themselves. Focusing on firefighter rescue, there are several situations where the personal harness will aid and quicken the removal of a firefighter whether the rescuer or downed firefighter is wearing a harness.
Several types and brands of harnesses are available for the fire service. The fire department personal harness is a Class II seat harness (photo 1). The personal harnesses are also now being integrated into the turnout pants and offered as an upgrade option from the PPE manufacturers. The following rescue techniques are not specific to any manufacturer and can be applied to any type of Class II fire service harness.
(1) Photos courtesy of Camden County (NJ) Fire Academy Safety and Survival Unit.
Wearing the harness is only the beginning; you must know how and when to use it. The personal harness has many uses beyond that of locking into ladders or an aerial bucket. It can be used to egress an upper-floor window with a rope in emergency conditions or to lower a firefighter to a victim trapped in an upper-floor window inaccessible from an aerial ladder. However, this article focuses solely on using the personal harness to rescue downed firefighters.
We have been taught that prior to moving a downed firefighter in a rescue situation, we must convert that firefighter’s self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to a full body harness by unclipping the SCBA waist belt, running the straps between the firefighter’s legs, and resecuring the belt clips. The SCBA harness has now been converted to a full body harness, and the SCBA will not slide off the firefighter’s body during the removal process.
Assuming that the downed firefighter is wearing a harness, you can incorporate the SCBA with the personal harness to complete the full body harness conversion. Deploy the large pompier hook from the downed firefighter’s harness, lay it across his chest, and clip the shoulder strap of the downed firefighter’s SCBA (photo 2). This conversion will work even if only one shoulder strap is accessible; both straps do not need to be clipped into the pompier hook (photo 3). Once you have made the attachments, tighten the shoulder straps. The full body harness is now converted.
If needed, you can put a half hitch on the SCBA strap to prevent it from loosening. This is necessary only if the SCBA is equipped with parachute-style buckles instead of the alligator clips. This method drastically shortens the packaging phase of removing a downed firefighter, but, as noted above, it is not intended to replace the universal SCBA conversion technique. Firefighters must remain proficient in the SCBA conversion because all firefighters they encounter will not be equipped with a harness. Another method for using the downed firefighter’s personal harness as an attachment point for removal is to feed the pompier hook up through the downed firefighter’s coat so that it is at the top of the coat in the firefighter’s upper chest area (photo 4). This will keep the personal harness close to the body, preventing the downed firefighter from inverting during removal.
Dragging a downed firefighter can be a very labor-intensive task, considering the size of the firefighter and the distance you must drag him. Firefighters can use their personal harness to assist with the removal of a downed firefighter in several ways. One is to assist with a horizontal drag of a firefighter while permitting the rescuer to use his legs, the strongest muscles in our bodies. Once the downed firefighter has been packaged for removal, the rescuer can clip his personal harness hook into the downed firefighter’s shoulder straps at the top of the SCBA (photo 5). Now the rescuers can use leg muscles to drag the firefighter, keeping their hands free to assist with the removal and maintain stability. The rescuers can either drag backward or spin around with the harness through their legs and drag forward (photo 6). Dragging forward allows rescuers to maintain a direction of travel. If conditions necessitate that the firefighter stay extremely low to the ground, you can apply the same techniques, but the removal will be more difficult and meet with resistance. Adding a piece of webbing/rope between the rescuer’s harness and the downed firefighter’s SCBA will provide greater flexibility.
If the downed firefighter is big in size or needs to be moved a long distance, you can form a simple mechanical advantage using the rescuer’s personal harness and, if equipped, the downed firefighter’s personal harness. Use a piece of webbing or rope, which should be a part of every firefighter’s personal tool bag, to create this mechanical advantage. Attach one end of the webbing/rope to the rescuer’s personal harness, which will serve as the anchor point. Run the opposite end through the downed firefighter’s harness pompier hook or through an SCBA shoulder strap, if the downed firefighter is not wearing a harness. Once you run the end of the webbing/rope through the pompier hook or SCBA, pull the opposite end back to the anchor, forming the 2:1 mechanical advantage (photo 7). This minimizes the weight the rescuers have to move, which will require less exertion. As the rescuers begin the removal, they may need to brace up against a doorway or a piece of furniture or drive a tool into the floor to prevent sliding forward. As the downed firefighter reaches the rescuer, the rescuer can move back the distance of the webbing/rope to continue the removal.
The harness can provide the rescuers with additional options for removing a firefighter from a below-grade rescue situation. One of the techniques developed for a below-grade rescue is the handcuff knot removal. Incorporating the personal harness into the handcuff knot removal quickens the packaging phase and increases lifting capabilities. Lower the first set of ropes with a handcuff knot into the hole and attach it to the pompier hook that has been run up through the downed firefighter’s turnout coat (photo 8). Lower the second rope with a handcuff knot into the hole with a carabiner attached. Use the carabiner to attach the second rope to the rear waist belt of the downed firefighter’s harness (photo 9). Attaching the rope to the rear waist belt will keep the firefighter vertically inline, since the first attachment is in the front of the firefighter (photo 10). Also, making the second attachment lower on the body provides the rescuer with a lower grip on the downed firefighter after the first attachment clears the edge of the hole. The knot that splits the sets of rope could either be a handcuff knot or a figure eight on the bight. This technique provides the rescuers with four lines for removing the firefighter and is attached to the personal harness, which is in the heaviest area of the body, the torso (photo 11).
You can use several techniques to remove a firefighter from an upper floor. One is to use a ladder as a high point and lower the downed firefighter with a life safety rope. Position the ladder with the tip above the window from which you are removing the firefighter. Run the rope under the bottom rung and up to the highest rung. Attach the end of the rope to the top rung, and send a bight of the rope into the window to the rescuers preparing the firefighter for removal. The rescuers run the pompier hook through the turnout coat and clip the bight of rope into the pompier hook, which now forms a 2:1 lowering system (photo 12). They then lift the downed firefighter out of the window and lower him to the ground using the lowering system created. The weight of the downed firefighter is decreased by the 2:1 mechanical advantage and the friction caused by running the rope over/under the ladder rungs. This simple method uses minimal equipment (photo 13).
These firefighter rescue techniques are geared toward the use of the fire department personal harness and are not intended to replace previously learned firefighter rescue techniques. There are several variations of using the fire department personal harness for firefighter rescue; one specific technique will not work for every situation. The personal harness is an extremely vital piece of equipment to add to your PPE, but it will be rendered useless if you don’t know the proper techniques and limitations.
DAN DiRENZO is a firefighter with the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department, a lieutenant/department training officer with the Bellmawr (NJ) Fire Department, and a rescue specialist with USAR NJ-TF1. He is an instructor with the Camden County (NJ) Fire Academy, where he is the lead instructor of the Safety and Survival Unit. He has taught firefighter survival/rescue and personal harness technique courses at several academies and departments.