New Jersey Firefighters Get a Lifeline

Updated: 10-23-2007 08:54:51 AM

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HACKENSACK -- It's a firefighter's nightmare.

A fire has flashed out of control on the upper levels of a multistory building. Fire ladders can't reach the area for a rescue. The stairs are blocked by flames. The only choice -- jumping from a window -- isn't a choice at all.

Now, city firefighters will have a system that fire officials say could save their lives in such situations. It's not fancy -- just a red metal hook and a harness-and-rope belay system that would look familiar to anyone who has been on a rock-climbing wall.

"This is a last resort to get them safely out of the building," Fire Chief Joel Thornton said.

The system's simplicity hides some high-tech features. The 50-foot rope can hold 5,000 pounds and withstand temperatures of more than 900 degrees. Firefighters can anchor the device to a door jamb, wall beam or window sill to escape through a window.

The device, the Petzl EXO Personal Safety System, was first adopted by the New York City Fire Department in 2005 after a fire on the fourth floor of a Bronx tenement trapped and killed two firefighters. Harness systems aren't new -- other brands have been sold elsewhere. The Hackensack department has for several years given out harnesses that firefighters can use with a safety rope, but the new system's hook allows flexibility and security, firefighters said.

The department began training with the system last week on the second story of a burned-out home set to be demolished soon.

The firefighters wore full gear, including oxygen masks. For some practice runs, they covered their faces with black hoods to simulate heavy smoke. Kneeling on the floor, as they would in a real fire, they dug the hook into the window or a door jamb, crawled to the window and pulled the rope taut until they felt it accept their weight. Then they poked their heads and shoulders out the window and rolled out face-down, hooking one leg on the wall -- the last chance to ensure the hook was planted before exiting the window. After a few seconds, they released the leg and rappelled down the side of the building.

Trusting the system was difficult for some.

"Look at it," firefighter John McMorrow said. "Look how thin the rope is. Your shoelace is a little thicker than that. But it makes you feel you have a backup if no one else is there. You're your own backup."

That backup seemed so important after the Bronx fire that Capt. Andrew Pawlick and at least two other Hackensack firefighters bought their own belay systems. The department had been providing a less-effective harness-and-rope system for several years before getting the $58,000 federal grant to buy the Petzl system.

"I used to work in the district with all the mid-rises," Pawlick said. "At least you know you have a system in place to get yourself out of the building and fight a fire the next day."

Republished with permission from$56826