While working in this industry there is always the looming threat of the most heinous nature: A fall. We ensure that we have 100% tie-off. We monitor each other on the tower. But we always train for the worst. We always pull our rescue kits out and put them at the base of the tower at the beginning of each job.
Over the past year, I have seen several rescue kit configurations. Some had two rope systems. Others had single rope systems. I had always assumed the kits with two ropes were for show. That in the event of a catastrophic emergency a single rope would be pulled. As I took over as safety coordinator I realized while configuring kits that this was not the case. There is an obvious split on how people believe a rescue should be performed.
I blame a lot of this on the original NFPA 1983. It was taught in this country to non-rope professionals for years and is still being taught by some agencies today. It does speak a lot to oral tradition, since none of these ideas can be found in any text today. A hint of it can be found in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s rescue guide, where they spend time correcting some of the misconceptions that it has created.
It has also created a lot of misconceptions about why we use two-rope systems for work. When I would walk around and ask crews why we need two ropes, the answer was always the same: Because one might break.
I think this speaks a lot to how we handle training on ropes. If you look at sport climbing guides and IRATA technicians, rescue is reserved for those who have proven experience on ropes. In an IRATA setting the concepts of rescue are not introduced until the technician has logged at least 1000 hours on ropes. The concepts are not difficult to learn. But the technician has developed a level of confidence in their skills and their equipment.
This comes back to the original reason as to why many people think we use two ropes: Because one might break. Redundancy in the system. Though redundancy is an important factor, it needs to be applied with logic.
A truly redundant system would mean the technician wears two harnesses. Why don’t we? Because we have developed confidence that our harnesses will not break. Why do we only have one attachment from our safety lanyard to the tower? What if a single component in this system broke? This is something no one questions. Because we have developed confidence in our equipment.
Coming from a sport background, I was a little nervous the first time I saw a technical rope set-up: A rope held by a single carabiner. In sport climbing we only use two opposite and opposed carabiners for anchors to prevent roll-out. But in this industry, we have developed confidence in the carabiner that secures our rope.
Tower technicians DO have a comfort and familiarity with ropes. We regularly rely on our positioners for working. A positioner is simply a technical-grade rope with a small descender used for descending and ascending as needed throughout the day. No technician would hang off of these ropes if they thought they might fall. We carefully find an anchorage and position the rope so that it will work reliably.
So why do we use two ropes? IRATA did not create a two-rope system because they mistrusted their equipment. You can ask anyone familiar with ropes. They do not break. They cut. And if you have built a system that creates this hazard it should not be climbed on. I asked an IRATA 3 why he uses two ropes. “Because we are all human. Mistakes are made. What if I load my RIG incorrectly when I switch from ascent or rappel? What if I switch systems and do not secure my ascenders correctly?”
The two-rope system was not created out of fear that a rope may “break”. It was created to deal with a very common hazard: User error. This is exemplified in the JSA of a rope access technician. Under the heading of “Human Error” is a two-rope system.
The two-rope system is actually a very familiar concept to tower climbers, though we may mistake why we have two ropes. For rope access technicians, the second rope is their 100%. Their six. The first rope is used as a positioner. During work, they regularly come off this rope. Which is why they have the second rope.
In our work we are in the unique situation that we are never coming off our rope. We have essentially two 100% tie-offs. This is an excellent situation. It provides added security and room for the tower technician to learn advanced access techniques. But it also creates the misconception that their primary rope may fail. This is the misconception that the trainer needs to overcome. The two-rope system is an excellent model. It has proven itself reliable and has given IRATA a 0-fatality industry for almost 35 years across many construction industries internationally.
Now comes the issue where there seems to be some debate: Should I perform rescues with one or two ropes? IRATA teaches two rope rescues. But it is important to note that their workers are already on two ropes. In most situations the rescuer will descend the victim’s secondary rope and use the victim’s primary as their secondary. There is often no need to pull up more ropes. During the rescue, the rescue technician descends the ropes the way they were trained. But what if the victim is not on a rope? What if the ropes need to be brought up and anchored prior to the rescue?
This is where there seems to be a lot of controversy in the tower industry. Many crews are under the belief that during a rescue they will rig two ropes. But, if I were to order a “rescue kit” from any number of major suppliers, I would receive a single 7/16” rope. If I Google tower rescues, I will see any number of rescues being performed with a single rope. If I order a single person evacuation system, I will receive a single 7mm rope and descender in a bag. Suppliers and trainers are relying on a tower workers’ confidence in their equipment and their skills.
Some rigging companies make the distinction between a “rescue” and an “evacuation”. The consensus is that a rescue is performed by a person or persons summoned to the site in the event of an emergency. An evacuation is performed by fellow technicians to move themselves or a coworker to a position of safety. Essentially, a rescue is performed by those who have thousands of hours of experience on ropes. An evacuation is performed by technicians who have limited experience on ropes.
The reason why two rope rescue systems are not advised is simple but hard to teach. That no matter how much experience and training we think we have; the stress of an actual rescue situation will cause poor use of time, poor judgement, and mistakes. The Department of the Interior and IRATA rigging companies uniformly agree that these factors make a single rope rescue system for towers mandatory.
Here at Meridian Blue, our rescue systems consist of a single ½” rope rated at over 9800 pounds (also considered a “general” purpose rope by the NFPA for non-professionals) with a Petzl ID-L. The ID-L was created specifically for rescue and is the only descender that can be used without a backup, providing it is configured in the manner that Petzl advises. There are several other descenders that can be configured in this way, but their manufacturers have yet to state this (Rule #1 in climbing: ALWAYS use your equipment in the manner the manufacturer intends).
The concept of a single rope rescue is simply a matter of becoming familiar with ropes. With this familiarity will come the realization that not all rope systems are the same. Ropes and equipment are chosen for their specific tasks. When ropes are used for work, where we spend time setting up anchorage and spend hours on them working, we choose the two-rope system. When time is of the essence and we are trying to quickly evacuate a coworker in under 15 minutes, we use a single rope system to expedite the process.