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The Original NFPA 1983

Throughout my career, I had heard a belief expressed periodically for the last 20 years. It would pop up in gyms or at crags and was usually laughed off. The idea that if a carabiner were dropped on a hard surface, it could no longer be used because it might now contain “microfractures”. We would try to explain that this is not the case but were often met with resistance. Even last year in Canada it came up. We always ask where they read this, but no one could ever say. Climbing is a very exact sport. Every question needs an answer. So, the idea that people knew this “fact” but could never say where it had come from was always a source of fascination. It was this specter in the climbing community that was the source of a lot of speculation.

At my first jobsite for Meridian Blue Construction, I was told by a safety manager that I could only use steel carabiners. Having just started I accepted this as fact and did not think much of it. Over the last year I have heard many peculiar thoughts on ropes. I have heard the use of the terms “1-person rope”, “2-person” rope, 15:1 safety factor…I would try to look these things up. Having studied many climbing manuals and guides, I was confused as to why in over 20 years I had never encountered these terms anywhere.

In September of this year, I was fortunate enough to attend tower rescue training in California. While sitting with the instructor one day he mentioned in passing, “When you train at some of these small fires departments-they always have a box of brand-new carabiners they can’t use anymore…” Of course, I asked “WHY??” The answer: “They got dropped. They need to be x-rayed before they can use them. It’s their original NFPA 1983 training”

I was SO excited. I finally had the answer to a rumor I had heard for half of my life. The first thing I did was go to the website and download the NFPA 1983. 90 pages of standards for rescue equipment. Nothing seemed odd. Everything made perfect sense and I could not find anything about dropped carabiners.

I kept digging. I found plenty of rescue instructors complaining about the original NFPA, but it took weeks to find someone who had transcribed the original.

In 1980, two firemen died on the 7th floor of a building fire. Both died when one tried to rescue the other. The rope broke. There were not a lot of specifics. But this started a quest to create a rescue guide for firefighters using ropes. It was said that they studied cavers to create their guidelines. They tried to work with manufacturers. I could see why the NFPA met such resistance with the rope industry. Their ideas directly contradicted the UIAA which is a globally recognized standard. Back in the early 80’s, climbing was still a fairly new sport in the public eye. And there was probably little knowledge on behalf of the NFPA of even the existence of the UIAA, let alone a standards system that had been in place for almost 30 years at this point.

By 1985 they published their standards: No one is quite sure where they came up with their 15:1 safety factor for ropes. They also included ideas like only using steel carabiners, 1 person and 2 person ropes, safety knots on knots, and ropes can only be used once for rescue.

One of the biggest problems fire departments had with their guidelines was that ropes could only be used once for rescue. Ropes are expensive, and for many fire departments this would mean not having ropes to perform rescue with. In the climbing community, this paper resonated with the use of “safety knots”. This concept came to climbing gyms by way of their insurance companies. It was thought to be ridiculous for several reasons. First, a figure 8 has never come untied. The idea that it needed a back-up seemed very odd. For instructors, the use of the term “safety knot” was frowned upon. It was often explained to students that we taught the “insurance-company knot” because we were forced to. It was also made explicitly clear that if through some catastrophic system failure your figure 8 was damaged to the point that it failed, no knot under it on the system would provide any form of back-up or “safety”.

I was always very curious about their two-rope system. At the same time the 1983 was published, IRATA was first being formed. They would have had no idea about primary and secondary lines used in the manner rope access uses them today. They said they got their ideas from cavers. Climbers use single, twin, and double rope systems. But neither the twin or double rope system has ever been used in caving….I suspect they saw cavers rappelling. In a rappel, a single rope is hung by its center. This allows the rope to be pulled down to the climber after its use. To a lay person it would appear to be two ropes. Two devices are then used to rappel. At the time, a rappel device like an 8, and then a back-up prusik knot. I think this was construed to be two ropes.

The original NFPA1983 was last printed in 1995, but it still resonates throughout the rescue community in the United States. It was only 5 pages. Today, it is 90 pages. It is meant to be a set of standards for equipment manufacturers. Not a guide for rope use or rescue. Climbing equipment is much like any other technology. A rope from 1980 is barely similar to a rope made today.

The NFPA 1983 is not even similar to the original. It specifies using 11mm and 12.5mm ropes. It designates them as technical or general use. The only requirement is that the ropes be rated at a minimum of 40kN. It is the users choice of size: 11mm for people who have more skill on ropes and desire the maneuverability of a thinner rope, or 12.5mm for those who are not as familiar. As instructors and safety coordinators it is our job to make sure that our employees are educated in current rope standards.

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