The National Fire Protection Association’s 1983 Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services defines life safety rope as, “rope dedicated solely to supporting people during rescue, fire-fighting, other emergency operations, or during training evolutions.” That’s no small mandate for your rope to live up to.
So what are the keys for rescue rope care that will keep your rope in the best shape of its life?
Ian from our equipment team is here with more mic dropping gear advice (to add to Al’s great advice in our Drysuit Care & Feeding blog).
I believe it was Aristotle who said “When in doubt, throw it out.”
A rope with no known history and no record of use is not a rope suitable for life safety (but maybe ok for belaying the in-laws?). Every time your life safety rope comes out for rescue, training or inspection, this should be recorded.
Take note of the date and how the rope was used. Take notes regarding its use like, “Stan had a four foot fall” or “Stan dragged the rope over some sharp quartzite rocks” or “Stan dumped paint thinner into the rope bag”.
Don’t be a Stan.
There isn’t much point in buying an expensive life safety rope… (*dramatic pause*)… if you are going to store them in a puddle of battery acid beside the trickle charger in the garage (Stan!!!).
Here are a few things more common things to avoid: chemicals, direct sun, dirt, and burning embers. Fairly straight forward for the most part.
Less straight forward is leaving your ropes in the trunk of your car on a hot day while you get your wisdom teeth pulled. No rope bag or storage techniques will prevent your rope from baking (especially if you lived on the West coast this past summer, hey?).
What’s the best way to store rope?
- make sure it is totally dry
- place it in a rope bag
- put the rope baga in a cool, dry place…
- … without UV exposure
- … or chemicals
And here’s a tip: when you pack your rope, try alternating which end you stuff first. Ensuring you switch which end you work off of will help your rope wear more evenly. Having your ropes marked will aid in this.
“But… how do I mark my ropes?” you ask. Read on…
Let’s talk about your options here.
- SHARPIES: The ubiquitous Sharpie is a great choice for marking up your dry suit so you know which one is yours, but DO NOT use a Sharpie to mark your rope. I have seen a YouTubers test a used rope by marking it with a Sharpie and pulling to failure. In their tests, they noticed no degradation. (But as Abe Lincoln said “don’t believe everything you read on the interwebs.”) Use Black Diamond Rope Marker instead.
- Petzl ID Kit: Mark your rope ends with Petzl Rope ID Kit, which fit 10.5mm to 13mm diameter rope. We recommend that you apply two or three coats of clear Whip-End Dip over the marker for durability.
- Leon Signs have made adhesive equipment labels for some of our instructors.
- Or try Toughtags. Toughtags are based out of the UK, and they can create custom, self-laminating tags in a multitude of colours and custom lettering.
Not sure what to put on the rope label?
Noting the date of manufacture as well as the date in service (DOM/DIS), month and year, length of the rope and an ‘A’ end or a ‘B’ end would be a great option.
“Hey, I just found this rope in behind a dumpster… how can I tell how old it is?”
Congrats and great news, Stan. Start by throwing it in the dumpster. With no known history, that’s where it belongs.
If, however, you do have a life safety rope with a history you know, but a date of manufacture you don’t… the manufacturers have you covered. On life safety ropes, cut about a metre of the rope off… ideally from the ends and not the middle. Carefully cut off the sheath (mantle) that protects the core (kern) and inside there should be a thin piece of tape that will let you know the manufacturer, material, DOM and some other useful info.
We can break up inspections into three categories:
First, let’s talk about pre-deployment inspections. You’re probably already in the habit (aren’t you?), of giving your life safety kit a visual inspection prior to relying on it to save a life. It is as simple as paying attention to the tactile and visual condition of the rope while setting up for a job. Visual cues often point to issues with the sheath, and tactile issues are clues to problems in the core.
Routine inspections should be performed by a competent inspector. Many departments schedule quarterly inspections. Some departments even outsource their routine equipment inspections to folks like us.
And how often should a thorough inspection be completed? Great question. Answer… it depends. A detailed and thorough inspection should be performed at least once per annum. If your ropes are used often this schedule should be increased. Here are some tips for a successful annual inspection:
- Do your inspection with bare hands. It will be difficult to find subtle imperfections with your army surplus winter mitts on.
- Pass about 12″-18″ of rope through your hands at a time.
- Look at the sheath. Check for flat spots, cuts, fraying, dirt, mildew, glazed spots, chemical exposure and discolouration.
- Feel the rope, thinking about issues that could be under the surface. Feel for deformity, changes in diameter, swelling and crushed or soft areas.
- Pay attention to subtleties like odd smells which could indicate contamination.
Finally on inspections – record the findings. Even if nothing wrong was found, having a trackable history is key.
It is understood that the more we use the rope the more wear it experiences. The natural world, industrial and urban environments, and anywhere Stan goes are full of hazards to rope.
Here are some environmental and situational red flags. Avoid them, and prolong the life of your rope:
- rope on rope friction
- sharp edges
- dirty surfaces
- contact with dirt, mud and the bottom of shoes
Can’t avoid dirty surfaces like mud? Use a tarp. Tarps are cheap. Life safety rope is not.
Can’t avoid sharp edges due to the position of anchors, patient packaging restrictions or obstructions? Use rope protection. Please note that testing has indicated that the quality of your edge pro matters.
A grey cloth interior ’85 Jetta with noisy wheel bearings (I miss you ol’ girl!) may get you there… but a pearl white 2021 Audi RS 7 with a tan leather interior and box of Salvatore’s sfogliatelle on the passenger seat is going to get you there – and back – with confidence.
Some types of Audi level of protection include sliding or fixed rope sleeves, previously mentioned edge pads made of layers of canvas, engineered roller devices, vorticies, flexible plastic trays and more.
When clients or students ask me whether I would retire a certain rope or not, the answer is often ‘it depends’. It can be a bit of a cop out… but… it really does depend. It depends on how it was stored. It depends how old it is. It depends how it’s been used (ie if Stan was on the call).
If you are ever unsure whether you should keep using a rope or retire it, ask yourself:
Can I buy another me? If yes, then keep climbing on your frayed and brittle rope.
If you realize that you can’t buy another YOU… consider buying another rope. It may be cheaper.
There’s a lot out there on equipment lifespan best practices. We even wrote a whitepaper about it, and will be sharing it in our blog soon.
Here are a couple more reasons to buy new gear (as if you needed one);
- The rope has been subjected to a major fall
- Its entire history is unknown
- Reliability is in question
- It becomes obsolete due to changes in legislation, standards, technique or incompatibility with other equipment, etc.
- Fails inspection (you didn’t need me to say this one out loud, right?)
Perhaps most importantly – get training. You aren’t much good to a rope, a rope team, or a patient if you can’t tell a bowline from an Italian Death Hitch.
Once you have training – work within its scope. The most valuable thing I got from my first rescue course (436 years ago today) was the understanding that my skills and experience were the limiting factors in what I could or couldn’t do. Not my gear. While I could identify many hazardous situations and ideal solutions, I was not always capable of actually doing anything about it.
Now that you have some training… let’s get started with the pre deployment inspection. Do it. Do it now.