Regardless of the type of primary search you conduct, even if it is a small area standard search, you always need to deploy the search rope. This is needed because disorientation and subsequent LODDs happen even in standard size apartments. We will talk about how to best deploy the search rope in small area search scenario in a separate video, but today we I will show you how your search bag should be set up so that it works inside without problems.
I recommend to both watch the video or read the text, as they are not the same!
The job of the search rope bag is to contain the search rope and ensure that it deploys without entanglement. In this article I do not advertise any particular make and model, in fact, you can make good working bags yourself if you have a sewing machine.
First, let's talk about what kind of rope your bag should contain. Search rope is not a technical rescue rope, you don't need it to be 10-12 mm thick – this is too much material and weight that you will never use. In primary search we never attach any life to the rope, so it does not need to be strong. A 5-7 mm rope is more than enough for all your searching needs.
It might be tempting to use even thinner rope to reduce the package weight or increase the length of the rope, and you can do that, but understand that too thin of a rope will be nearly impossible to find in your firefighting gloves should you drop this rope on the floor by accident during the search in zero visibility. So in my experience 5-7 mm diameter is the optimum.
Your typical search rope bag should contain at least 200 feet (60 m) of rope, but you also need to explore your response area, and find all the places where a longer rope will be needed – pay special attention to industrial and commercial occupancies and the basements. When pre-planning, don't just walk into the premises, walk in while deploying the rope to see whether you will be able to get to the deepest place without running out of rope. When you find places in which your rope is not long enough, make extra bags of rope (you should have several anyway) or a separate larger bag with more rope in it.
All your ropes should have a unique vibrant colors and unique labels at the safe side of the rope. You will need both to positively identify yourself when you will need help inside. You will say something like "78 on orange from front door" and others will quickly find your rope at the front door and send help to you. Just the label is not enough, because if your relief team accidentally drops the rope for a quick second while following it inside, they will have difficulty identifying it again if multiple ropes will be deployed in the same direction. This is why you need to strive to have different rope bags with different colors.
We will have a separate article on this soon, but I will briefly mention that you should deploy the rope differently depending on the type of search you are conducting. In large area search we handle the main rope actively – that is the team leader keeps it under tension and ties off at the turning points. In other types of search, including small area search, we just let the rope deploy passively – in other words, we just do our search as usual while carrying a bag, allowing the rope to come out of the bag and lay on the floor. This allows us to not spend time managing the rope on the way in, but at the same time gives us directions to safety should we need them on the way back. So really deploying the rope in small areas will not complicate your searches, but will make them safer.
To ensure that your rope deployment will go smooth, the rope must come out of the bag without entanglements. Rope jams are the reason why many firefighters don't like deploying the rope and sacrifice a portion of their safety as a result. But there is no reason for that as rope jams are easily preventable if you avoid four common mistakes.
The first and the biggest mistake is distance knots or even factory-made distance balls. I hate to disappoint those of you who believe in distance knots, but if you take a fresh unbiased look at them, you will realize that they are useless. When you work on the rope and you need to summon help, all the incoming help needs to know is what color of the rope you are on and what does the label on the safe end of the rope say. Then they will follow the rope and will find you because the rope only goes back and forth. As RIT/FAST, I couldn't care less whether you are five or seven knots deep, we need to follow the rope in linear manner until we find you. So stay on the rope, know your rope color and your rope label and we will come and get you. If you insist on having the distance knots, you will constantly be having problems with rope jams because rope gets entangled against any rope imperfection first, and knots are the biggest imperfection you can imagine. The end result is that people go inside with a rope equipped with distance knots, get the rope jammed 10 yards deep inside, angrily ditch the bag and proceed without the rope, which you should never do. So smooth rope, please, no knots!
The second mistake is too narrow opening through which the rope comes out. The smallest bundling of rope gets stuck against small opening and you end up having a complete jam. The best fix for that is to have a bag with entire top side as one huge opening covered with a large flap. This way even if the rope gets entangled inside, it will come out as a bundle and you will keep going.
The third mistake is either sloppy or segmented loading of the rope in the bag. Sloppy loading leads to multiple self-entanglement of the rope. Some people try to address this by loading the rope in well-organized segments or portions. Sadly, this usually leads to the whole segment getting entangled resulting in a massive jam. The best practice is to load the rope in short random strokes, this way even if it gets entangled, it will only be a small jam that will easily come out through a large opening.
The fourth mistake is ignoring the direction of deployment. You should wear the bag so that the rope come out behind you, not in front. Front exit direction bends the rope 180 degrees as it comes out. The result is increased friction, more resistance to deployment, possibility of a rope vs. bag entanglement and again, any imperfection of the rope getting jammed against the side of the exit opening.
One other really important topic is a strap for the bag. Often people make a mistake of using any available strap, specifically a solid strap that cannot be easily separated from the bag in zero visibility while wearing the fire gloves. This can be a big problem because you might need to ditch the bag rapidly while working inside. It will become a huge problem if, when preparing to make an entry, you will put the bag on first and then go on air (which is the most natural way to do things). In this case your strap will get caught in the low pressure air hose loop and you won't be able to remove the bag without disconnecting the regulator, and you should never disconnect the regulator while inside! The easy solution to this problem is to have a strap with large "seat-belt" style buckles on both sides of the strap. This way you will be able to easily ditch the bag even in zero visibility while wearing your gloves. Don't be fooled by the small carabineers that usually can be found on the straps – you won't be able to manipulate them in fire gloves in zero visibility! Only large buckles will do the job.
Your search rope bag should have a pocket for webbing that you can use as leashes during the large area search. We will have a separate article on how these leashes should be used and what methods of large area search you should and should not use.
The bag should also have aluminum non-locking carabineers attached to it so that you can tie-off the rope at the turns when conducting large area search. You can do that by tying the knots, but it is much quicker and cleaner to do it with carabineers. Remember, these carabineers, just like the search rope, are never used for any rescues, so they don't have to be strong at all. We will have a separate article on this topic as well.
Finally, people often ask me whether the rope should be made of Kevlar so that it does not burn through. I am not against para-aramid synthetic fiber ropes, but you need to understand one thing – any rope material will eventually fail under fire loading, the only question is at what temperature. Yes, para-aramids have a higher thermal resistance, which is nice, but don't let this fact create a false sense of security – these ropes are not fire-proof and will fail too. In primary search, just like in any other forms of reconnaissance, we must avoid contact with the enemy, in our case with fire. So my general approach is this: if you are returning by following the rope and discover that the rope has burnt through, you should stop and reconsider your exit strategy as it is not safe to be where the fire is or was. This is why you always need to dynamically "compute" your second means of egress. We will talk about it in a separate article. For now I will say this: if your department has extra money, yes, buy para-aramid ropes, but don't expect them to be fire-proof. By the way, another problem with Kevlar is that you will have hard time buying ropes with different colors, as Kevlar ropes are usually made in the same boring color. Frankly, I would rather have several different colors of a regular synthetic rope than seven Kevlar ropes of the same color on my truck.