PRESS RELEASE - Preparing Yourself for the Petzl EXO Personal Safety System and the Gemtor Harness By LARRY COHEN, LIEUTENANT FDNY Ret.
With the much anticipated, soon to be released, Petzl EXO Personal Safety System, (PSS) fire departments and firefighters should understand that there are certain bunker gear concerns, harness requirements and training issues that need to be addressed in order for the system to be properly attached and deployed correctly. FDNY and Petzl have designed this particular system to be worn on the outside of the firefighter’s protective pants, and under the turnout coat. The reason for this location is so it can be easily accessed and rapidly deployed, while at the same time protected from a fire environment by the protective coat. Thousands of hours have gone into the engineering and practical application of this device so that firefighters can safely exit a hostile environment in a burning structure.
The Gemtor 541-NYC is the 3rd generation Class II harness that FDNY is currently issuing to all their members. Several changes have been made to this harness to incorporate the Petzl system, at the same time allowing the Pompier hook to be used independently of the PSS. A solid aluminum Pompier hook has replaced the older solid steel hook with the addition of a triple action self locking gate on the hook. The “stand-by” location of the Pompier hook has been repositioned from either the left or right side (depending upon what was ordered) to the front center of the waist area. The last addition is a steel “D” ring incorporated into the “A” frame of the harness so that the PSS can be preconnected and deployed within seconds.
The advantages of the Gemtor 541-NYC harness is its flexibility and multiple use capabilities. For example, a firefighter has the option of using it to self evacuate from a building in conjunction with their PSS, self rappel using the Pompier hook, perform a rescue lower and pickoff, or simply use it as a ladder belt.
Years ago this harness accompanied by a bag of rope was the original bail out system used by the FDNY. What is important to understand is that the Gemtor 541-NYC can be ordered with a right or left side opening. Because the FDNY currently uses the left side opening harness, the Petzl EXO bag mounts to the waist band of the 541-NYC harness on the right side. The issue of which way the harness opens may seem insignificant, but when matched up with the Petzl system and the individual firefighter’s bunker pants opening, it is critical that a LEFT side opening on the harness be specified.
Recently, during a Petzl / Gemtor training class, the method of how the bunker pants open and close in conjunction with the 541-NYC harness became an issue for getting dressed proficiently. If the Petzl system is being considered, the best scenario is that both the harness and the pants open from the left side.
The FDNY issues bunker pants and a harness to each firefighter that opens and closes on the left hip. For this and other reasons, the Petzl PSS was engineered to be fastened to the harness waist strap on the right rear hip. Another advantage when both the harness and the bunker pants open from the same side is that it provides the firefighter with a clean look and makes it easier for the firefighter to get in and out of the pants.
If a firefighter has a right side opening 541- NYC harness, the Petzl PSS cannot be used. If the issued bunker pants open and close from the right side, a left side opening harness must still be used in order for the Petzl system to be attached in the proper location. Another alternative, regardless of which way the pants open is to utilize a harness that opens directly in front.
In order to hold the harness in place, there are several attachment points (usually Velcro straps) sewn directly to the bunker pants along the entire waist band of the harness. This results in a 360° attachment system between the harness and pants.
THE PETZL PSS
This system was designed to provide the firefighter with a safe and rapid way to exit a building under extreme conditions. Certain performance standards of an escape system had to be met in order to meet the strict criteria of FDNY. A rapid, multi use anchoring system had to be available. The Petzl system allows the firefighter to anchor remotely from the exit point (i.e.: radiator, steam pipe, door jamb) or to anchor directly at the window sill. This was accomplished by developing an anchor hook that could perform under any possible situation.
The hook (Photo 15) is manufactured by Crosby and meets 2006 NFPA 1983 standards with a 4.4:1 design factor ratio. The breaking strength at the tip of the hook is 4946 pounds at a load rate of 1.2” per minute. According to the manufacturer, a load rate test is more accurate than an impact load test to properly determine the working and breaking strength of the hook. The reason for this testing is that under a sudden impact load, energy absorption is actually easier to disperse throughout the system than a constant load test. So by applying a load test, it provides a more accurate measure as to the capabilities of the performance of the hook. It is interesting to mention that when the hook is placed under maximum load testing, the hook did not fracture but rather “open up”. (1)
An impact load from a firefighter exiting a window can reach thousands of pounds of force. It is important to realize that some “bail out” systems available to firefighters are not certified by NFPA and are at best questionable as to the strength of the system. As a result, the Petzl / Gemtor system has been classified by UL in accordance with NFPA 1983-206 to provide the firefighters with a system that is safe and more importantly, reliable.
The 50’ rope is 7.5 mm in diameter and comprised of 100% Technora fibers. The advantage to using this type of rope is that it has extreme heat and cut resistant properties. It has a 5000 pound breaking strength and can withstand 1½ to 2 minutes of heat exposure at 932° Farenheit. Drop and heat tests have been performed on this rope to ensure the system maintains its high standards of integrity.
The actual descending device is called the EXO (Photo 16). This device is self braking. This means that if a firefighter exiting a window looses control of the descent, the automatic self locking cam will immediately stop the fall until the firefighter can regain their composure and operate the throttle lever to safely complete the descent.
Petzl and FDNY have put the EXO through rigorous tests and thousands of slides to ensure 100% confidence in operation. All three components; the hook, rope, and EXO are stored in a Kevlar / Nomex blended bag which connects to the harness on the right side of the body using three retainer straps.
One point to mention, there is a descent control device made by Petzl called the Grigri. While similar in appearance each device is designed for a specific use, and these devices are not interchangeable. According to Petzl, the Grigri is to be used strictly for recreational use or as a belay system and not incorporated as a component in a firefighter’s PSS. The EXO is the only device made by Petzl for Firefighter Personal Escape.
As little as 10 years ago the phrase “bail out” barely existed in the fire service. Today it’s a big issue that most fire departments realize is a growing problem. Firefighters are making the decision to purchase a personal safety system. Unfortunately some of these purchases are made without any research into the product to ensure certified standards
Worse yet, some individual components are available to the firefighter so that a system can be custom built. This is a dangerous situation. If one component does not meet NFPA standards, chances are the system is not safe to be used. If you are contemplating buying a PSS, do the research necessary to make sure your system is safe and exactly what you want.
Another problem with a firefighter purchasing their own individual system is that there is no continuity within the department as to the type of system that everyone is wearing. Training, inspection, and maintenance are issues that need to be addressed during the life of these systems. If everyone in the firehouse has a different system, it makes it very difficult to maintain a comprehensive safety program to ensure the systems are trained on and kept in a proper order.
Once these Personal Safety Systems are put in service, there is going to come a time when certain components of the system may need to be replaced. These components were precisely engineered to work together as a system, therefore, if any part of the system becomes suspect to wear and tear, or, for any reason becomes questionable, the manufacturer of that particular system must be contacted so that the appropriate action can be taken to get the system back in service. Each component is vital to the system’s performance. It is not advisable to replace any worn or damaged item within the system with something that was not originally intended to be used in that PSS.
Regardless of what type of system is bought or issued, training is absolutely critical. Petzl requires that authorized training be completed before any Petzl EXO unit can be purchased either by an individual firefighter or by an entire fire department.
This philosophy promotes the idea that all firefighters will know exactly how to deploy the system and descend a structure safely without question. The commitment by firefighters to get properly trained on the use of these systems and educated on the techniques used to exit a window is vital. The fire service cannot afford to have members jumping out of buildings untrained and unfamiliar with these PSS systems.
Already, there have been incidents where firefighters have suffered injuries during training exercises resulting from improper training. Make sure the people doing the training are professional and that they ensure the safety of the firefighter is a priority on the training ground. Proper technique is the most important aspect of providing the correct training to members. Take the time to get the training for all PSS systems so that proficiency and safety prevail.
BACK TO BASICS
There will always be circumstances on the fire ground that we are not capable of controlling. As a result, firefighters will find themselves in life threatening positions. Therefore, we do need something that will save the lives of our members.
The introduction of Personal Safety Systems into the fire service is an insurance policy to help us survive such an event. Fortunately, we do have some ability to dictate tactics and strategies on the fire ground to help prevent such an occurrence. That answer more common than not, is, “back to basics”. Typical fire ground operations such as proficient hose line stretching, meeting proper GPM flow requirements, ventilation, laddering, forcible entry, and selecting proper size hoselines are all duties that need to be performed effectively and efficiently.
When we fail to properly perform these tactics, the chaos level inevitably rises and results in mayday events, compromising the safety of our members. Tactical decisions that are made by fire officers need to be proactive as a result of their size-up. For example, if confronted with heavy fire conditions on arrival, consider stretching a larger initial attack line such as the 2½” handline rather than the usual 1¾” preconnect. This will provide a more rapid knockdown of the main body of fire allowing firefighters to perform their duties more safely on the fire ground.
A properly timed and coordinated vent in the fire building will provide the engine company with a more tolerable atmosphere to operate in, not to mention the safety factor that is provided for interior search crews. Proactive aerial and ground laddering at a fire can avoid life threatening situations. Get ladders into position to provide a means of egress before we need them, be proactive!
Be proficient in forcible entry. Provide the engine company and search crews with immediate access into the fire area thereby reducing the time it takes to get water on the fire and initiating the primary search.
If we train and practice these and other tactics on the fire ground, the results can be so effective we may not have to resort to using these Personal Safety Systems. The theory behind these systems is for a firefighter to have an insurance policy to self evacuate, hoping we never actually have to use them.
(1) The Crosby Group, Inc. 2801 Dawson Road, Tulsa, OK 74101
LARRY COHEN is a retired Lieutenant from FDNY. He served as a firefighter for 5 years in Ladder Company 12 in lower Manhattan. In 1988 he transferred to Squad Company 18, under Special Operations Command, where he served as a firefighter until getting promoted to Lieutenant. As a lieutenant, he was assigned to the Seventh Division in the Bronx as a covering officer. He has a Bachelors degree in Fire Safety Protection from Jersey City University and is on Staff as a Field Instructor at the University of Illinois’ Fire Service Institute. He lectures and conducts hands-on training throughout the country and is owner of Fire Ground Technologies, a fire service education company.