By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star
---- — “On belay?” Oneonta Fire Department Capt. James Maloney called out.
“Belay on,’’ firefighter Jason Hassick replied.
Moments later, firefighter Brian Knapp rolled out of a second-story window and began lowering himself by rope, which is part of an updated emergency escape system. A 50-foot rope, with a 4-inch-wide hook at one end, is attached to a harness that is part of Knapp’s turnout gear.
Knapp hooked the rope to the window, or other secure component nearby, and lowered himself using the rope stored in his pants pocket. He slowly descended until his feet were on the ground.
In the practice situation Monday, Knapp simulated escaping from a burning building when stairs and ladders were inaccessible.
Oneonta firefighters are practicing the procedure as many as 20 times to ensure proficiency, and Knapp said using the “muscle memory’’ produced through training can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.
In the exercise space at the Oneonta Fire Department, Knapp also was attached to a safety rope. Maloney, Hassick and other firefighters spotted for Knapp as he descended from the practice structure that looked like the side of a house with two stories, each with a window.
Assistant Chief Shane Mattice said the emergency escape system is a “last resort’’ for crews inside a building who find stairs no longer accessible, and there isn’t time to wait for a ladder.
Oneonta firefighters have trained in using the rope-escape system before, Mattice said, but this round is with new or upgraded equipment purchased under a state law signed by the governor last year.
A harness, for example, is part of turnout gear instead of worn outside, Mattice said, and the harness can hold the weight of two people — the firefighter and a person being rescued. He estimated the setup cost about $500 per firefighter.
In August 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation pertaining to the escape systems firefighters at risk of entrapment at elevations must carry, according to the state Department of Labor website.
A 2008 law requiring firefighter escape systems was updated last year to allow departments to have more choices in systems, Kevin Ritton, coordinator of the Otsego County Office of Emergency Services, said Monday. No departments have had to use the system, he said, but the training is good to have should firefighters find themselves individually or with other crews in such limited escape scenarios.
Mattice said training in the Oneonta Fire Department started about two weeks ago and will wrap up in about two more weeks, providing with 12 to 15 hours, including a three-hour class, of instruction and practice. Firefighters will have review sessions twice annually, he said.
State lawmakers justified the laws because of an incident that has become known as “Black Sunday” in the firefighting community. On Jan. 23, 2005, six New York City firefighters were caught on the fourth floor of a burning building in the Bronx without proper escape components, the law said. The firefighters were forced to jump from the building, resulting in serious injury to four and the death of two.
The department has 28 full-time and three part-time firefighters, Mattice said, plus nine on-call firefighters who respond to scenes but don’t enter burning buildings.
All 40 firefighters will be trained in the escape system, according to Mattice, and different scenarios, such as masks with visibility obscured, are used to simulate various firefighting situations.