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Roco chats with Steve Hudson of PMI Rope

Monday, February 07, 2011

We recently interviewed rope guru (and president of PMI), Steve Hudson, to get some insight into the world of rescue rope. But, first, a little more on Steve’s background and what got him interested in building a better rope for rescuers.

Steve took up the sport of caving at the ripe old age of 18, with an interest in exploration, challenge, and having fun. He learned ”the ropes” on rope borrowed from other industries – sailing rope, commodity rope, etc.

At the time, life safety rope could be defined as “any rope that saved your life.” He soon found limitations to the ropes they were using for caving. The ropes were not as cavers and climbers might have wished-they wore very quickly, plus the quality was occasionally in question.

These early experiences put Steve in a perfect position to create an answer some nine years later. By 1976, he had teamed up with three other caving families, bought a rope braider, incorporated PMI and began in earnest the application of his skills and knowledge to kernmantle ropemaking. The rest, as they say, is history.

Here at Roco, we get many questions about when to retire rescue rope.  Can you give our readers any tips?

First of all, I have a PMI Webinar presentation on rope inspection and retirement that covers the subject in detail. Anyone can see it at: http://pmirope.com/rescue-tv/webinars/#march2010

For the simple answer, our basic rope retirement information can be found in the user instructions that come with each rope. What we say there is:

RETIRE IMMEDIATELY…
  • any rope whose strength may have been compromised during use.
  • any rope which is subjected to uncontrolled or excessive loading.
  • any rope which is greater than 10 years old, regardless of history and usage.
  • any rope whose history and past usage you are uncertain about.

While these are simple statements, I realize that it is difficult to determine what is “excessive loading” or what is “compromised.” And, if you think it’s hard to look at a rope after an operation and tell if it was compromised or not – think how hard it is for us at the factory to know without being there or having the rope to look at.

Unfortunately, there’s not a reasonably priced ”non-destructive” test to determine a particular rope’s strength.  Your best bet is to have trained personnel using the rope, keep good rope use logs and inspect the rope every time you use it if at all possible.  Anytime you have lost faith in what you know about the rope’s condition, for any reason, you should retire it.

A PMI rope, if properly cared for, should last at least 5 years of regular rescue training use and longer than that with intermittent use.  By 10 years, it’s simply time to replace it. There are just too many things in the environment that the rope might pick up and are potentially harmful to the yarn.

And, as always, when in doubt, throw it out… CUT RETIRED ROPE into short lengths which will discourage future use – or discard it entirely.  A retired rope should not be stored, kept or maintained in such a way that it could inadvertently be used as a lifeline. In some cases, when only a single point or a small area of a rope has been damaged and the remainder of the rope is in good condition, the user may elect to cut that section out of the rope and continue to use the remaining sections. This is a judgment call and such a decision is left to the user’s discretion.

What’s the most interesting fiber you’ve worked with?

Textile fibers typically used in ropes are all interesting as they all have such different properties. No one fiber is right for every application just as no one rope is perfect for all jobs. The most interesting one is the one that has yet to be made. It would be low elongation for highlines and haul systems, high elongation to catch a slip or fall, stronger than steel, light as a feather, as easy to handle as cotton, as abrasion resistant as nylon, flame resistant, heat resistant, floating and cost less than polyester.

There seems to be more and more rescue harness options out there each year.  As a harness manufacturer, how do you strike a good balance of comfort, design and safety?

As to comfort and design, ask any ten users to try on and hang from five different harnesses and you’re not likely to get all ten to agree on which is most comfortable – much less the most practical design.  Comfort has a lot to do with the user’s body build, how they use the harness and how well they adjust it to themselves prior to loading. Being a harness manufacturer, we try to have a lot of choices in form and fit to provide options to our customers.

Many of us at PMI are users of harnesses ourselves.  We have employees that are members of fire department technical rescue teams,  mountain rescue teams, and cave rescue teams. In addition many are currently or recently involved as rope access instructors,  cave rescue instructors, sport cavers, mountain climbers, tower erectors and in construction. All have lots of experience in harnesses of all kinds and have many different opinions of what is the most comfortable and what is the most practical design for their use.  We do our best to put all that user input in with our field evaluations from customers and come up with a mix that meets the needs of our customers.

The safety part of that question is possibly the easiest in that following the appropriate industry standards and getting 3rd party certification to those standards helps to ensure a harness is built well enough for the intended use. Be it NFPA 1983 for the fire/rescue service or ANSI Z359 for general industry fall protection, the test requirements are tough to meet and designed around what is likely the “worst case scenario” for that user group. Third party independent certification, like UL for instance, is important to look for to know that the testing was actually done and is being monitored by the independent lab. Good manufacturers are also certified to a quality standard like ISO 9001 as well.

Rescue has come a long way in the past 30 years…is there any one thing on the horizon that will represent a big leap forward?

I wish I could tell you that our anti-gravity boots and litter were close to being ready or even on the horizon but I can’t. In the meantime, we believe that we will see more government regulations surrounding both professional rescue and the employer in industry. Safety professionals will need to plan effectively for what to do in the event of an emergency, and rescue teams will need to be more intentional about their response capabilities.

On the equipment front, availability of a wider variety of products specifically designed for rescue will allow rescuers to customize their systems for optimum performance. For example, these days you can choose between nylon core ropes for more force absorption versus polyester ropes for less elongation. Even personal gear, such as the Pulsar handled ascender, are designed with the professional user in mind and offer more robust performance.

Finally, standards are also pushing our perceived limits. For example, ANSI’s new requirement for 3600# gate strengths in their fall protection standard has likewise created new expectations in performance of rescue gear.

In addition, an important priority for us is wrapped up in standards development – creation and implementation of standards that help to maintain the integrity of life safety ropes and keep the user safe. PMI actively participates in the rope-related standards efforts of the Cordage Institute as well as ANSI, ASTM, NFPA and UIAA, and is engaged in safety programs with several trade organizations and industry peers.

In closing, we want to thank Steve for answering our questions. It’s great to know that he’s still out there caving, rappelling, and searching for ways to make the world of life safety rope better and safer!




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