At the End of His Rope

I promised not to name this guy but some Detroit Firefighters will recognize him from the story he told me. I do know him to be a great Firefighter and a respected professional to the highest degree. He was so good, in fact, that he even spent time at the training academy teaching new recruits the intricacies of our profession. He was always willing to volunteer for dangerous jobs and tasks that would help his brother Firefighters. He was a participant in Local 344s speakers bureau. He served anywhere he was needed. He is extra special to me because he grew up in the 7th Battalion and eventually served in that fire fighting division of the department.

This is the story he told me about an incident that happened when he was at the Academy.

Some fire fighters, that I trained at the Detroit Fire Academy, are telling a story and they are not getting the facts straight. So, like the character I used to watch decades ago on black and white TV would say.... “Here are just the facts ma’am.”

The year was 1967. I was a green 23 year old kid ready to graduate from the Detroit Fire academy. I was very excited to have been chosen to do a special five story rope slide at the graduation ceremony. I was an adrenalin junkie, before the term was coined, so the daring head first dive from a window on the fifth floor fit my agenda to a tee. This action was different from the other  procedures we were taught and it required precision and an element of risk. The Academy was the place where this would happen. There are few buildings in the country where you can look up at a fifth story window while still being inside a building under a normal roof. The spectators at the graduation would be seated on the drill hall floor. They would be near the five story wall. There was a large safety net at the base of the structure. In 1967 the Academy used a rope net tied to the floor and walls to catch rope sliders who may not have slowed down properly. The rope net was very stiff and did not give under strain. This did not worry me.

On graduation day I had confidence in my abilities and equipment. With a loud yell, that startled the crowd, I dove head first from the fifth floor and plunged straight down. I had made the proper line ties and threaded the one inch diameter twisted Manila rope through my Pompier Belt. The rope hitched up at the proper floor level as it had always done in practice. It slowed my decent and I swung  in a gentle arc which landed me one foot from the wall. As I unhitched the rope I heard applause of those attending the graduation program.

Fast forward 10 years. Now I am an instructor at the Detroit Fire Training Academy. I was working the class of 1977 or 78. Time has dimmed my mind as to which class it was. The drill hall is the same. A great facility with an inside fire escape reaching up five stories on one wall with windows and a small room at each level. Directly across the drill hall floor is the face of another five story wall with a safety net and windows where rope work  and Pompier ladder drill is practiced. I had worked my trainees slowly, moving them from the third floor level to the fifth floor. Everyone of them were doing the proper rope slide technique. This procedure required the rope user to put the one inch rope though the Pompier belt hook from the top and  make a round turn so the rope was wound around the heavy steel hook one complete turn. The hook had a spring clip that facilitated doing this. My trainees were properly hooked up and descended feet first walking the wall for balance.

Newer Pompier belts were on order that had a locking clasp on the hook clip. We were still using the old ones that had a spring loaded clasp on the hook clip. The old belts served us well and I never hesitated to use them. I was showing the cadets, the ones who enjoyed  the wall slides, how to do the graduation dive. The hook up for this procedure is the same as for a normal feet first rope slide only the belt has to be rotated from the belly to the middle of the back. The rope is held in front with gloved hands and with a little slack in the rope the slider takes a couple steps and dives head first out the fifth floor window. This activity leaves little margin for error. It is imperative that the diver aim at the sewer in the middle of the drill hall floor which is four feet past the edge of the safety net. The reason for diving out so far is the slack in the rope will catch and pull the diver back toward the wall during his rapid decent. If done properly the tension on the rope would “catch” at the fourth floor level and swing the diver toward the wall. After the rope caught the diver could can watch how fast his decent is happening and stay head first until the last second and than rotate his feet under him and land on the net in a upright position. By slowing down the diver will make a perfect landing only a foot or more from the wall.

OK! That is how it went until this day. As I was clipping into the rope I was telling my trainees how to scream loudly during the dive to startle the spectators and make them look in the direction of the diver. It added excitement to the program and was a far turn from the other cadets who were doing feet first slides.

While my trial Firefighters watched I ran to the window and did a high leap over the 14 inch ledge. As I was in mid flight at the top of an arc, not yet starting down, I heard a clip snap. As I passed the fourth floor the rope did not hitch up. I knew immediately the only thing that was going to hold me to the rope were my two gloved hands in front of me. I let out a yell which was part of the program. The third floor shot by and I was not slowing up. Like a ping pong player who hits a defensive slam by conscious reflex I took action. I brought my feet under me into a “pike position” like a diver coming off a spring board. I was choking that skinny rope with all my might. The decent angle was directly at the steel sewer cover and this time it looked like I was going to miss the safety net and hit it dead center.

I must have done something right because I slammed into the first foot of the new nylon net. Because the nylon net gave a greater stretch than the old hemp rope net, which we recently replaced, I was able to roll with the impact and lay flat for a moment. I got up and felt no pain except for a strain to my right leg calf. I rolled off the five foot high net and walked up to the fifth floor where my wide eyed trainees were waiting. They were sure this was not the right way to dive out the window. I told them the click they heard was a coil in the rope causing just the right tension to unlock the rope from the hook. Because the clip is spring loaded  it opens to any pressure.

They found out that Firefighters are a special breed and what I expected out of them by my next action. I put the rope through the hook, gave it a loop, and rotated the Pompier belt around to my back. I grabbed the rope in front of me and dove out the window again. This time there was no click. At the fourth floor level the rope cinched up and my decent slowed properly. I landed on the nylon net about a foot from the wall and looked up at my trainees.  I said, “That is the way it is done.”

The training hour was over and I went into the Academy office for a cup of coffee. In the office the Chief of Training, Don Coster asked," What was that yell out in the drill hall?” I told him I was giving the graduation class dive training and I was yelling as we usually do. He said, “That first one didn't sound like the usual yell to me.” I didn’t reply.

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