Selecting Rope Rescue Training

Issue 5 and Volume 9.

Your department’s tech rescue program needs to train additional rope rescue technicians. Where do you start? An out-of-town open enrollment class? Maybe bring an outside instructor to your department? Or are there any local options?

The answer isn’t as obvious as it once was. Throughout the mid-1990s, many areas had community colleges or rescue training consortiums that ran training several times a year. Many of these programs have shut down due to reduced enrollments, and some departments have cancelled longstanding rescue programs because they can no longer afford them. In this article, I’ll discuss some alternative options to provide your department with the training it needs.

In-House Instructors

One popular option for departments is to send team members to outside training to become instructors themselves. These classes may be listed as “Train the Trainer” training (TTT). Typically there is a prerequisite that the individual must already be trained to a certain level, whereupon they review the technical material, participate in the teach-back sessions, and after evaluation they are issued certificates of completion. In some cases there is an agreement between the student, their agency and the training provider that the individual can only teach the program for their own agency.

Other programs involve the student taking a specific rescue class and then continuing on with a TTT module. In the case of experienced rescuers with a strong instructional background, this works fine. Less experienced rescuers with minimal instructional experience may not be as successful, as they have had little time to master the skills that they are supposed to be teaching to their own personnel. Even in the best of circumstances, conducting training within one’s own department can be difficult. If the participants have doubt as to the instructor’s qualifications and experience it can be quite an obstacle. In many cases, however, lack of actual experience can be made up for by participating in extensive training and the ability to present the information in an organized and well-articulated presentation. In-house instructors may attend technician-level training in a specific discipline and then return to their own department to put together a program based upon that department’s needs. Ultimately, it is up to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to ensure that their instructors are trained to the appropriate level and qualified to conduct the training.

In any case, technicians and instructors must practice continuing education and stay up to date on the testing and evaluation of rope rescue systems. Team members who completed their rope rescue training back in the day and have not updated their skills and knowledge will most likely be using methods that are not only antiquated, but dangerous. Departments need to review their operations periodically and test them against current best practices so they can differentiate fact from myth.


Using outside instructors is often the most cost-effective, as it is less expensive to bring instruction to your department than to transport your department to training out of town. Not only does this reduce shift coverage and overtime costs, but training can be scheduled around the host department’s schedule. Students can train with their own equipment and on their own target hazards. The downside is that there are often distractions both on the part of the department (responding to calls, overtime coverage) and the students, given their close proximity to home. Enrollment can dwindle as the day draws near, as often times many people “have to be somewhere else.” Yet with prior planning, many of these shortcomings can be addressed beforehand by the instructor and the department’s training officer.

When selecting outside instructors to bring to your location, make sure to review the material they will present and confirm that it’s what you are looking for. Will their training meet your county or local rescue protocols? Are any protocols in place? These are questions you should be prepared to answer so that an outside agency instructor can provide you with the appropriate training. It’s also helpful to have knowledge of team member’s prior instruction, a copy of your rescue SOGs and an inventory of rope rescue equipment that will be available during the training. You can also tell the instructor about any specific target hazards that your personnel will need to be able to respond to.

When using an outside agency, make sure you know who your instructors are. Are they experienced practitioners? Do they currently work in the fire/rescue community? If not, what is their previous rescue work experience? Many organizations post instructor bios on their websites. If you are not familiar with the instructor cadre, ask for a bio. Also ask for references from departments or agencies that have used the organization and its instructors in the past.

Off-Site Open Enrollment Training

There can be great value in sending personnel out of town for training. Your team members will be exposed to other techniques and find out how other organizations operate and solve problems. These benefits can be multiplied by reviewing and evaluating the tools and techniques taught at the program, so your department can adopt those applicable for use within your own agency.

Out of town locations can be an excellent place to conduct training, given few outside distractions and great natural or artificial training props. Joshua Tree National Park has all of these, for instance, yet is also challenging due to its weather and terrain.

Classes that have on-site lodgings tend to shorten the time it takes for participants to get to know one another and begin to work together as a team. This setup also allows for evening lectures and field sessions, and gives students the opportunity to practice their team building skills in the off-class hours.

Shopping Around

Whether you choose to train your own in-house instructors, bring instructors in from out of town or send your personnel to open enrollment classes, there are several key factors you should be looking for:

  • Student-to-Instructor Ratio: For trench rescue training, one instructor can supervise 12 students. For rope rescue training, a ratio of 6:1 or less may be needed depending on the number of students you plan to have “on rope” at a time.
  • Pre-Rigged Rope Stations: Lecture demonstrations and field session sites should be pre-rigged so that once the students arrive on site the training can begin. Make sure your instructor plans to have the course rigged prior to the class.
  • Instructor Lesson Plan and Outline: Are all the instructors technically familiar with the material? Do they all work off the same lesson plan and outline? Consistency between instructors is key—nothing is more frustrating for a student than to be corrected by an instructor when performing a task just as they were shown by another instructor.
  • Organizational Skills: Rope rescue instructors should practice good organizational skills. It is too easy to connect to the wrong rope or anchor when the site is a mess. For demonstrations and training scenarios, instructors should take the time to present a clean, clear and orderly environment.
  • Student-Led vs. Instructor-Led: When performing multiple evolutions within a specific amount of time so students can rotate through all the positions, it may be best to run instructor-led rather than student-led evolutions. Students should be made aware of this up front to prevent confusion and frustration.
  • Good Modeling: Instructors should use the same PPE as their students. When demonstrating techniques on an edge, they should wear a helmet, harness and use an appropriate travel-limiting technique that will prevent them from accidently going over an edge. Gravity has the same effect on instructors as it has on students.
  • Instructor Appearance: For rope rescue training, the “salty dog” look of the instructors wearing faded and worn harnesses and battered old helmets doesn’t speak well of how they view safety—instructors should use up-to-date PPE in good condition. Matching shirts and helmets give instructors a professional appearance.
  • Student Evaluations: Is there a point during the course where students will receive feedback from their instructors and are given an opportunity for assistance in a particular area? Most courses split the students into teams or squads—this is smart because assigning an instructor to be a team or squad leader will ensure that there is someone keeping track of the members of the team. The team leader-instructor is available prior to the start of training and throughout the day to provide feedback and instructional assistance as needed.
  • Instructor Evaluations: On the flipside, it also helps when the instructor is receptive to feedback from the students in the form of a course critique or evaluation. This can be done daily or at the end of the course, but sometimes simply having an end-of-day wrap-up is enough to address any problems or confusion, or review what went well in that day’s lesson. Ideally, at the completion of the course instructors would sit down and review the comments, both good and bad, making notes on how to adapt their procedures for the next class.

A Final Word
When it comes to rope rescue training, there are several options for your department to choose from, each with its own factors to consider. Training is one of the most important investments a department can make, so it pays to review and discuss options with your training division to determine the best way to deliver instruction to your personnel.