Schenectady County

Schenectady ponders price of safety

In the last 15 years, Schenectady firefighters have repeatedly been forced to escape an upper-story

In the last 15 years, Schenectady firefighters have repeatedly been forced to escape an upper-story fire by fleeing out a window.

But they never had belaying devices to lower themselves slowly to the ground. In one case, a firefighter climbed to the roof and stood there, flames shooting through as others raced to get him a ladder. In another case, the firefighter lowered himself as far as he could, clinging to a window jam, and then let go.

No more. The state now requires self-rescue devices, and Schenectady firefighters on Thursday got to practice rolling out of windows or leaping head-first to see if the systems really worked.

City officials are still trying to decide which device they’ll buy. The most expensive is a belayer that works automatically — the firefighter doesn’t have to hold it or even be conscious for it to work. That costs $1,100 per firefighter.

Other devices are cheaper, but require the city to buy special training gear, as well. With 118 firefighters, the city would save $35,000 to $47,000 by buying cheaper, manual belayers.

Firefighters clearly preferred the more expensive, but simpler, system.

“This one is more expensive,” Chief Michael Della Rocco said, “but the advantages of a lifetime warranty and being able to use the device in training may outweigh the apparent savings.”

A salesman who demonstrated the most expensive device said that the higher cost bought fail-safe simplicity. A firefighter could do everything wrong — go out head-first or cling to the rope — and it would still work, he claimed.

So naturally, Deputy Chief David Orr volunteered to test that.

He climbed to the third floor of the Fire Department’s training tower, hooked himself into a backup belayer that would save him if the device failed, and opened his “bail-out” pouch.

Quickly, he threw a hook around the sill of the window. Without pausing to test whether the hook would hold, he rolled out of the window, diving head-first toward the ground.

He didn’t touch the rope or try to control his descent in any way. He even waved his arms, far from his body, to emphasize that he was going to do nothing but let the device try to save him.

Within half a story, the device had turned him around, so that his feet faced the ground. It kept him falling at about the speed of a fast walker, and deposited him on the ground so gently that he didn’t even have to bend his knees to cushion the shock.

It got his approval.

“It was very effective. You can see how it wouldn’t take much to get yourself out of a building,” he said. ‘That was the idea, do it fast. You wouldn’t have time [in a real fire].”

It wasn’t fun, though.

“The initial roll over the sill is a little disconcerting because your head is facing that way,” he said, pointing at the ground.

But it was much less disconcerting than the one time he prepared to jump without a rope. On Oct. 28, 2002, Orr and another firefighter were searching the second floor of a house on Moyston Street, looking for potential victims. The first floor was fully engulfed in flames, but the second story was safe.

But when they opened a door, believing it led to another room, they discovered it was a second set of stairs to the first floor.

“It was just like a chimney,” Orr said. “The conditions changed in a second.”

The firefighters retreated, but the fire spread too quickly for them to get away. A firefighter outside directed them to a window.

“I thought we were going to have to jump,” Orr said.

“It was pretty hot,” he said. “We had to get out at that point.”

Unbeknownst to him, firefighters outside had gotten a ladder to the window, and Orr was able to climb to safety. Others weren’t so lucky. Two firefighters fell through the floor during that fire.

On Thursday, firefighters tested the belaying system on themselves and then dragged a firefighter dummy up the tower and pushed it out a window to see how the system would handle an unconscious firefighter. That’s the one advantage that most expensive system has over all the others — firefighters could use it to rescue other firefighters even after they lost consciousness.

“To me, that’s the selling point,” Orr said as he watched.

Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy was convinced, too.

“You hope you never have to use this type of device, but if you have to use it, you want the best,” he said.

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