Professional Standards in Rope Rescue

As a professional rescuer or guide, it is your responsibility to abide by any national, state, or regional standard or protocol that your agency follows.  Standards in technical rope rescue are designed to promote safety to the individual, team, and patient.  Currently, mountain rescue teams are not held liable or accountable by OSHA or the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA).  Many SAR and mountain rescue teams follow guidelines posted by the Mountain Rescue Association, the National Association of Search and Rescue, and the International Committee of Alpine Rescue.  These agencies all have suggestions and recommendations on technical rope rescue.  Ensure you are familiar with your agency’s standard operating procedures (SOP’s) or guidelines on technical rope rescue.  Below is an info-graph on some of the more common professional standards in rope rescue.

Safety Factor (SSF)

This is the ratio between the equipment breaking strength and the maximum force that may be placed on the equipment.  Different agencies use different SSFs per their particular agency’s protocols.  Mountain rescue has no national standard, while the fire service is based on the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) standards.  Some agencies opt not to use the NFPA standard, stating that it is “overkill.”  Recently OSHA has gotten involved with vertical safety for employees.

Every team should know what their SSF is and what equipment is needed to arrive at their particular SSF.  Currently, many SAR teams are utilizing a 10:1 SSF (although there is no overseeing body to regulate wilderness SAR).

White Board Analysis

A whiteboard analysis is a critical examination of the components of a rescue or rescue exercise.  All members of the exercise meet for a briefing on how the exercise will be set up & conducted.  This allows rescuers to look at the system components before going into the field.  Participants can decide team positions, what equipment will be needed, and best practices to conduct the exercise.  Contingency plans & anticipated problems should also be considered.

Critical Point Test

Every component of the system is examined to locate any “critical points.”  What would happen to the system if this critical point failed?  If there is nothing to back it up, and the whole system would fail, then it is a critical point.  Rescuers should be very familiar with identifying these critical points in any rescue system.  Should there be redundancy added?

If you work for a local guide company or SAR, you should pre-plan or conduct a whiteboard analysis of the more likely areas where you may have to execute a rescue.  This allows you to have a good idea of the resources & personnel that may be needed to successfully manage the rescue operation.

Critical Thinking in Rope Systems

  • Can you identify the weakest link in your system?
  • Do you have redundancy built into your systems?
  • Is the belay line really going to do its job?
  • Is an independent belay necessary?
  • Can you quickly switch from a lower to a raise?
  • Has the entire system been checked by a safety officer?
  • Are the correctly trained rescuers in the right spots?

Whistle Test

This whistle test evaluates what would happen to the litter/subject/patient if the belayer or mainline operators “let go” of the rope rescue system.  This mental exercise simulates what would happen if the team was struck by lightning or if some rescuer failed to do his job properly.  Does your system pass the whistle test by arresting the load if everyone lets go?

Is your mainline & belay line auto-locking?  Conduct mental whistle tests and discuss the “what ifs” during training exercises so when you are executing a real rescue, you will know that your system’s backup safety devices really work.


The whistle test is a mental exercise (a conceptual idea), and you should never just let go of the belay or mainline in trainings or rescues!


New School Thinking:

Historically we have always asked ourselves what happens if we let go of the DCD (mainline brake or belay device)?  Will the load crash to the ground?  Will there be a catastrophic event?  With the advent of new techniques and devices, we should also ask ourselves, “what if we don’t let go”?  What will happen if one line fails and you don’t let go of the tandem prussic belay or handle of the DCD?