Rope Rescue 101: The Anatomy of Rescue Rope

Some rookies that join the fire service may underestimate the value of rope rescue skills they will use on the job. There are all kinds of situations where you will find that familiarity with rescue rope is essential for rescue attempts outside of basic fire suppression.

Qualified firefighters that want to expand their skill set and gain qualifications in specialist disciplines need to go through the appropriate training programs about strategy and theory of rope rescue.

There is an expectation that firefighters will be able to find their way around a length of rope and use it appropriately. That is why it is essential to learn rope skills and build knowledge about the material from the start.

In this guide, I want to provide an in-depth look at the importance of rope and different rope rescue situations.

This means looking at a range of potential applications where ropes may be necessary for the safety of victims, or perhaps even yourself.

In addition to this, I want to go into more detail about the different parts of a rope. You might find it strange to have an anatomy lesson on an inanimate object such as this.

However, you need to understand ropes in detail to understand how they can be of value. I will also talk about some of the other skills that you need to learn regarding ropes and their use in the fire service.

Anatomy of Rescue Rope

So, onto that anatomy lesson.

During your training, you will need to understand the construction of a piece of rope. This means understanding the difference between the strands and the threads, the parts made when manipulating the rope into different positions and the different ends.

Not all ropes are of equal length, thickness or construction. It helps to become familiar with the different types that you will use at your department.

Some traditional ropes will have those twists of fibers with different strands to create that strong, dense material. There are different styles here with twisted ropes and braided ropes.

Others will have an interior section and exterior protection.

These Kernmantle ropes have the strong kern, or core, and then the mantle around it. These ropes are strong and flexible, mainly used for climbing and rappelling.

Each rope will then have two ends: the working end and the standing end.

The standing end is the part that is not in use during any rope tying. Instead, you are working at the working end.

While this may all sound overly logical and unimportant, you will need to understand this basic terminology during your training.

You will find that the majority of these ropes are now synthetic because they are so much more reliable than the older natural ropes of the past.

They are stronger, more resistant and one of the most reliable options. Get to know exactly what you have at your station.

There is also different terminology to be familiar with when it comes to tying knots (click the link for our guide on knots you will need to master as a firefighter).  

You will need to know the difference between:

  • A loop
  • A bight
  • A crossing turn

These terms are not interchangeable.

A bight occurs when you essentially fold the rope in half with the working side and standing side running parallel. This is often used when attaching other ropes and items to the rope.

The loop is when you form a circle in the shape of the rope, like a round bump in the line when the rope is laid out.

Some people will assume that you form a loop when you cross the rope with the working end running under the standing end. It looks like a loop on a roller-coaster. But. This is actually a crossing turn.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, there are different “turns” when connecting a rope to a pole or railing. If you simply pass the rope over the top, then that is a single turn.

If you then pass the working end over the object for a second time, for a coil-like effect, this is a round turn.

One additional, related skill that you need when learning about ropes is the ability to tie knots. Knot tying requires this knowledge of anatomy for a secure, clean result. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this here because I have another guide on this site about the most important knots to learn as a firefighter.

But, you can’t learn to tie a knot without rope and you can secure a rope without a knot. don’t neglect this part of your training.

Refresh the basics, understand how they relate to the different ropes and situations in this guide and then learn the advanced ones. You never know when you are going to need them.

All these important points about the anatomy and the knots are essential because you need to be able to apply your knowledge to any given situation.

No rescue mission or fire suppression call is ever 100% alike. There will be new challenges and variables that require firefighters to think on their feet.

Ropes can be used to hoists items up to higher platforms or lower them down into confined spaces. You need to apply the best knots and hoists for the given situation.

This is why the more you know and practice the more helpful you can be at the scene.

Types of Rescue Rope

Now that you are aware of the anatomy of a piece of rope and the way that you create all those loops and turns, you need to know about the different types of rope used in the fire service.

There three main types of rope that you will need to familiarize yourself with. These are:

  • The Line Safety Rope – which used for supporting people during a rescue attempt
  • The Escape Rope – which is a single-purpose rope for emergency situations where you need to perform a self-rescue.
  • The Utility Rope – which won’t hold the weight of a person in the same way as a line safety rope but will offer strength and functionality.

Also, nylon webbing would be used in some situations because of its strength. While not a rope, it is still used and tied like a rope in some situations.

Therefore, it helps to be familiar with this material too.

Ropes in the fire department may also be color coded. This is an important procedural part of training to become a firefighter that you will need to perfect early on.

While it seems like a simple thing, the wrong choice of rope can be catastrophic so it essential that you reach for the right color and length each time. The length should also be clearly marked on the rope.

Static Rope vs Dynamic Rope

This is a term that you will come across quite often when dealing with fire safety and rope rescue. There are essentially two main types of rope in regard to how they perform.

On one hand, you have the static rope. This is the rigid rope that will not change under pressure. Therefore, you can tie things to the end, lower items down slopes and pull people to safety and you won’t see any change in the length or integrity of the rope.

For example, if you are lowering a piece of equipment into a confined space or a fragile object out of the way, you don’t want the weight of that object to compromise the rope and stretch it out.

Many operations with rappelling and fire rescue will rely upon these static ropes. In the case of descent down those rock faces or into confined spaces, the static rope is bounce-free and is much more stable.

The alternative type of rope is the dynamic rope. This is the one that has the most elasticity and can take strain or stretch as needed.

These ropes are better when climbing a rock face or building rather than descending it. This is for safety precautions in case the climber was to fall.

The dynamic rope would absorb the impact of the fall and minimize any risk of injury whereas a static rope could cause a nasty jolt.

Rope Rescue in the Fire Service

These different types of rescue rope all have their place within the fire service in different capacities.

As you develop your skills and training in the fire academy, you will get a better understanding of different types of rope rescue and the kit involved. Disciplines involving ropes include the following:

  • Confined space rescue
  • Low angle rope rescue
  • High angle rope rescue
  • Rural and urban search and rescue
  • Marine fire services
  • Self-rescue.

Confined Space Rescue

This is where an individual has been injured or has become stuck in a confined space such as a vent, pipe, silo or tank. This typically occurs in industrial plants and similar work sites where workers carry out maintenance or other jobs in these structures.

Using the right rope can lower aid down to victims via a tripod or help firefighters’ rappel down into the structure to treat them.  Click this link to read our full guide to confined space rescue.

Low Angle Rope Rescue

There are different types of rope rescue calls depending on the steepness of the incline. This will determine the type of equipment and strategies employed to help the victims.

Low angle calls refer to accidents at less than a 35-degree angle, such as cars that have gone off the road into ditches. Ropes can offer support to move an object and get help to those in needs.  Click this link to read our complete guide to low angle vs high angle rope rescue.

High Angle Rope Rescue

High angle rescue scenarios are those where there is a larger drop of more than 45 degrees. This could be a steep cliff, ravine or the side of a building or man-made structure.

Here the ropes are used in different ways to lower items and people in and out of the area. Crews need to use precisely the right type of rope with the right knots for a safe strategy.

Click this link to read our complete guide to low angle vs high angle rope rescue.

Rural and Urban Search and Rescue

Some of these rope rescue situations will occur during search and rescue attempts.

Rural incidents can occur out in national parks, coastlines or on mountains where walkers and tourists fall into ravines or down cliffs.

Search and rescue teams can locate them and form an appropriate plan to get them to safety again. The same is true for any urban search and rescue attempts in major cities.

Marine Fire Services

Then there are all the calls that may occur in marine situations. Fire departments that are located near major ports or coastal areas will have teams with specialist knowledge about working on boats, docks and other structures.

They will also need to know the most appropriate ropes and knots to use when performing in these conditions.


I mentioned the use of escape ropes for self-rescue above. This is something that you will hope to never have to use during your career.

However, you need to have this piece of equipment ready and with you just in case.

Self-rescue attempts occur when a firefighter becomes trapped in a building or other structure and needs to find a way to get themselves out of trouble.

These are just a few of the situations where you will need to be proficient in using ropes and understanding what works best for a given situation.

You will surely come across others during your training and more unique incidents in your line of work where a rope is helpful. However, most of the categories above relate to common divisions within fire departments.

Rescue Rope Maintenance

A final thought that I want to mention here about ropes is the need to respect them as vital pieces of equipment. Treat it like the life-saving piece of equipment that it is.

One of the responsibilities of being a firefighter is looking after and maintaining the rope to a high standard. Your duties aren’t limited to responding to fires and accidents.

There is plenty of downtime at the station for chores and that is where rope care come in.

Appropriate rope maintenance includes:

  • Taking care of the rope on duty
  • Cleaning the rope after use
  • Inspecting the ropes for damage
  • Storing them correctly

Taking care of the rope on duty

Whether on-call or at the station, you need to be sure to protect the rope at all times. This means protecting it from sharp surfaces that could cut the fibers, chemicals that could eat into the rope, exposure to sunlight and – of course – protection from the flames.

Don’t let the rope become damaged, frayed, weakened or compromised if you can help it. Also, never walk on the rope. There are several people that don’t realize the damage that this can do.

Cleaning the rope.

One of the most important responsibilities of any fire crew member is to make sure that all gear and equipment is clean.

There are lots of particles and contaminants at the scene of a fire or rescue attempt. Soot from the fire can get embedded in the fibers, chemicals from treatment plants might soak into them or they may simply get covered in dirt and dust.

You don’t want these particles causing health problems in the fire station (such as cancer) and you can’t risk them causing any damage to the structure of the rope.

That is why you need to clean it thoroughly. Some departments may have a special rope washer, but you may end up doing this by hand.

Inspecting the rope for damage.

When cleaning the rope, you will also have a chance to check it for any signs of damage. Even if you try your best not to step on the rope and to keep it clear of sharp edges, accidents can happen.

You may have had to risk some damage in order to make a save. Always inspect the rope before putting it away to be sure that there is no fault.

Failure to do so could be a major problem for all those that depend on the rope on the next call.

Storing the rope correctly.

Part of knot and rope training will focus on your ability to store and secure ropes in a clean and tidy manner. It is all about providing something that is secure but that can also be untied with ease as needed.

Training and Certifications

With so much to learn, it is no surprise that firefighters have to go through a lot of training courses that involve rope skills. Right from the very start, you will be expected to have a basic knowledge of ropes and knots for your firefighter 1 certification.

This ensures that you are able to choose the right ropes and create basic knots when called upon to do so. There are 7 knots to learn at this point.

There is also an expectation that firefighter will know the difference between the escape ropes, line safety ropes and utility ropes. They will also be tested on water rescue throw lines, harnesses, webbing and other related tools and skills.

After this initial testing, you can expand your skills with further courses. There are lots of courses out there for different disciplines, such as the ones mentioned above.

You can go and learn all about rope access, confined spaces and other skills so that you can take part in these calls in the future. Each of these courses should help you expand your knowledge about the ropes and knots so that you can always make the best decision.

Never assume that you already know all there is to know because there is always another material, technique or situation you have yet to encounter.

From there you can always take on additional skills courses and advanced modules for certain rope skills.

For example, you could decide to learn to be a rope technician so that you can help supervise rope rescues and maybe even train others in the future.

There is always an opportunity to learn something new, no matter how long you have been in the fire service.

This means familiarizing yourself with the weight of the rope, the construction and the way it performs in different situations. You need to be comfortable with it the next time you need to use it in an emergency.

Your rope is a valuable piece of equipment.

As you can see, there are lots of situations where you will need to be professional in both your understanding and use of different rope.

The more you know and the more effective your rope skills, the better able you will be to help those in need. You can employ the best rope rescue techniques to create pulley systems for retrieving victims from dangerous situations. You can use them to repel during high angle rope rescue to reach victims in need of emergency care. You can also use your own safety rope in times of self-rescue.

Make the most of all rope skills training opportunities that come your way when you start your career in the fire service.

When you learn a new skill or knot, practice often to perfect it for the next emergency.

Also, always remember to treat all the rope in your station with respect. If you can do this, you will find that you become more of an asset to your team as you can handle more situations with ease.

You can attend more calls, be a more responsible team player in the station and diversify your skill-set – all thanks to a simple piece of rope.

Other resources you may be interested in:

Confined Space 101: A Simple Guide for Rescuers

7 Knots Every Firefighter Must Master

Low Angle vs. High Angle Rope Rescue: A Simple Guide

What Is A Z-drag and How Does It Work?