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

Technical rescue is a big part of the fire service, and there are surprising differences between low angle and high angle rescue rope rescue.

If you are in the process of applying to join your local fire department, you may have noticed that they have a specialist division in their operations for rope rescue. Furthermore, you may see this split into two distinct categories of low-angle and high-angle rope access.

If you are unsure what this means, and the difference between the two, don’t worry. This isn’t something that you are expected to know as a rookie in the fire service.

However, new firefighters are encouraged to become certified in both because these skills can be highly valuable. So, what does it all mean?

In this guide, I will look at the differences between low-angle rope access and high-angle rope access. I also want to talk about steep-angle rope access because this is a term you may come across at training centers or in other guides.

I will briefly explain what each version of rescue involves and the situations where you might have to use them.

I will also talk more about the training courses on offer and the different skills that you will learn. By the end, you should see that not only are these courses more comprehensive than you might expect, they really do provide essential certification for a lot of firefighters.

Low Angle vs High Angle Rope Rescue: what’s the difference?

Let’s start with the low angle rope rescue.

This is where there isn’t that much of an angle at all. Typically, this will be classed as an angle of between 15 and 35 degrees. But, there is still a descent that you need to overcome in order to reach victims or to get equipment into place.

Now, obviously, nobody will be measuring the angle of a drop to a precise angle before the get started.

You can get a rough idea when you access the scene and determine the right approach from there.

This is by far the most common type of rope rescue and many firefighters will find themselves using the equipment or part of a rescue mission involving it at some point.

Here rescuers will find anchors for the rope where they can use a form of pulley system or other leverage. The rope system doesn’t do much other than act as a balancing aid or a support system.

There are actually many different situations where you might have to use these skills. A common occurrence is car accidents.

Often firefighters will arrive at an accident when the vehicle has gone off the road and down into a low ditch. This can make things very difficult for crews to not only retrieve victims but also to deal with the wreckage.

Another example is when people fall down a slight incline in the forest or other landscape and can’t get out on their own.

What is high-angle rope rescue?

As you would expect, High angle rescue means an ascent or descent that is much higher and steeper. Generally speaking, this means anything considered to be 60 degrees and higher.

This is incredibly steep by comparison.

While firefighters will be able to ascend and descend slopes in low-angle incidents without the use of ropes, this isn’t going to be the case here. This immediately brings a whole new approach to executing the rescue.

This time you have to be ready to secure the ropes to strong anchors, connect to the ropes in a safe manner and rappel down to reach those in need.

There is also a greater reliance on the hauling and hoisting equipment with a greater distribution of weight onto the system.

These situations are much more dangerous because the rescuer is in almost as much peril as the victim of the accident. Health and safety are essential here.

There are lots of potential applications for this high-angle rope rescue. Those that work in rural or coastal environments will find themselves using these skills on sheer cliff faces and similar drops.

This way firefighters can work with search and rescue teams to retrieve those that have fallen and injured themselves. There are also industrial applications here with work in major structures like a tower, fuel tanks, wind turbines and more.

This is where you will see more than just a 60-degree angle. These incidents may require a direct vertical descent where firefighter have to either climb up or lower themselves down to victims.

High angle rescue skills are also essential in mining incidents. Here there are other risks involved with low visibility and health and safety.

What is steep-angle rope rescue?

The final type of incident is the steep angle rescue. As you may have noticed, there is a bit of a gap between the low-angle and high-angle definitions. Some cases are too extreme and difficult for low-angle strategies because of the steepness of the slope.

But, they aren’t as extreme as that 60 degree or more high-angle situation. This is where you get steep angle rescues. In steep angle rescues, the angle of the slope is closer to 35-45 degrees. The equipment used for steep angle rescues is different as there is more pressure on the rope and you may need to secure patients onto boards to hoist them up.

No firefighter should go into an incident that is at this sort of angle if they have only had training in low-angle solutions.

Those that have gained their high-angle certifications should be able to adapt. However, there are some training centers that will provide courses specifically for steep angle responses.

This can be helpful because it can provide new ideas and methods, potential with different equipment. This can then expand your options when it comes to dealing with the real thing.

How to become certified in rope rescue

There are many training academies and similar facilities that will offer training in rope access, and many fire academies will teach the basics.

The nature of low angle rope access and the incidents that you will deal with means that it is essential that all firefighters take a low-angle course pretty early on in their careers. Failure to do so could mean that you lack many of the essential skills to handle major incidents on the road other basic rope work.

The courses aren’t just about the practical strategies for using the ropes in rescues. There are other considerations too about the safety of all those at the scene and the terrain.

The more you know, the better able you be to handle situations on-call or as problems develop on-scene.

Later on, once you have mastered the low-angle rope rescue, you can work on getting your certificate in high-angle rope rescue. This isn’t such a priority for many departments because the work isn’t as common.

However, it helps to have these skills under your belt because you don’t know when you might need them.

Furthermore, there will be departments that work in rural or more mountainous areas that see a greater need for this sort of training. If you are stationed near a popular hiking route for instance and you know that many search and rescue or EMT jobs may require additional high-angle rope skills.

Fire departments are also encouraged to send a few of their staff members that have gained this experience with rope rescue to another, more advanced course.

Rope technicians have a higher level of certification and a greater amount of knowledge on the subject. Having a few of these individuals in a department can be a big advantage depending on the volume of calls.

If rope rescue work is common, especially difficult work in cliff rescue or industrial structures, these team members can act as supervisors.

They can take the knowledge learned on their technician course to oversee strategies and help if there are any complications. It is more cost-effective than having the whole team take the course.

But, departments do need to ensure that there are enough of these so-called rope access “gurus” to cover all shifts – just in case.

What will you learn during these rope rescue courses?

There are many aspects to these courses to give firefighters the full spectrum of knowledge on the subject. Those that attend specialist rope rescue training facilities may learn a little more about different systems and considerations.

The first thing that you need to know is how to raise and lower the rope, the types of pulley systems and the best way to secure them. This will vary between low and high-angle rope incidents because of the angle of the drop, the weight distribution of the rescuer and patient and the height.

These systems also require a good knowledge of the right knots for the situation at hand. In another guide on this site, you can see some of the most common knots that all firefighters need to know.

This will prove to be useful in these situations. Those that work in a high-angle situation will also need to learn how to rappel down sheer cliff faces and buildings on the rope to reach people in need.

Understanding the angle and the anchors for the rope also means understanding the terrain of the accident site.

What can you use as an anchor for the ropes, while sturdy parts of the landscape will prove to be of help and what could be a hindrance? Is the nearby tree going to take the strain of the rope and the patient? Is the rock liable to fall and cause damage or injury?

Scene safety assessments are a crucial part of this job. You can’t rush in to try and save the patient in record time if it might put people at risk.

You also have to consider the safety of the rest of the crew and yourself during the incident. This means making sure someone is able to assess the terrain and weather conditions to make the right calls.

Is it too wet and windy for a plan to work? Is snowfall or the snow on the ground a risk factor? You can’t be too cautious or too alert to different variables in this sort of situation.

Safety also means understanding how best to deal with an immobilized patient that needs to be hoisted to safety.

There are correct ways to secure them on the right equipment and lift them without further risk of injury. This is where EMT and Paramedic training can also prove to be useful for a firefighter working in these situations.

Once you reach the scene of the crash or the injured patient on the ground, you have to be able to provide the right first aid and to ease pain, support any broken limbs or damaged necks and then get them on to the board to be hoisted up.

Low-angle and high-angle rope skills are essential

Don’t assume that you won’t have to deal with any of these incidents during your time in the fire service just because you work in a quiet area or in a city.

The truth is that you never know what accidents and disasters will occur in your jurisdiction.

Therefore, you don’t know when this sort of training could prove to be of use. The more skills that you learn as a firefighter during your early years, the more of a commodity you become for the department.

It is always better to have a rich skill-set that is barely used than to come up short when the worst happens.

Low-angle rope access calls really are more common than you might suspect. Make the most of any training opportunities that arise to learn more about this skill so that you can help out in those vehicular accidents and other calls.

The courses will offer so much more than just technical skills. They will help you with your health and safety skills and much more.

From there, take the time to add high-angle rope access certification to your list of goals. If you are in a rural department that deals with more search and rescue incidents than average, make it a priority.

Other resources you may find useful:

7 Knots Every Firefighter Must Master

Confined Space 101: A Simple Guide for Rescuers

Rope Rescue 101: The Anatomy of Rescue Rope

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