WEST WARWICK — Thanks to a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, firefighters in West Warwick now have in their arsenal one more tool to keep them safe while on the scene of a fire.
“It’s just another layer of safety that we have at our disposal,” Battalion Chief Eric Norberg said this week of the latest addition to local firefighters’ personal protective equipment.
Having received an Assistance to Firefighters Grant worth nearly $85,000, the West Warwick Fire Department was recently able to purchase a Levr BT Escape System for each firefighter in the department — 72 systems in all, with each valued at around $500 — plus cover the cost of training.
Designed to help firefighters and victims reach safety in the event of a blocked exit, the escape systems comprise 50 feet of web, an anchoring device and descent device. When each second counts, a firefighter trapped on a building’s upper floor can use the system to descend quickly through a window.
“It’s made for efficiently going out a window to get ourselves either to the ground or to a lower level,” Norberg said of the system, which can be attached to a windowsill.
The escape system, Norberg added, is an “invaluable” piece of equipment for a firefighter to have.
“Fires are unpredictable, they change very quickly,” he said. “They change so quickly that firefighters don’t have a lot of time to react.”
In the past, firefighters have carried rope that in an emergency could be tied to something inside. That would take time that may not be available, however, and climbing down the rope could be difficult.
“That was basically taking a piece of rope, hoping for the best and holding onto it,” Norberg said. “That was something, but it definitely wasn’t efficient.”
Using the escape system, on the other hand, a firefighter should be able to move outside a building in around 15 seconds.
Last month, firefighters took turns lowering themselves from a window inside the West Warwick Civic Center, crash mats lined up beneath them, as they practiced using the systems. Several department members had previously attended a training program, and over a couple of weeks relayed what they’d learned to the remaining firefighters.
The hope, Norberg said, is that they’ll never actually need to use those newly acquired skills. But when battling fires, it’s best to be prepared.
Norberg recalled an incident in West Warwick a few years ago when a firefighter had gotten stuck on an upper level and had no option but to jump from a window. Luckily, he was able to hop to the roof of a shed before making his way to the ground below.
Across the country, there are numerous examples of why having a reliable escape system is important. In the case studies reviewed by West Warwick’s firefighters as part of their training, Norberg said, there “were seconds to act.”
During one particular event, which occurred in January of 2005, two firefighters died after leaping from a fourth-story window in the Bronx, and a third who was seriously injured in the fall died several years later.
The firefighters in that case had become trapped while searching for occupants on the floor above the fire. The Fire Department of New York had stopped issuing ropes to all firefighters in 2000; only two of the six firefighters who were trapped that day had ropes on them.
With buildings in West Warwick reaching as tall as 11 stories, Norberg said he feels good knowing that all of the department’s firefighters now have high-quality escape systems, as well as the training to use them, at their disposal.
“It’s like an insurance policy,” he said. “You hope you don’t need it, but when you do need it, it’s there.”
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