An American Success Story: Rock Thompson on Climbing, Inventing, and Building a Business

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Roco Chats with the Experts 

By Pat Furr, Safety Officer & VPP Coordinator

It’s not often that you meet business people who love their work as passionately as Rock Thompson does. In this post, we talk with Rock, the founder and owner of Rock Exotica, a company that designs and manufactures innovative and high-quality climbing and rescue equipment. As you will hear in Rock’s own words, he enjoys the journey and that yields results that are often very creative and loved by his customers.  

IMG_4212My initial idea for this interview was to discuss how a piece of rescue equipment goes from idea to design and manufacturing, and finally into our gear bags. However, a funny thing happened during the course of this chat. I realized that this story is about so much more than designing and manufacturing equipment.  

Rock’s is a great success story that should be remembered by those who think it is impossible to achieve their goals. How you define or measure “success” has a good deal to say about your ability to find it. More on that later, but right now, let’s hear from Rock. 

Pat Furr:  I’ve always found the story of Rock Exotica and Thompson Manufacturing Inc. to be an interesting one. Would you please share a little bit about your background and how Rock Exotica came to be?  

Rock Thompson: It starts, naturally, with my love for climbing. My old climbing partner from way back became less available after he had kids and his wife didn’t like the idea of him climbing anymore. She is a wonderful person, but I took it as a badge of honor that she thought I was a bad influence. That got me into solo climbing, but the methods weren’t great and the systems were mostly homemade. This got me thinking…there must be a better way to solo climb, and maybe there could be a device that could help.  

As a kid, I always liked to make things or find better ways to do things. For
example, I bought an old World War II milling machine that was worn out, but I got it working and I made a prototype that eventually became the Soloist. It looked like a caveman had chipped it out of flint. It had some curves on it, but the mill was not CNC (Computer Numerical Control) so I had to turn the handles at the same time and just approximate what I wanted. It was a lot of fun, and it sort of worked. I refined it some, but eventually, I wanted to make something that looked a little more professional.
 

I bought a milling machine that was in good condition and also had a rotary table. It worked really well and I thought that maybe I could sell some of these things. I put an ad in Climbing Magazine and paid a lab to do strength tests so I knew it was really strong. I started to sell some Soloists, but it was definitely a niche product. I had stores call me and even REI called me and started carrying it. 

PF: So after developing this one niche product, what happened next? 

RT: I met some other well-known climbers, including aid climber John Mittendorf. He suggested a device which eventually became the Wall Hauler. People tried it out and they loved it. Larry Arthur, who owns Mountain Tools came to me with the idea that maybe a swivel would reduce the gnarly mess of pigtails in the haul rope while the haul bag spins around and twists the rope. I only sold fifty of them that first year, but when the rescue guys got a hold of the swivel, it really started to do well.  

PF: What was your breakthrough product? 

RockExotica_SoloistIt was after the Rescuecender that I started to think that maybe I could actually start making a living doing this. There was a rescue meeting in Salt Lake and Tom Vines and Steve Hudson called me and wanted to meet with me. I found out they were pretty big deals in the rescue world. They asked me if I could make a rope grab that uses the technology of the Soloist.  The Soloist was machined out of solid billet, which is an expensive way of making things, but it is really strong and light. All the current cam devices used a curved cam and a flat plate which would place all the point pressure onto a very small length of the rope and were known for damaging the rope or cutting the sheath. What the Soloist did was clamp the rope over a much longer section. We called that design the curved cam interface.  Steve and Tom wanted a rope grab like that and the Rescuecender turned out to be a really good product. Steve’s company  PMI (Pigeon Mountain Industries) was carrying my products, so all of a sudden I had a full-time job making stuff and coming up with ideas for new stuff.  

PF: Yes, you developed a reputation as the “Skunk Works” for innovations in climbing and rescue equipment. Were you a strong math and science student when you were in school or did you just learn about the machining and such as you went along?  

RT: I was a good student and yes, I liked math and science. I was lucky because I had great parents that gave me a lot of confidence and made my schooling seem a lot of fun. 

PF: A lot of folks aren’t aware of the story of Rock Exotica and TMI and then for lack of a better term the rebirth of Rock Exotica. I find it a very interesting story and it must have been so for you. Could you tell our readers about that journey?  

RT:  Steve Hudson from PMI was the importer for Petzl and he introduced me to them. Petzl was looking for somebody to make carabiners, as they were not happy with the quality of the carabiners that they were having made for them at the time. They wanted to own their own company to make just carabiners, so we made a business arrangement and thus was the beginning of Thompson Manufacturing Inc. (TMI). Petzl felt that the current designs available from the manufacturers were not right for them. My opinion was that instead of trying to modify any existing designs that it would be better to start from scratch. So we did that, and I had to learn how to make carabiners.  

I spent a lot of time up at the University of Utah which has a very extensive patent library. I looked at all the patents, material characteristics, and machines. I went to some trade shows for machinery and had a great time learning that there are CNC machines that are also benders. If you look closely at a carabiner, you will see that the bend has two or three different radii instead of one constant radius. None of the bending companies wanted to make me a bender that could do that. They said ‘we’ve tried that before and we lost our shirt.’ I was really stuck with that, so I just designed my own bender, which we are still using today. We started making really good carabiners and they became very popular.  

PF: Your carabiners have the key lock design at the gate. Why did you decide to go with that design? 

RT: I had seen this type of carabiner and found the patent. I really wanted to IMG_4245make the best carabiners in the world, and I knew that the key lock design was really good, so we licensed that design for our gate interface. Of course, it is more difficult to make a carabiner that has that interface opposed to more traditional claw or pin latch gates, but once we bought a CNC machining center, we were able to produce them much more efficiently with very high quality for the tolerances required. I made a feeder that would feed the blanks in automatically and clamp the blank. We were able to optimize the strength with the exact clearances so the gate wouldn’t drag on the frame and all kinds of technical things so we ended up with the performance and strength we wanted. We made everything in-house - the frame, the gates, and the sleeves - so we were able to get everything right so that it synchronizes correctly and the sleeve closes when you want it to but not before. This would have been impossible to do if we outsourced the various components from other sources. Because we made everything ourselves, I could change something by 5/1000 of an inch on the fly to really fine-tune it.  

PF: I have to say that your hardware is consistently jewel-like. For me and many others, the quality of the finish and appearance is often a signal as to the overall quality and performance of the device. So after starting your second company, Thompson Manufacturing and working with Petzl, how did you find yourself in a position to re-energize Rock Exotica, and how has that been going? 

vortexRT: Fantastically! I appreciated the things I learned working with Petzl, but I was ready to get back to designing and making gear on my own and having complete control over what I focus on. Fortunately, people still remembered the Rock Exotica brand and were really interested in it. In the first days of getting it going again, I was really looking for products that I could stay in business with. The first thing we did was the new Vortex. I helped Reed Thorne with the original Vortex design before Petzl. It was popular, but was selling in very small numbers and had some manufacturing issues and some things that needed refining. I knew we could come up with a much better design, so Reed and I totally redesigned it and it became a big hit.  

Then we just went on from there.  

Another Rock Exotica product that’s done well and I’m really proud of is the carabiner we designed for firefighters. I had been working on an aluminum ladder hook carabiner when the FDNY called me and they asked if I had an aluminum NFPA G-rated carabiner. It was a little premature, but of course, I said, “Yes I do!” So I hurried and finished it over the next few weeks and sent them samples so they could test it in their labs. They loved it because it was much lighter than their previous carabiners. It also had a larger stock, which was a good feature for them, as they would sometimes rappel on it by wrapping the rope around the frame and the larger stock added friction control. Plus we had a different type of sleeve which you pull down and twist which helped reduce the chance of the rope accidentally opening the gate in certain situations. They threw away their steel ones and soon every FDNY firefighter had one of mine on their chest.  

IMG_4253

So I was having fun and found myself in a position to buy more CNC machines. The first machines I bought were two horizontal 4-axis machining centers, which allowed me to think about design in a whole different way. I was able to use it for all sorts of products including the carabiner frames. If you look at most of our carabiners you’ll see that there’s an offset built into the frame that allows the gate to fit a larger diameter rope. The 4-axis machine made it possible to do that offset.  

PF: Because of your climbing background and your involvement with the climbing and rescue community, you have a real good gauge of the types of products that are required. You already mentioned some of the folks that you have collaborated with in designing gear, but what are some of your favorite designs that you either took a raw idea and ran with or one of your original ideas.  

RT: One of my favorites that was a lot of fun even though there was no financial reward. I made a folding grappling hook. 

PF: I remember that. You demonstrated it at ITRS around 1999 in Albuquerque. 

RT: Yeah people loved it, we took it to trade shows and it was what people wanted to see first. It was cool, but the only problem was not many people actually needed one. It was one of the most intensive uses of lathe and millwork on the CNC machines, so it was a lot of fun, but only fun. It didn’t make much money.  

Whereas the Omni-Block is one of my favorite products. A lot of people use our omni blockswivels with pulleys but I thought it would be nice to save that extra length of a carabiner to connect the pulley to the swivel. It was a really fun design because you had to forget about normal pulley design.  I became obsessed with designing it and would wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for it. It required that we machine a body that housed the axle, and the button to release the side plate, and a nice thick section to attach the swivel to. It was really fun to design and was perfect for our new 4-axis machines. It became a terrific success and that generated different sizes of the pulley. We now have one with a four-inch sheave, which has over a 30,000-pound breaking strength and is used a lot in material handling. I’m really proud of that product because it is totally different and it has revolutionized the way people are using pulleys.  

PF: We use it a lot in our classes and it is so cool to watch our students as they build a Z Rig and are not paying attention to the second and third lines, which inevitably become crossed. But with the Omni-Block, as soon as they pull on the haul line, those twists spin right out completely and the system is clear. It’s freaking magic. It sounds like the quick release side plate was a necessity because you had to build the frame to mount the swivel. I always assumed the quick release side plate was the impetus for your design.  

RT:  You are exactly right. The integrated swivel required a totally different mechanism to open and close the side plates.  

PF: I guess that falls smack into the necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention category. 

RT: A lot of people get stuck in the trap of seeing a way of doing things as they are now and don’t stop to think first of what you want the device to be able to do and then design a means to meet that performance. We did the same thing when we re-designed the Vortex. Reed Thorne, the original designer, had some ideas, but frankly, I intentionally asked him not to tell me his design ideas, but I did want to hear from him what he wanted it to be able to do. By distilling it down to what we need it to do, and forgetting about the original design, we were able to meet those objectives.  

PF: It seems that just about every device or performance requirement for climbing and rescue gear has seen an incredible advance in terms of performance and weight savings. Do you see this explosion in new technologies finally starting to wane a little bit? Are most all of the good ideas already out there?  

enforcerRT: That’s a great question.  I would never say that innovation is at an end. There will always be other things we can do and other tools to do them. There are things that we at Rock Exotica have thought of that, for now, we are keeping under wraps. Ten years ago, we never would have thought about the Enforcer but now it is out there and people love that thing. 

PF: You have managed to make your vocation your vacation, and truly love your work. I would like to use you as an example and get up on my soapbox for just a bit. I am starting to have slight concerns that we as a nation are starting to lose our edge in innovation. I know every generation has its challenges and its unique culture, but I hope that our younger students find value in a strong education. And as importantly, get out and experience all the things in this world that will stimulate their creativity in solving problems. You just don’t strike me as that guy in high school who wore a pocket protector. 

RT: No, I didn’t, but some of my friends did.  

PF: Do you have any personal stories or words that you may want to share with our readers, especially parents, to help them refocus on the importance of their kids' studies in school, especially in math and the sciences? 

RT: That is so important now. As an employer, I am well aware of the need for quality employees that not only have an education but also have practical experiences to draw on... I can’t talk enough about the importance of encouraging your children to read. If you read, you can learn anything. We see prospective employees who got through school just to get a job but focus on such a narrow area. For instance, there are engineers who don’t know much about the manufacturing process, so they end up designing products that you can’t actually make. The best engineers are the ones who loved building stuff as a kid. When I find an engineer who knows how to run a milling machine, they’re like gold, they are so rare. I do worry a little bit that although the US still does great, a lot of other nations have moved beyond replicating our innovations and are now becoming innovators themselves.  

IMG_4218PF: I know we will always have young students that are very strong in math and the sciences, but I feel there is still a huge need to get out and learn about levers, ramps and other tools and such in the physical world.  

RT: I would like the United States to stay on top. I am proud that I make all my stuff here in the US in my own facility. I’ve had numerous chances to manufacture offshore to make my products cheaper. But I don’t care, if it came down to that, I would find something else to do.  

 And yes we do need to encourage kids to not only study but also to get out and experience all the other things that give them a broad background. I am really happy with how things have worked out for me. I feel I am successful for sure, but the most important measure of that success for me is I am having fun doing what I do. Of course, it required a lot of support from my family, employees and of course my wife who is endlessly indulgent. I’ve gotten the look from her now and then. 

PF: Thanks so much Rock. This has been a lot of fun. Ok, there we go. I guess I am successful too because this is my job and I just admitted to having fun doing it. 

IMG_4224 

 

 

Pat Furr
Pat Furr

 

Pat Furr is a chief instructor, technical consultant, VPP Coordinator and Corporate Safety Officer for Roco Rescue, Inc. As a chief instructor, he teaches a wide variety of technical rescue classes including Fall Protection, Rope Access, Tower Work/Rescue and Suspended Worker Rescue. In his role as technical consultant, he is involved in research and development, writing articles, and presenting at national conferences. He is also a member of the NFPA 1006 Technical Rescue Personnel Professional Qualifications Standard. Prior to joining Roco in 2000, he served 20 years in the US Air Force as a Pararescueman (PJ).

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

  

   

  

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Join Our Standby Services Team!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019
Recruitment Piece v3

We're looking for experienced, Baton Rouge area rescue professionals who have availability during off-shifts to work standby rescue services jobs at industrial facilities. If you're EMR certified and have at least 1 year of emergency response experience, you've cleared the first hurdle. If you have great rescue skills, are calm under pressure and are passionate about rescue, then you just might have what it takes. 

We offer flexible, part-time scheduling so that you can fit this work in alongside firefighting or EMT shifts. We pay competitive wages with opportunities for advancement. And we will augment your rescue skills by slotting you in one of our Fast Track courses to get you NFPA 1006 certified in confined space rescue. 

Register here: https://hubs.ly/H0jnJYW0

We'll make arrangements to connect with qualified applicants. If we schedule you for an in-person conversation, be prepared for a basic skills assessment, a physical readiness test and a brief interview.

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“Advanced” Confined Space Rescue

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

By Chris Carlsen, Albuquerque Fire Department

Having worked and been an instructor in the rescue field, I am often asked, “what are some advanced rescue techniques in confined spaces?” My response is always, “It depends where you think you are as a team, because advanced can mean many different things.”

Obviously there are confined space rescue scenarios that require a higher level of proficiency and teamwork than others. However, I like to begin by asking a team to do a self-assessment, as outlined below, and to think of “advanced” confined space rescue as anything that advances the ability of a team to perform as rescuers.

Is your team in the CRAWLING stage, meaning you have a trained team but the only time you touch a piece of equipment or do some rigging is during an annual refresher? Then “advanced” for your team means relearning the fundamentals every year. Practicing anchor rigging, building basic mechanical advantage systems, packaging patients in litters and drag devices, setting up SCBA or SAR systems and understanding the importance of atmospheric monitoring and ventilation strategies. All the basic tools you need to get the job done!

Is your team WALKING, having dedicated team members with solid fundamentals that attend regular training evolutions? Then “advanced” can mean organizing team equipment for a more efficient response, pre-rigging standard set-ups for rapid deployment, practicing compound and/or complex systems, identifying and preplanning confined spaces, defining team roles in an ICS type structure, and conducting full scenarios from response to termination.

Is your team RUNNING, with experienced team members who are looking to be challenged? Advanced for you is getting creative and locating spaces that are difficult to reach, difficult to access, and/or challenging to work in. Teams like this will benefit from having time restraints on training exercises to build pressure and increase the speed with which people work. Other ideas would be to limit the availability of equipment so the team has to problem-solve and prioritize actions, or add new pieces of equipment that provide more efficiency or increase safety.

Every one of the teams I just described is capable of making a successful confined space rescue today. But first, what do we consider a successful confined space rescue? For me, it is performing the rescue while providing for the safety of our team and the persons we are responding to. If we can do that, then we have been successful.

Over and above the basics of a successful rescue, what separates good teams from better ones is their efficiency and ability to solve complex problems. The more complex the rescue scenario is, the less efficient the team is going to be… unless they have experienced the scenario before or can relate it to something they have done. And where can they get experiences needed to build confidence and the mental files they can draw from? Training, training, and oh yeah training! The best teams build a sort of muscle memory that derives from all the exposure to various situations they have experienced. I have a quote scribbled on my wall that says:

“A rescue isn’t successful because of what you did today, it was the years of training that led up to the rescue that made the difference.”

I’m not sure who said that, but when I read it, it stuck, and I have spent my professional career trying to make sure I was ready for a rescue today. So I ask, are you ready? Do you know how complex the next rescue problem is going to be?

In order to be ready, we must have a solid grasp of the basics for confined space rescue. I’m not talking about building mechanical advantage systems or selecting the best anchor point. Yes, those skills are necessary, but I’m talking about managing your TIME. Because in confined space rescue, time is one of the greatest factors between a rescue or a recovery. One of Roco Rescue’s great Chief Instructors, Mike Adams, really helped me understand this concept in a simple way. He broke the entire rescue down into four parts.

  1. Put your hands on the patient: Everything you do initially must drive towards this goal. The faster you can do that, the faster you will have a complete understanding of the complexity of the rescue. Keep it simple and get in there once you have provided for the safety of your rescuer.
  2. Care and Package: Do good patient care, and treat the things that are life threatening first. Once you know the life threat, then you’ll know how much time you have to work with. Then package for the environment and the injury.
  3. Extricate: Build a world class rescue system or just put your hands on the patient and move! Either way your team should be ready to perform once the patient is ready to move. The type of space and the orientation of the patient will usually dictate the how and what.
  4. Lift and/or Lower and turn them over: Once the patient is out of the space, lift / lower them to ground level and turn them over to EMS. This is typically less hazardous but still just as important if you have a critical patient.

Focus on these concepts in your next confined space training; see how well your team performs, and ask plenty of questions.

Did you stumble a little bit? Was there some confusion about the plan or about who was doing what job? If so, that’s ok! Talk about it, sort it out and do it again - that is what training is for! On the other hand, maybe you cruised right through the scenario and everyone was pretty quiet. If so, perhaps that’s because your jobs are well defined and your team knows what is always coming next. Or was it just because you have done the same drill from the same space for the last 10 years? Either way it’s time to turn up the heat and start challenging your team to get them to the next level.

If you’ve trained with us at Roco Rescue, then you’re familiar with our version of the K.I.S.S. principle: “Keep It SAFE and SIMPLE.” I’ve used it many times, and it works, but as our depth of knowledge grows and the complexity of the incident grows, the “devil” is really in the details. The masters of any craft only became masters through practice. So you want to know some Advanced Confined Space Rescue Techniques? You want to be a Confined Space Rescue Technician?

Train, Learn, Practice.

And as always, be safe.

 

Chris Carlsen resides in Albuquerque, NM and has been a firefighter with Albuquerque Fire Rescue since 1998.  He currently works as the Heavy Technical Rescue Program Manager within Special Operations.  Chris took his first Roco course in 2000 and became part of Roco’s instructional cadre in 2006.  As a Roco Rescue Chief Instructor he leads courses in rope, confined space, trench and structural collapse rescue.

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Rescue Challenge Spotlight - Valero Wilmington

Friday, May 10, 2019
 
“It’s an intense two days. It’s exhausting and hard, but it’s also a lot of fun. I tell all my guys, ‘you’ll work your butt off at Rescue Challenge, but you’ll love every minute it.’”

- Randy Pickering, Asst Fire Chief, Valero Wilmington Refinery
If you’ve ever flown from LAX Airport, there’s a good chance the fuel in your airplane was refined at Valero Wilmington, a leading independent refinery of transportation fuels and petroleum products.

Assistant Chief Randy Pickering oversees training for the refinery’s 40+ rescuers, who are divided into four teams by shift. Made up of operators, maintenance techs, welders, electricians and more, these individuals sign up for the additional responsibilities and training because they love the challenge of it, and because they want to be there to help their co-workers in case of an emergency.

Rescue Challenge Spotlight - Valero WilmingtonValero Wilmington has attended Roco Rescue Challenge nearly every year since 1991 and has a stellar track record in the annual event. The safety and effectiveness of the team is a commitment taken very seriously by the group, and Challenge helps them hone their skills to the max, enhancing their culture of safety.

The team of ten rescuers who travel to Baton Rouge each October have earned the privilege to represent Valero Wilmington by winning an in-house rescue competition.

“We use Roco Rescue Challenge as a motivator for all our rescue teams and a reward for those who are selected to go,” says Randy.
From unusually challenging high-line scenarios to seemingly impossibly small confined spaces, Randy is proud of the way his team thinks on their feet and works together in unfamiliar rescue scenarios. For Valero Wilmington, each Rescue Challenge has been a rewarding learning experience, as well as an opportunity to bring home a coveted trophy (the team’s good-natured, friendly SoCal exterior conceals a competitive streak…).

The Roco Rescue Challenge has one open team slot remaining.

Observers welcome! 
If you’re not ready to sign-up a team, join us as an observer. Watch the teams as they tackle some very challenging scenarios – it’s a great learning experience. 
 
To sign up your team or as an observer, call us at 800-647-7626.
 
Rescue Challenge Spotlight - Valero Wilmington 
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Non-Entry Confined Space Rescue…Are You Sure?

Tuesday, May 07, 2019
by Pat Furr, Safety Officer & VPP Coordinator

There are three generally accepted types of confined space rescue: self-rescue, non-entry retrieval, and entry rescue. Just as with the hierarchy of hazard mitigation, confined space rescue should be approached with an ascending hierarchy in mind. 

  1. Self-rescue is typically the fastest type and eliminates or at least greatly reduces the chance that anyone else will be put at risk. For these reasons, it is the first choice, but it is unrealistic to think that an entrant would be able to rescue themselves in all situations.
  2. Non-entry retrieval is the next choice. OSHA stipulates that non-entry retrieval must be considered as a means of rescue – more on that shortly.
  3. Entry rescue is the last choice, largely because it exposes the rescuers to the same hazards that the original entrant faced.

Non-Entry Confined Space Rescue…Are You Sure?

OSHA recognizes the inherent danger of entry rescue, which is why the organization mandates “retrieval systems or methods shall be used whenever an authorized entrant enters a permit space.” However, OSHA goes on to qualify this statement with two very important exceptions. OSHA requires non-entry retrieval, “unless the retrieval equipment would increase the overall risk of entry or would not contribute to the rescue of the entrant.”  Let’s examine each of these two provisions more closely... 

  1. Non-entry retrieval is required “…unless the retrieval equipment would increase the overall risk of entry.” For example, if the retrieval line would create an entanglement hazard that would impede the entrant’s ability to exit the space, then the retrieval system should not be used and entry rescue should be the choice.
  2. And non-entry retrieval is required unless the equipment “…would not contribute to the rescue of the entrant.” The key here is that the non-entry method employed must be viable. It must work when called into action.

For non-entry retrieval systems, we are relying on that retrieval line to exert forces on the entrant to pull them out of the space without help from any other device or human intervention within the space. It must perform without someone inside the space maneuvering the victim or otherwise providing assistance to the retrieval system. It has to work independently of any other forces other than what is generated from outside the space. This extremely important point is often overlooked and has resulted in many fatalities. Sadly, many of those fatalities were the would-be rescuers that attempted entry rescue when the retrieval system failed to do its intended job.

Situations that may render the retrieval system useless would be any configuration or obstruction inside the space that would prevent the system from pulling the victim clear of the space in an unimpeded manner. This could be pipework or obstructions on the floor for a horizontal movement. Likewise, pulling an unconscious victim around corners may render a retrieval system ineffective. If the entrant moves over any edge and down into a lower area offset from an overhead portal even at moderate angles, the retrieval system will probably not be able to pull an inert victim up and over that edge, even if the drop were only a foot or so.

It must be clearly understood that retrieval systems may quite possibly be applying forces on a limp human body, which, as harsh as this sounds, becomes a sort of anchor. It requires a very thorough and honest evaluation of where the entrant will be moving in the space in order to perform their planned work, and what obstructions or structural configurations are in that path. If there is any possibility that the system will not be able to pull an unconscious, inert victim along that path, then the retrieval system is NOT viable.

Human Nature vs The Best Laid Plans - An Example

Okay, so you have done a thorough and honest evaluation of the space, its configuration, and internal obstructions and determined that there is a clear path from the entrant’s “planned” work area, which is offset ten feet from the overhead portal eight feet above. Clearly, the retrieval system will be able to pull the victim out of the space should the need arise. Enter human nature, and with that comes bad decisions. Murphy’s Law has a very nasty way of changing things for the worse. 

What if, in the course of the planned work, our entrant drops his wrench down into a sump immediately adjacent to his work zone but further from the overhead portal? The fixed ladder down into the sump is only five feet and he can clearly see the wrench stuck in the sludge below. He asks for slack on the retrieval line, climbs down into the sump, bends down to grab his wrench and is nearly immediately rendered unconscious due to an undetected atmospheric hazard. 

The attendant/rescuer sees that the entrant’s head and shoulders do not reappear and within several seconds calls to ask if he is ok, only to hear no answer. He calls several more times, but still no answer. He begins to haul with the retrieval system, which consists of a wire rope winch mounted to a tripod.  The cable becomes tight and the tripod shudders and shifts slightly, then all progress stops. The would-be rescuer tries with all his might to pull the entrant’s limp body up and over the 90-degree concrete edge, but cannot. 

In a panic, the attendant/rescuer climbs down into the space and over to the sump where he sees the entrant pulled tightly against the wall of the sump but not off the floor. He climbs down into the sump to attempt to lift the entrant’s 200-pound limp body up and over the five-foot wall. As soon as he bends down to cradle him, the hazardous atmosphere overcomes him also. Two fatalities later, we wonder how our non-entry rescue retrieval system could have failed us. It would not have, had human nature not interfered and caused two people to make bad decisions. 

That story was intended to point out that things do not always go according to plan. Not only do we humans make bad decisions on occasion, but we also have accidents due to trips, slips, and falls that may send us to an area that the retrieval system may not work. Conditions inside the space may change in such a manner that it affects the retrieval system. 

For all these reasons I implore you to evaluate the capability of the retrieval system to work not only when things go according to plan, but also to evaluate the system based on the “what ifs.” For the “what ifs” that involve bad decisions, that is a matter of training and communicating to the entry team why they cannot deviate from the work plan, even to fetch that dropped wrench. For the “what ifs” that include trips, slips, falls, or equipment failures, it may be time to consider a back-up plan, which may include an entry rescue capability. 


Pat Furr
Pat Furr

Pat Furr is a chief instructor, technical consultant, VPP Coordinator and Corporate Safety Officer for Roco Rescue, Inc. As a chief instructor, he teaches a wide variety of technical rescue classes including Fall Protection, Rope Access, Tower Work/Rescue and Suspended Worker Rescue. In his role as technical consultant, he is involved in research and development, writing articles, and presenting at national conferences. He is also a member of the NFPA 1006 Technical Rescue Personnel Professional Qualifications Standard. Prior to joining Roco in 2000, he served 20 years in the US Air Force as a Pararescueman (PJ).

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