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. 

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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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Roco Chats with the Experts | Petzl America

Friday, April 05, 2019

Pat Furr: Welcome to the second installment of Roco Chats With The Experts. I’m Pat Furr from Roco Rescue and this month we are pleased to welcome Michel Goulet and John Dorough of Petzl America. We are going to do a deep dive on some of Petzl’s most popular items, which is great because readers will get insights straight from the experts on the Petzl I’D and the JAG Syst
em, the Rescucender cam, the ASAP and ASAP Lock, the latest in helmets and more.

Petzl-vuedici%20(10)
If you are involved in technical rope rescue, or work in the vertical environment, and you areNOTfamiliar with the Petzl brand, you are indeed a rare bird. My introduction to Petzl was in the mid 1980’s when I finally hung up my Willans harness and got my first of many Petzl sit harnesses. To understand the leap from my old Willans diaper to a modern, comfortable, and genuinely safe harness, I would compare it to going from an oil lamp to LED light bulbs. Well, nearly that big a leap anyways.

Michel and John, if you are ready, I would like to start out by asking you to introduce yurselves and tell us what got you started with Petzl and working with equipment to support folks in the vertical realm…

Michel Goulet: Well, I have always been active in the outdoors and in 1980 I started an outdoor rock-climbing school in Ottawa. I ran that for about 6-7 years and I quickly realized that most of our students were coming for professional reasons instead of for recreation. That gave me the idea to switch the focus from outdoor recreation to working with professionals at height, which made the wife happy as we didn’t have to work as many weekends. I met some of the Petzl folks, after I made a presentation at the North American Technical Rescue Symposium here in Kelowna, BC in 1996. A job opened up and I was hired in 2003.

John Dorough: My association with Petzl nearly mirrors Michel’s. I was in college getting my degree in Natural Resource Management, but on my off time I drank the juice of all things rock-climbing. My goal was to get out to Yosemite Valley and somehow write it off as school work. I was able to convince a couple of professors and my parents and ended up going out there to complete some practicals toward my degree. I got into big wall climbing where I met the Yosemite Search and Rescue team. I needed to do an internship for my degree and ended up finding one with Petzl, which was great because they paid me in climbing gear. Fast forward to now, I am one of the principle Petzl representatives along with my brother for the Mid-Atlantic, South East and South Central regions of North America on the professional side.

PF: Michel, you mentioned at your outdoor rock-climbing school that a lot of your students were there for their work instead of recreation. Was that a precursor to your involvement in rope access?

MG: That was the mid to late 90’s, pretty much when SPRAT got going. I think IRATA was about 10 years old but didn’t have much presence in Canada. This was a time when a lot of steel workers, bridge inspectors, and riggers were starting to use rock-climbing techniques as a way to safely access work at height.

PF: Rope access is such a safe and efficient option it seems it’s mostly just a matter of introducing industries and employers to it. I know Petzl and Petzl equipment is integral to rope access continuing to move forward. How do you come up with the ideas for new equipment?

MG: In the early days we got into the habit of deciding what the customers wanted and needed. Frankly, that has changed dramatically in the last ten years or so. We have opinion and thought leaders representing the 7 or 8 industries that we work with most. Some of the best ideas come from the practitioners who are always looking to find a more efficient and safer way to work at height. Once we decide to move forward on a product, we try to be as innovative as possible. For most products, we field test it for 2-3 years by turning it over to select practitioners to evaluate. They are experts at their jobs, while we are product experts, so it is a great partnership.

JD: Petzl is really good with innovation, but equally as good about product evolution. For instance, the I’D is on its 3rdgeneration, and the ASAP has also evolved to its current 2ndgeneration. We have the ability to talk with the practitioners in the various industries and from different regions. The tower workers in Texas may have different needs and use different techniques than those in Europe. In this way we are able to identify gaps as well as common needs, region to region. We really listen to all the markets and the practitioners’ needs.

PF: Is it challenging to design products that not only meet the needs of the users, but also conform to the various legislated or consensus standards requirements?

MG: That is a gigantic challenge for any global manufacturing company with a market that includes over 60 different countries. Our rope access harness has 5 different certifications. It would be great if there were an ISO standard for our types of products so we could meet just the one standard.

PF: I have my favorite pieces of kit, and you are probably not surprised to hear that the Petzl I’D is absolutely one of my favorites. It is so much more than a mere Industrial Descender (I’D). How and when did you realize that it has so many capabilities beyond its name? 

 

(photo courtesy of Petzl)

MG: I made a presentation at a symposium when the I’D first came out in the mid-90s. I saw how it could be used as a progress capture device and back pulley on a haul system. Arborists are using it as a releasable anchor for emergency lowers. We are launching an updated version of the I’D this April. And we are adding the I’D Evac to the line. The updated I’D will automatically lock when you release the handle, so it is no longer a point of failure on rope access evaluations if you do not manually lock the device. It also has some added features that prevent the rope from twisting on long descents and has more durable steel materials on the rolled edge and the capstan. On the I’D Large, we reintroduced the safety clicker (quick release side plate) - since NFPA changed the strength requirements for descent devices.

PF: I must say I was disappointed when the I’D Large came out without the quick release side plate. So I am very glad to see its return.

JD: Hey, don’t blame us though, that was driven by an outside organization.

PF: Oh I know, it was that dang NFPA 1983 tech committee. Note: that was tongue in cheek as the author is a member of the NFPA 1006 tech committee.

MG:Unfortunately we had to work with a finite minimum breaking strength and couldn’t include the fact that the I’D as well as most of our products are designed to slip under a load of about 4-5 kn, and the chances of bringing the I’D to failure are reduced tremendously provided there is not a stopper knot tied behind the device. The new I’D has a means of attaching an auxiliary piece to it’s moving side plate that becomes a redirect which adds friction and control of heavier loads.

PF:That redirect will also make it easier for technicians to operate the device on a lower when the I’D is mounted at shoulder height or higher as they will no longer have to hold the standing section of rope high over the device while operating it.

MG:Precisely, and that’s why we have added the I’D Evac to our JAG rescue kit. The I’D Evac operating lever opens the device to allow travel 90 degrees out from the regular I’D. This is a much more intuitive and comfortable position for high mounted friction control devices

JD:Pat, to your earlier point that the I’D may be thought of as only a descender. But what I would say is it can perform the four major food groups of rescue and rope access. Those being; ascent, descent, haul, and lower. When the I’D first came out and for a year or so after, we would go out to visit the users and they were only using it for personal descent, but now when we visit, they are using it for all four of those types uses.

PF:Michel mentioned it being used as a releasable anchor. We have many clients who work as a two-person team using basic rope access techniques. We teach them to use the I’D as a dynamic anchor on both the main and safety line. This way it can be used as an immediate emergency lower, or it can be quickly built into a Z-rig for a 3:1 or 5:1 emergency haul on either of the ropes.

MG:It is a great device to use as an anchor for high lines as you are essentially introducing a slip gear to the system, so you are less likely to overload your anchors. But ropes from various manufacturers will slip and perform slightly differently so it is important to practice & test and see what the difference is in performance.

PF:The I’D only gets better when the user learns some of the subtleties regarding its use. For instance, when you need to remove slack through the device, I have seen users fumble trying to push and pull rope through and it generally gets hung up on the anti-error catch. Once they learn to keep a bit of tension on the working section of rope and pull harder away from the anchor on the standing section all of a sudden, things are much easier. Or if you need to feed rope to the working section, just turning the device 90 degrees to the anchor will allow rope to feed through easily. It is great to see users who have been practicing with the I’D performing these skills as if it were second nature.

MG:Just a word of caution if you are turning the I’D 90 degrees to the travel of the rope, you are defeating the camming effect, and if you have a load or are using it to belay, you must have a very light grip on the device so it will pull itself inline and stop the load should the need be.

PF:One issue our end users are constantly fighting is having enough time to practice their skills and maintaining proficiency. When it comes to mechanical advantage systems, sometimes they get a little befuddled building an MA up from scratch. Or if they rely on pre-built MAs, if they are not careful how they stow or pull the pre-built MA out of the bag, the bottom set of pulleys may flip through and between the lines and create a tangled mess. But Petzl has the JAG systemwhich is a pre-built 4:1 or 5:1 MA that has a mesh sock around it which prevents the system from becoming entangled. Have you considered building the JAG into longer lengths to add additional throw to the system? Or even with larger diameter pulley sheaves?

JD:When we consider innovative products, we try not to limit it to the high-end proficient user that is looking for the little bit of advantage in efficiency or safety. Often times there are opportunities to make products that are most helpful to the less proficient user, and the JAG is one product that certainly helps the user that struggles to build MAs or struggles to keep their MAs from tangling. We see that situation all the time where a rescue team will pull their pre-built MA out and it is so tangled that they end up taking it apart and rebuilding it from scratch. So the innovation of placing the mesh sock over the system really helps the less proficient user especially when confronted with the stress of an actual rescue, knowing that when they pull the JAG out of its bag it will be straight and ready for use.

 

(photo courtesy of Petzl)

MG:I will add that the JAG is now sold in three different lengths: 1, 2, and 5 meter lengths. We are really starting to encourage the use of twin tensioned line rescue systems for hauls and lowers. And we like to use the 5 meter JAG piggybacked onto the haul lines. Depending on how you orient the system, you end up with an 8:1 or 10:1 MA with the travel distance of a 4:1 or 5:1 since both systems are in play.

PF:That is really an advantage if you are short of manpower and end up with an 8:1 MA that may be enough for only two haul team members, one on each system with the benefit of having a belay function with the two tensioned system.

JD:The JAG System sock, as we like to call it, may cause concern for users regarding inspecting the system, but it is very easy to remove so they can inspect, or if they need to replace it should it be damaged.

PF:One of my pet peeves is seeing folks walking about with a two-piece mechanical cam hanging from their harness and the shell is not pinned to the shoe. This usually results in the two pieces breaking apart from each other and the shell is dropped to who knows where. Your current generation of the Rescucendercam has fixed that issue.

 

(photo courtesy of Petzl)

MG:When we first started to design that we were looking for an alternative to the Shunt possibly recommending it as a back-up device. We even had a small hole drilled into the body for the attachment of a light cord to tow the device on descent. But while talking with the practitioners, we decided we were going about this in the wrong way.  And about 8 years ago now, we decided the best backup device for self belay is the ASAP, so we shifted the intent for the new Rescucender for both a cam and a backup device to strictly a cam. For those of you not familiar with the new Rescucender, we replaced the wire that connects the shell and the cam with a steel flange. That wire would sometimes cause entanglement if the rope got wrapped into or behind it when assembling the cam. And if you needed to be fast with the device, lining up the holes with the safety pin could really be a bit of an aggravation. Now you can keep your pulley connected to the Rescucender and attach it to the rope which really speeds things up and reduces the potential for dropping the device. It has dual safety catches one on each side of the shell body. On fat, unloaded 12.8-13 mm rope, the device is a little tight when you are mounting it on the rope, but once it is mounted it works just fine.

JD:And as an instructor at the end of a long hot day, we have all been victims of demonstrating how to place the older two piece cams on a rope and with the sweat in our eyes fumbling with the pin trying to line things up, then dropping the cam, and having to start all over again, the new Rescucender makes it that much less likely we embarrass ourselves.

PF:Yup, been there done that…

JD:A byproduct of the new Rescucender is it makes all us instructor types look that much cooler. It is very intuitive to place and strike off the rope.

PF:We were talking about using the Shunt as a tended self belay, but now we have the ASAP and the ASAP Lock, which are both much better mousetraps than the Shunt for self belay. So not only do we have 100% arrest assurance with the ASAP versus having to remember to release the tow string on the Shunt, but the ASAPs are true automatic rolling belays that follow you up on ascent and lead you down on descent untended.

(photo courtesy of Petzl)

MG:That being said, I do want to say that no piece of equipment is foolproof, but the ASAPs are better devices for belay than the Shunt.

PF:Agreed Michel, and as we use the ASAPs both in training and operationally we realize there are certain considerations that require attention. You have a second generation ASAP called the ASAP Lock. Can you tell us how the device is different from the original?

MG:We have seen a huge growth in the wind industry and more bridge inspections are being performed using rope access techniques. These happen to be areas where there is a lot of wind, right? When you are working 150’ down from the hub, on the tip of a wind turbine blade, you have a lot of wind pushing against the rope between your anchor and the ASAP. Because the wheel of the original ASAP is freewheeling, it tends to let the wind push a loop of rope above the ASAP creating a significant fall potential, unless you remember to set the ASAP.  On the ASAP Lock, once you engage the lock, the rope will not pull up through the device creating that big loop. But the device will still move up the rope if you were to reposition. I think what people really like about the Lock version is you can keep the device connected to your harness when you are bypassing a knot or a redirect anchor. The ASAP 1 and 2 have to be disconnected from your rope by unclipping them from your lanyard and we see a lot of folks adding a light keeper loop to the body of the device to hook a lanyard to so as not to drop it. There exists a chance to wrongly reconnect the body of the ASAP to the rope without connecting the ASAP to your full strength lanyard and that could lead to disastrous results in the event of a fall. The new ASAP Lock can stay attached to your harness via the shock absorber and has 2 independent spring loaded catches to allow easy mounting and dismounting to your rope.

JD:Also on the original ASAP, to load the device onto the rope, you had to manually open the wheel with your hand to allow the rope to fit, and that was sometimes cumbersome. With the ASAP Lock, there are two spring loaded catches reminiscent of what you have seen on handled ascenders. These will hold the wheel away from the body of the device as you load the rope and you only need to bump the catches slightly and they lock the wheel onto the rope. One thing to note is that the ASAP and ASAP Lock are now compliant with ANSI standards when used in a vertical lifeline configuration with our ANSI compliant rope, shock absorbers and connectors.

MG:During rescue operation, the belay device needs to essentially be defeated to allow the rope to move through the mechanism when the load is moving away from the anchor point. Several field tests have been conducted over the past few years showing that the belay person needs to be very attentive and act swiftly when there is a mainline failure, disconnect or over-speed and they need to respond accordingly, allowing the belay device to capture and hold the load. Successful rescue load catches are not always possible when you add in a human factor.  With the ASAP you really take that guesswork away because the ASAP includes a brake that relies on centrifugal force, which is always present, and is a much surer way to eliminate a faulty belay activation method. Several fire departments have started using an anchored ASAP for their belay and have eliminated their miss-catches that they sometimes experienced in training and testing.  Petzl now allows the use of the ASAP LOCK in this fashion as long as an ASAP’SORBER AXESS  is used with two person rescue loads.

PF:I would like to think that most of us who build rescue systems or rope systems to support vertical work, need to use not only our physical attributes, but also our brainpower too. So it makes sense to protect our noggins. You have some interesting helmets that have some unique and specific features. Please tell us about some of your Petzl helmets.

JD:This is an exciting time because in 2019, we are launching our next generation Vertex helmet and introducing a new line called the Strato. We now have a flip and fit system for our suspension system which allows you to flip the entire suspension system up into your helmet where it is protected by the helmet shell. This prevents it from becoming maladjusted during transport or while jammed in your rescue bag. All our helmets for the professional market are type 1, top impact rated and meet ANSI standards as well. If you look in detail at the ANSI standards, you will see there are two types, one for work on the ground and one for work at height. So now we have a dual chinstrap that can convert to meet the ANSI standard for both work situations. We have been adding more and more accessories to our helmets through the years. We have had our VIZEN and VIZIR face shields. We’ve added a full face mesh. We have also added a means to protect these face shields by adding a garage for them where they just push the shield up into the garage when not in use. We have a disposable clear cover that fits onto the helmet shells to protect it from paint and any other staining products. We now have the EZ Clip for mounting accessories which eliminates the need to bolt on accessories using tools and time. Attaching and removing accessories now take seconds instead of minutes.

MG:We have also been able to reduce the price of the Vertex by about 20%. And the chinstraps are now interchangeable and come in two lengths. The face shield protector also allows the use of the headlamp to still fit into its slotted receiver. 

PF:Michel and John, I wish we had more time to go on to talk some more but I am afraid we will have to wrap things up for now. I hope we can revisit and talk about more of your products and even some techniques that are now available because of your products. Thank you so much for your time and I am sure we will see each other around soon.

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Confined Space Types - Are All Your Bases Covered?

Friday, November 30, 2018

Confined Space Types - Are All Your Bases Covered?Refineries, plants and manufacturing facilities have a wide range of permit-required confined spaces – some having only a few, while others may have hundreds. Some of these spaces may be relatively open and straightforward while others are congested and complex, or at height. With this in mind, are all your bases covered? Can your rescue team (or service) safely and effectively perform a rescue from these varying types of spaces? Or, are you left exposed? And, how can you be sure?

Rescue Practice & Preplanning

With a large number of permit spaces on site, it would be impossible for a rescue team to practice in each and every one. Plus, in most cases, the spaces are operating, functioning units within the plant. Because of this, section (k) of 1910.146 allows practice from “representative” spaces. This is where the Roco Confined Space Types Chart can make the process easier.

Using OSHA guidelines for determining representative spaces, the Roco Types Chart is designed to assist employers and rescue teams plan for various types of permit spaces.
The chart allows you to categorize permit spaces into six (6) confined space types, which can then be used to prepare rescue plans, determine rescue requirements, conduct practice drills or evaluate a prospective rescue service.
 
First of all, it's important to note that employers are required by 1910.146 and 1926 Subpart AA to allow rescue teams the opportunity to practice and plan for the various types of confined spaces they may be required to respond. This is critical for the success of the rescue, particularly timeliness, as well as for the safety of the rescuers.

Classifying and Typing Your Spaces
So, get out your clipboard, tape measure, some sketch paper, and a flashlight (if safe to do so) in order to view as much of the interior of the space as you can. And, if you absolutely need to enter for typing and/or rescue preplanning purposes, be sure to do so using full permitting procedures. Gaining access to architectural or engineering drawings may also be helpful in determining the internal configuration when actual entry is not feasible. Armed with this information, it is time to “type” the spaces in your response area using the Roco Confined Space Types Chart.

Confined Space Types - Are All Your Bases Covered?Over the decades, we’ve seen just about every type of confined space configuration out there. And, while there may be hundreds of permit spaces on site, most of them will fit into one of these six types and require the same (or similar) rescue plan. Of course, there are always unique situations in addition to physical characteristics, such as space-specific hazards or specialized PPE requirements, but this chart can be a valuable tool in the planning and preparation for confined space rescue operations.

We’ve also learned that it is imperative to understand the physical limitations of space access and internal configuration as well as how this affects equipment and technique choices for the rescue team. Referring to the Roco Types Chart and practicing simulated rescues from the relevant types of spaces will help identify these limitations in a controlled setting instead of during the heat of an emergency.

We can all agree that during an emergency is NOT the time to learn that your backboard or litter will not fit through the portal once the patient is packaged.
Six General Types
On the Roco Types Chart, you will note that there are six (6) general types identified, which are based on portal opening size and position of portal. Types 1 and 2 are “side” entries; Types 3 and 4 are “top” entries; and Types 5 and 6 are “bottom” entries. There are two types of each based on portal size, which is significant for rescue purposes. Openings greater than 24-inches will allow packaged patients on rigid litters or rescuers using SCBA to negotiate the opening; whereas, openings 24-inches or less will not.

Portals less than 24-inches will require a higher level of expertise and different packaging and patient movement techniques.
Once the various types have been determined, pay particular attention to spaces identified as Types 1, 3, or 5. Again, these spaces have the most restrictive portals (24-inches or less) and are considered “worst case” regarding entry and escape in terms of portal size. This is very important because it will greatly influence the patient packaging equipment and rescuer PPE that can be used in the space.

Accessibility and Internal Configuration
In addition to the “type” of the space based on portal size and location, another key consideration is accessibility or “elevation” of the portal. While the rescue service may practice rescues from Top, Side and Bottom portals – being at ground level is very different from a portal that’s at 100-ft. Here’s where high angle or elevated rescue techniques are normally required for getting the patient lowered safely to ground level.

Lastly, the internal configuration of a space must be carefully considered for rescue purposes. This will be discussed more in the following section on Appendix F.

Remember, rescue practice from a representative space needs to be a “true” representation of the kind of rescue that may be required in an emergency.
1910.146 Appendix F – Representative Spaces
In Appendix F, OSHA offers guidelines for determining Representative Spaces for Rescue Practice. OSHA adds that “teams may practice in representative spaces that are ‘worst case’ or most restrictive with respect to internal configuration, elevation, and portal size.” These characteristics, according to OSHA, should be considered when deciding whether a space is truly representative of an actual permit space.

(1) Internal Configuration 
Confined Space Types - Are All Your Bases Covered?What’s inside the space? If the interior is congested with utilities or other structural components that may hinder movement or the ability to efficiently package a patient, it must be addressed in training. For example, will the use of entrant rescuer retrieval lines be feasible? After one or two 90-degree turns around corners or around structural members, the ability to provide external retrieval of the entrant rescuer is probably forfeited. For vertical rescue, if there are offset platforms or passageways, there may be a need for directional pulleys or intermediate haul systems that are operated inside the space.

What about rescues while on emergency breathing air? If the internal configuration is so congested that the time required to complete patient packaging exceeds the duration of a backpack SCBA, then the team should consider using SAR. Will the internal configuration hinder or prevent visual monitoring and communications with the entrant rescuers? If so, it may be advisable to use an additional authorized rescuer as an “internal hole watch” to provide a communication link between the rescuers and personnel outside the space.

What if the internal configuration is such that complete patient packaging is not possible inside the space? This may dictate a “load-and-go” type rescue that provides minimal patient packaging while providing as much stabilization as feasible through the use of extrication-type short spine boards as an example.

(2) Elevation
If the portal is 4 feet or greater above grade, the rescue team must be capable of providing an effective and safe high angle lower of the victim; and, if needed, an attendant rescuer. This may require additional training and equipment. For these situations, it is important to identify high-point anchors that may be suitable for use, or plan for portable high-point anchors, such as a “man lift” or some other device.

(3) Portal Size
Confined Space Types - Are All Your Bases Covered?Here again, the magic number is 24 inches or less for round portals or in the smallest dimension for non-round portals. It is a common mistake for a rescue team to “test drive” their 22-to-23-inch wide litter or backboard on a 24-inch portal without a victim loaded and discover that it barely fits. However, the problem arises when a victim is loaded onto the litter. The only way the litter or backboard will fit is at the “equator” of the round portal. This will most likely not leave enough room between the rigid litter or backboard and the victim’s chest, except for our more petite victims.

For rescuers, it is already difficult to negotiate a portal while wearing a backpack SCBA. For portals of 24 inches or less, it’s nearly impossible. If the backpack SCBA will not fit, it is time to consider an airline respirator and emergency escape harness/bottle instead. Warning: Do NOT under any circumstances remove your backpack SCBA in order gain access to a confined space through a restricted portal or passageway. It is just too easy for a mask to become displaced.

(4) Space Access – Horizontal vs. Vertical
Most rescuers regard horizontal retrievals as easier than vertical. However, this is not always the case. If there are floor projections, pipe work or other utilities, even just a grated floor surface, it may create an incredible amount of friction or an absolute impediment to the horizontal movement of an inert victim. In this case, the entrant rescuers may have to rely on old-fashioned arm and leg strength to maneuver the victim.

Putting the Roco Types Chart into Practice
The Roco CS Types Chart can assist by first providing a way to classify and type your different kinds of spaces. This information can then be used to design training/practice drills as well as annual performance evaluations to make sure your rescue service is capable of rescue from the varying representative spaces onsite. Of course, this applies whether you use an in-house rescue team, a contracted rescue service, or a local off-site response team. Otherwise, how do you know if you truly have your bases covered? Don’t take that chance. If an incident occurs and the rescue personnel you are depending on are not capable of safely performing a rescue, your company could be culpable.

In section (k), OSHA requires employers to evaluate the prospective rescue service to determine proficiency in terms of rescue-related tasks and proper equipment.
If you need assistance with confined space typing or rescue preplan preparation, please contact us at info@rocorescue.com or 800-647-7626.

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Rescue Toolbox: Petzl ASAP LOCK

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Rescue Toolbox: Petzl ASAP LOCKExperienced rescuers know there are several ways to belay, or provide a safety line for a live load. Traditional belays include Tandem Prusiks, aperture devices, Munter Hitch, modern devices such as the ID or the MPD, and several others. What all of these devices have in common is the belay system is anchored with the line running through it as the load moves away from the anchors, or the line is pulled through the belay to take in slack as the load moves toward the anchors. These types of belay systems must be tended by a dedicated operator.

But certain professions and even alpinists and sport climbers have been using a different means of providing a belay for many years. This type of belay has been called a self-belay, or a traveling belay and it works by having the belay device attached to a fixed safety line, and the device travels along with the load as it ascends or descends. Window washers and rope access technicians have been relying on this type of belay for many years. Even soloist rock climbers or mountaineers have been using variations of self-belay or for alpinists fixed lines to negotiate difficult pitches in lieu of a roped party climb. 

Up until recently, these traveling belays required the individual on rope to pull the device along both on ascent and decent.
In fact, many times, devices that were not intended to be used as a belay device were and are still being used for this purpose. I’ve seen window washers using handled ascenders as their belay device and try as I might to explain to them that it would have a high potential to fail upon a shock load, they said it was the best they could come up with. The Petzl Shunt was a bit of improvement over handled ascenders, but it still needed to be “towed” up and down the line and the operator needed to remember to let go of the tow string should the mainline fail otherwise the device would not lock onto the line. Most all cam type devices will fail to lock on the rope if the body of the device is held when it is called to arrest a fall. But in the recent past a new “rolling” fall arrestor became available that overcomes many of the limitations of traditional belay devices. It is called the Petzl ASAP.

The ASAP comes in two versions, the original International version and the newer ASAP Lock (pictured here)Rescue Toolbox: Petzl ASAP LOCK. The primary difference between the two versions is the Lock has a means to lock onto the rope when you get to your intended position, which prevents a large loop of rope building between the top anchor and the device. This feature is critical for individuals that stop to perform a function at height where the potential for wind to blow rope into a growing loop between the device and the top anchor which would create an unacceptable potential freefall distance. Both versions are compatible with 10-13 mm kernmantle rope, but to meet ANSI Z359.15 certification, they must be used with the Petzl RAY 12 mm rope, and specified connectors and energy absorbers. 

One advantage of having a rolling fall arrestor is it reduces the manning requirements as there no longer needs to be an individual operating the belay.
Another advantage is there is no guesswork as to the amount of slack in the belay lane as is possible when the load is out of sight of the belay operator. This is particularly common on longer drops as the weight of the safety line can fool some less experienced operators into believing that is the weight of the load. 

But there are also potential disadvantages to an automatic rolling fall arrestor. If you do not plan ahead and there is a mainline failure and the load is arrested by the ASAP, it isn’t going anywhere. It will be stuck right where it arrests on the safety line – that is, unless you did think ahead and anchor the safety line into a dynamic anchor. We like to use the Petzl ID (pictured here) or the CMC MPD for this purpose. Rescue Toolbox: Petzl ASAP LOCKThis allows for an immediate emergency lower on the safety line or even a haul by building the dynamic anchor into a Z-Rig.

We have found the ASAP in either version to be a great device on an administrative safety line during tower rescue training, as it closely replicates conditions as they would most likely be in a real world small team, or one-on-one tower rescue, while providing the required level of safety that is relatively transparent to all involved. 

So, come to one of our tower classes to see the ASAP in use, and it may just turn out to be another tool for your rescue toolbox. Here is more information on Roco’s 30-hour Tower Work & Rescue training. For further assistance, please call our office at 800-647-7626. Also, here’s a video on these devices from Petzl.

ASAP Lock in ANSI-approved System Configuration

Rescue Toolbox: Petzl ASAP LOCK


ASAP International Version (below)

Rescue Toolbox: Petzl ASAP LOCK

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Inspection Process for Roco Training Ropes

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Inspection Process for Roco Training RopesQuestion: We recently had a student ask how our training rope is monitored for wear and tear because of its extensive use...

Answer: Good question, and it’s a big job for us, no doubt. We’ve used and inspected a lot of rope in the past 35+ years, but this aspect of life safety can never be overlooked or taken lightly. As always, we urge everyone to carefully follow the care, use and inspection guidelines provided by their rope manufacturer. For added safety and as standard practice, we also use secondary back-up ropes and hardware in all field activities. 

Because we train thousands of students per year, we must accept the fact that there are numerous opportunities for our ropes to be exposed to wear such as being stepped on or exposed to dirt and gravel. It is for these reasons that we perform rigorous inspection of the ropes before and after use. Plus, we also conduct an annual competent person equipment inspection as recommended by NFPA.
 
As added safety, we also expect our students to do their part in monitoring the equipment during a class, and that’s why we’re glad you brought this up.
We teach and enforce rope care and inspection of all equipment, including ropes, in all of our classes. Inspections are accomplished at multiple times during any given class including during inventory. Additionally, all equipment is inspected by a Roco employee at the conclusion of each class. If there are any signs of damage or degradation that would render the rope unserviceable according to the manufacturer’s instructions for use, that rope will be taken out of service.

Of course, we’ve seen some rope damaged over the years, which is to be expected with the use our rope receives. However, to my knowledge, we’ve never had a rope failure. We’ve seen cut sheaths and sheath slippage, evidence of broken core fibers, and other damage that failed the rope inspection. But, not once, have we had a rope fail while it was being used to support a life load. The construction and the minimum breaking strength requirements of life safety rope provide a very substantial margin of safety. And, there again, we also have the redundancy of a back-up system in place.

All manufacturers of life safety rope are required by NFPA 1983 (2017 edition) to provide the following inspection criteria information in their instructions for use:

(1) Rope has not been visually damaged.
(2) Rope has not been exposed to heat, direct flame impingement, or abrasion.
(3) Rope has not been subjected to impact load.
(4) Rope has not been exposed to liquids, solids, gasses, mists, or vapors of any chemical or other material than can deteriorate rope.
(5) Rope passes inspection when inspected by a qualified person following the manufacturer’s inspection procedures both before and after each use.

The following inspection tips are provided by PMI Life Safety Rope:
Inspection Process for Roco Training Ropes

HOW TO INSPECT YOUR ROPE

LOOK AT IT.... ALL OF IT!
Start at one end and look at every inch of the rope. Watch for signs that might indicate possible damage such as discoloration, chemical odors, abrasion, cuts or nicks in the outer sheath and visible differences in the diameter of the rope in one area in relation to the rest of the rope.

WRAP IT IN SMALL LOOPS AND LOOK!
Wrap the rope around your hand to form small loops at different random points along the ropes length. Look at these small loops as you make them, the consistency of the loop should be uniform throughout. If it’s not, you might have a problem with the rope’s core.

FEEL THE ROPE!
While you are looking at every inch of the rope, run it through your bare hands and feel it for changes that might indicate damage to the core. Changes may include any inconsistencies in rope diameter, soft or “mushy” spots, or extraordinarily stiff areas.

WRITE IT ALL DOWN!
Write the results of your inspection on the Rope Log included with your rope. Be sure to include anything you found in your inspection that might be or become a concern and document other important information about the rope such as an occurrence of uncontrolled or excessive loading, rope older than 10 years, contact with harmful chemicals, and history of use.

IF IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT!
If you are not sure about the integrity of a rope........DON’T USE IT!
Consult the manufacturer if you need help.

So, thank you again for asking about the rope used continuously in our training programs. Even with our many years of experience, we do not take rope safety margins as a license to misuse our ropes. And that is why we are diligent in caring for and inspecting all of our equipment including the ropes. 

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