Evaluating Your Rescue Service

Thursday, November 14, 2019

 Evaluating your rescue service helps ensure that the team you have selected has the knowledge, technical skills, and capabilities required to meet your company’s specific needs. In addition, a team evaluation helps fulfill the performance requirements outlined in OSHA 1910.146 and 1926.1211. If you doubt the importance of selecting a competent and properly trained rescue team, consider this disturbing statistic: more than 60% of confined space fatalities occur among would-be rescuers.

2012_Chal_h_112OSHA 1910.146 Appendix F (non-mandatory) provides a great roadmap for employers when choosing and evaluating a confined space rescue team. It contains criteria that may be used to evaluate the capabilities of both prospective and current rescue teams. (Note: Although Appendix F is “non-mandatory”, the standards of 1910.146 are not. Appendix F is OSHA’s recommended method for compliance. Learn why you should pay close attention to Appendix F, even though it is “non-mandatory.”) 

The Two Components Of A Rescue Service Evaluation:

  1. An initial evaluation, in which employers decide whether a potential rescue service or team is adequately trained and equipped to perform permit space rescues of the kind needed at the facility and whether such rescuers can respond in a timely manner; and
  2. A performance evaluation, in which employers assess the skills of a prospective rescue team or rescue service during an actual or practice rescue.

Step 1: Initial Evaluation

The initial evaluation considers:

  • A team’s technical skills as evidenced by documented training
  • Number of personnel
  • Availability
  • Timeliness based on the hazards inherent in the space
  • Whether they meet the requirements of 1910.146 (k)(2) with regards to access to personal protective equipment (PPE), training in both technical rescue and first aid/CPR, and practice in representative permit-required confined spaces at least once per year
  • The ability to notify the employer when they are unable to respond – which is of particular importance for employers using 911 as their rescue service
  • and more (see Section A, Initial Evaluation in OSHA 1910.146 Appendix F)

Step 2: Performance Evaluation

Once employers have selected one or more rescue services that meet their criteria on paper, employers should provide the rescue service access to their worksite and ask them to perform in various scenarios of the employer’s choice. Performance evaluations should be administered to a prospective rescue service, as well as to periodically evaluate your current rescue service.

Consider Using A Third Party To Evaluate Your Rescue Service

Employers may opt to use a third party to evaluate their prospective rescue service. Third-party evaluations provide a number of added benefits:

  • They are useful when employers may not have the in-house expertise necessary to administer an accurate evaluation, or for employers who prefer having a third-party evaluation as a documented, independent, and unbiased record of the rescue service/team’s capabilities.
  • They provide an opportunity for the evaluator to recommend minor changes in equipment or techniques that would enhance the capability of the team.
  • In cases where contractors will be providing their own rescue capability, third-party evaluations help ensure that all parties are doing their due diligence where permit space entry is required. Some host employers mistakenly believe that they are relieved of all responsibility when a contractor’s employees are performing the entries. But 1910.146(c)(8) and (9) place reciprocal responsibilities on host and contractor. This includes the host employer informing the contractor that permit space entry is allowed only through compliance with a permit space program meeting the requirements of 1910.146, and the contractor informing the host employer of the permit program it will be following.

Taking the time to ensure that the rescue service you choose has the proficiencies and equipment to perform the specific types of rescue required at your facility could not only prevent injuries, it could even save lives.

If you would like additional information on utilizing Roco Rescue’s documented Team Performance Evaluation for your rescue service, please call 800-647-7626.

 


 

read more

The Latest In Fall Protection... Andy Speidel of MSA Safety on "Roco Chats With the Experts"

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Bridge Work-At-Height

Pat Furr (Roco Rescue): Good morning Andy and thanks so much for joining us today.

Andy Speidel (MSA): Oh, it’s my pleasure Pat. Thanks for inviting me.

PF: We’re going to talk about all things Fall Protection. We’ll cover the latest advances in equipment and talk about how they’ve impacted how we work at height. We’ll also touch on some recent and upcoming regulatory changes, get your take on ways readers might be able to improve their fall protection programs, and discuss how to work effectively with a safety equipment rep.

AS: Sounds great, Pat.

The Latest Innovations in Fall Protection Equipment

PF: MSA is a leader in the design and manufacture of fall protection equipment and systems, so tell us about the latest advances in equipment that may just make the end user’s job easier and safer all at once.

AS: The last several years have seen significant advances in the use of modern design and manufacturing techniques as well as the use of lighter and stronger materials such as aircraft aluminum and synthetic fibers. This has allowed MSA V-Fit Harness manufacturers to innovate and come up with products that are lightweight, easy to employ, multi-functional, and most importantly, these products are appealing to the authorized person, which ultimately encourages them to use it.

Our design team has put a lot of emphasis on making our harnesses more intuitive to don. The new lightweight materials we use make it possible to not only meet all the standards, but also to provide superior comfort, flexibility and adjustability - which ultimately allows the user to more easily don the harness.

PF: Of all the latest and greatest pieces of kit, which ones jump out as the most exciting for you?

AS: We’ve taken a huge step forward with our personal fall limiters (PFLs) V-EDGE™ Leading Edge Personal Fall Limiter through the use of Kevlar and Dyneema rope, which gives them the strength and abrasion resistance to be used in leading edge applications, while at the same time making them much lighter than earlier generations that used wire rope. Additionally, the interface allows the PFL to be used on a variety of harnesses. It’s a simple aluminum pin that slides through a web loop on the harness to make the connection.    

PF:  One of the scariest scenes I encounter when doing site visits are these Frankenstein, cobbled together horizontal lifelines. Some of them would struggle to hold up the laundry, let alone arrest a fallen worker.

AS: Horizontal lifelines must be designed, inspected and installed under the supervision of a qualified person, which I am willing to bet, some of the ones you’ve seen were not. We at MSA, as well as a few other manufacturers, are producing user-installable, pre-engineered temporary horizontal lifeline systems. These systems are typically constructed of wire or synthetic rope. They come in a variety of lengths and are very easy to deploy and recover. We have a unique system where two workers Horizontal Lifeline on the same horizontal lifeline can easily bypass each other without having to disconnect. This allows increased mobility and decreases worker interference while still maintaining 100% fall protection.

PF: I would imagine these systems include comprehensive user instructions that mandate the anchor strength requirements and detail clearance requirements?

AS: That is correct. The instructions outline the parameters for use and include calculations for clearance requirements based on the span of the line between anchors, the number of workers on the system, and the type of lanyard they’re using to connect. Our systems have either a turnbuckle or a pulley tensioning system, making it very easy to adjust the sag for the proper tightness of the line.

Equipment Advances Provide New Options For Re-Thinking Work-At-Height With The Hierarchy of Fall Protection In Mind

PF: One of the things that I see with the better fall protection equipment manufacturers is that they truly make an effort to educate the competent and qualified persons as well as the program administrators on their options for not only providing a safe and compliant solution for their employees, but also on appealing to the authorized persons. I think the big three for end users are lightweight, ease of use, and multifunctional. When you make a site visit or a presentation, it must be gratifying to see the light bulbs go on as your attendees hear the options available to them.

AS: It is and although my job entails selling equipment, I don’t approach my visits with ‘making a sale’ as my primary objective. I want to hear from the potential customer what their needs are and what their big concerns are.

PF: Are there any common themes in those discussions?

AS: Many people assume a fall arrest system is the only solution, when really we ought to take a step back and approach the problem using the hierarchy of fall protection. It’s not always possible, but quite often there’s a solution on a lower step of the hierarchy that restrains a worker from falling, or that brings some of the work to the ground – which is usually the safest solution.

Hierarchy of Fall Protection Poster

PF: That reminds me of an exercise I often do when I’m presenting on fall protection or giving a talk at a conference. I ask everyone in the audience to close their eyes and visualize whatever comes to mind as I state two words: fall protection. Then I ask them what they were visualizing.

AS: Let me guess… they say harness and fall arrest lanyard.

PF: Yep, those are the most common answers.

AS: That’s why it’s important for us to listen to the customer, assess their situation, and discuss solutions that work best for their application and provide the least amount of risk to the worker. For example, we have a lot of customers who need to regularly access a flat roof on an older structure with no perimeter guardrails or parapets. When I tell them about retrofitting guardrails such as our VersiRail system, they worry about the costs. When we discuss other options such as active restraint or even fall arrest systems and the time it takes to set up and the limited mobility they often provide, they start to see the advantages of a passive fall protection system which doesn’t require authorized person training or specialized equipment. And compared to the average cost for one fatal incident, let alone the tragedy of such an occurrence, suddenly the cost for a perimeter guardrail system sounds affordable.

VersiRail® Guardrail Systems

However, for those who still can’t justify the cost, we do have non-penetrating temporary anchors that work great on flat roofs for both active restraint and fall arrest anchors. Our Constant Force Post is one such example.

Freestanding Constant Force® Post

Ways To Improve Your Fall Protection Program

PF: What do you see as a less obvious deficiency in fall protection programs beyond the more common shortfalls such as general lack of compliance?

AS: One area that’s often overlooked is the need to read and understand the instructions for use for equipment and systems. This information is essential to ensure correct and safe usage. Not all SRLs are designed for leading edge applications. Not all personal fall limiters can be mounted at foot level. Even something as simple as proper fit of a full body harness varies from harness to harness. That’s why I encourage employers and fall protection program owners to work with a manufacturer who can help them standardize their equipment and provide follow-up support and training.

PF: That’s definitely a concern. Do you have any others that you would like to address?

AS: Greater focus on authorized person pre-use inspections. Unfortunately, OSHA only requires an annual periodic inspection be performed by a competent person for most fall protection equipment. Some systems such as horizontal lifelines need to be inspected by a qualified person. MSA recommends periodic inspection by a competent person on most pieces of equipment at 6-month intervals and depending on environmental conditions and type of wear and tear the equipment is exposed to, it can be even more frequent. We count on the authorized persons doing a thorough pre-use inspection, but often these are not being done as they should.

PF: Oh I agree 100%. I’ve seen some downright scary equipment that had no business being used on the job. My suggestion for program administrators: have your authorized persons perform the pre-use inspection on their coworker’s kit and vice versa. Nobody likes to get called out for having failed to do their job, so trading harnesses so that I inspect yours while you inspect mine creates an incentive to make sure yours is in serviceable condition.

Learn More: Equipment Inspection

 

 

Retrieval Self-Retracting Lifelines: A Primer

PF: I'd like to hear your thoughts on a piece of equipment that many end users are either unaware of, or don’t fully understand its capabilities. I'm talking about a retrieval self-retracting lifeline (RSRL).

AS: RSRLs are great in specific applications. Sometimes we are confronted with multiple hazards as defined by OSHA and ANSI. For instance, we may have a significantly high vertical entry into a permit required confined space. This involves at least two different OSHA regulations and requires certain protections as mandated by those different regs. We need to protect the entrant from the fall hazard and have a means of retrieving the entrant in the event of an emergency. In the case of the confined space regulation, if the vertical entry is greater than 5’, then the retrieval system must be a mechanical means of retrieval that is of sufficient hauling ability to lift the entrant up and out of the space. RSRLs satisfy both needs by providing fall arrest and retrieval capability.

PF: What types of anchors or anchor systems do you recommend for RSRLs in order to support a vertical confined space entrant? 

XTIRPA System for Confined Space Entry

AS: A tripod is a good choice, but for situations where there’s limited space, or some other obstruction that prevents the use of a tripod, the MSA Xtirpa system is a great way to mount either the RSRL or a straight winch system. It’s easy to set up and extremely lightweight. It’s compatible with a large assortment of mounting systems such as the manhole collar shown below, ballasted cantilever mounts, floor bolted mounts and many other options.

 

Regulatory Changes: OSHA’s Walking and Working Surfaces

PF: Let’s talk about the changes to the OSHA Walking and Working Surfaces regulation and specifically the changes to fixed vertical ladders and the shift to vertical ladder safety systems as a move away from cages and wells. What are the options for employers to retrofit these systems (without getting into the mandated timeline issues)?

AS: We have two primary ways these systems can be installed. Latchways® Vertical Ladder Lifeline Kits The first way is we can come out and install it for you, whether it’s one of our kits or it’s a custom-built system. For all applications greater than 90’, we facilitate an MSA-authorized installer to perform the installation. The second way is if a customer purchases one of our kits, they can opt to handle the installation themselves. We have kits up 90’, so they cover a lot of applications. All that’s really needed are some basic mechanical skills and the ability to follow the instructions provided within the user’s manual.

PF: I really think ladder cages are a poor solution for worker safety. I certainly wouldn’t want to fall through a ladder cage and get hung up in it. I can only imagine the horrific injuries that would result. I’m glad that OSHA has decided to make them obsolete, but I’m concerned that many employers will wait until 2036 approaches before making the move to a safer system.

AS: I agree and share your concern, Pat. Another way to meet compliance is to use a top mount davit with an SRL and tagline. This solution is an option when evaluating a vertical ladder safety system. Some companies go with this option because they’re easy to install and don’t require the user to have a front chest d-ring on their harness. V-TEC™ Mini Personal Fall Limiter Another option would be to use a twin leg personal fall limiter and clip along from rung to rung.  

Fall Protection in Residential Roofing

PF: You and I have worked together in the past up in your neck of the woods, presenting information to a variety of groups on fall protection equipment. As more safety managers see these new systems and equipment, they are very apt to provide a safer yet more user-friendly solution to their authorized workers. However, we are still seeing a particular segment of the construction industry lagging in providing compliant fall protection for their workers. That industry is residential construction and in particular residential roofing.

AS: Yes, residential roofing is clearly a segment that needs us to demonstrate that there are great solutions that not only keep their employees safe, but also make it easier for workers to do their jobs. I remember a recent conference where you had a steep angle roofing mock set up, and seeing the smiles on the faces of attendees when they realized they could let their harness support their weight instead of trying to curl their toes and hold onto the sheathing while laying felt. I think for most of them it was quite a revelation. I believe you had two different systems set up. The positioning system was simply a 5/8” lifeline with a short shock-absorbing lanyard attached to a manual rope grab. And on the other exposure you had a temporary horizontal lifeline along the peak with a leading edge SRL attached to it.

PF: Yes, but the SRL was not just any SRL. It was your V-Edge Leading Edge SRL.

AS: Yes, it was great to see the attendees’ reactions as the V-Edge followed their movement along the horizontal lifeline. In addition to the leading edge feature of that particular SRL, it also has a built-in roll-cage around the clear cable housing which allows the entire unit to pivot around a floor mounted anchor. This keeps the direction of pull or tension of the cable directly in line with the user and SRL. It works great on steep angle roofs attached to a horizontal lifeline to keep the device aligned vertically with the user as they move about the roof.

V-EDGE™ Leading Edge Self - Retracting Lifeline

Viewing Your Safety Equipment Rep As A Resource To Help Solve For Safety Concerns

PF: There’s certainly a lot of innovation happening in the fall protection equipment market. How do you recommend employers think about worker safety in the context of these new technologies?

AS: I think it’s a high return on investment exercise for employers to invite safety equipment representatives into their facility to look at different applications, almost like an audit. A good equipment rep specializes in staying on top of all the latest developments in the dynamic world of equipment and safety systems. It’s tough for an employer to do that on their own, so the safety equipment rep ideally will partner with the employer to evaluate all their concerns and help them prioritize. I’ve found employers are often pleasantly surprised with the solutions folks like me come up with, either because they didn’t think a solution existed, or because they were surprised we could make the workplace safer without impeding production.

PF: Andy, I want to thank you for having this chat with Roco Rescue and I know we have just scratched the surface of everything fall protection. I hope our readers have found this both informative and entertaining, and perhaps got them thinking about their own fall protection needs.

AS: Thanks so much for inviting me to join you today Pat. We at MSA want to ensure employers are armed with all the information they need to select the fall protection equipment and systems that best suit their needs. We love talking about how our products can be used in various applications, but most importantly how they can be used to ensure workers make it home safely.

read more

9/11 @ The Pentagon: A Creative Solution to the Structural Collapse Hazard

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

We were at a standstill, and if we couldn’t come up with a solution to shore up that part of the structure,” Tim Robson recalls, “we’d be sending our people into a much riskier situation. In fact, some areas were so dangerous, we had to start thinking about things like, “Who’s not married?” and “Who doesn’t have kids?” It was awful, but it was something we had to think about.”     

911 Never Forget

On September 12, 2001, Tim Robson was sent to the Pentagon with his FEMA Urban Search and Rescue New Mexico Task Force 1 team. Their objectives were to search for survivors, recover victims, structurally stabilize the damaged area of the building, and locate several safes containing classified documents. Because the site was a crime scene, they also had to document and preserve key pieces of information for the FBI 

Tim’s team began their work in the rubble on the edges of the impact zone, but they quickly reached the area where the building hadn’t completely collapsed. It was inside the building where there was the highest probability of finding survivors, but it was also too dangerous to send rescuers into these overhead environments before stabilizing the structure. The building had already suffered pancake and lean-to collapses in the hours after initial impact. Extreme heat from the explosion and burning jet fuel weakened the building’s support columns. This created an extraordinarily hazardous environment for the search and rescue teams.  

“The left side of the impact zone, on the outermost ring of the Pentagon – part of that wall was actually moving,” Tim recalls. “The loads were so great any movement was very hazardous. It was definitely stressful. But we were extremely task-oriented and we wanted to get the job done and get out of there.” 

The textbook approach to stabilizing a heavy building with extensive structural damage like this was to stack 6x6 timbers in a box around each damaged column. “It’s just like stacking Lincoln Logs,” explains Tim. This provides a very strong and stable support structure in case the column fails.  

However, it only works if there’s something substantial overhead for the stacked timbers to support, and in the case of several weakened columns on the outer edge of the building, the ceiling didn’t exist all the way around the columns.  

The team put their heads together to come up with alternative solutions and workarounds, but nobody was very comfortable with any of the ideas floated. Tim knew that the stacked timbers approach derived its strength from the joints at the corners where the timbers overlapped. With that principle in mind, Tim came up with the idea to connect two boxes of stacked timbers together by using longer timbers on one edge of each box and overlapping those longer timbers.  

L Crib Back

“I stacked some pencils together to show what I was thinking,” Tim says, “and the engineers did some quick math and said, ‘Heck yeah, let’s run with this.’ It was not something anyone on the team had ever seen before, but when we all thought about the support it would provide, it just made sense.”    

This improvised solution greatly reduced the risk of the building collapsing while rescuers were inside, and the team was able to get on with their very difficult search and recovery tasks.  

There are several takeaways here. Let’s never forget the courage of our search and rescue team members in the aftermath of September 11th - they willingly ventured into hazardous territory and subjected themselves to the possibility of a follow-on terrorist attack, airborne toxins, and exposure to mass carnage. For this, they have our eternal gratitude and respect.  

L Crib FrontThe learning takeaway for rescuers is to deepen your knowledge. Because no two rescue situations are exactly alike, a rescuer who understands the principles (the “why”) will be much more effective than one who just memorizes procedures (the “how”). In a dynamic situation, the “textbook approach” may not offer a solution, so understanding the key principles allows you to adapt what you know to the specific situation. Creative solutions exist everywhere. This is a great example of how a thorough understanding of the principles spawned a creative solution to a difficult problem.  

After the mission was over, Tim’s creative technique became part of the operational procedures for FEMA’s search and rescue teams going forward. And ultimately, nobody was haunted by the decisions that were made about who to send into the building to do the work. Special thanks to Tim Robson and to everyone who took risks and made sacrifices to help others after September 11.  

L Crib

 

Tim Robson is a chief instructor and the New Mexico CSRT Director for Roco Rescue, Inc. As a chief instructor, he teaches a wide variety of technical rescue classes and has been instrumental in the development of our Trench & Structural Collapse Rescue programs. In his role as a CSRT Director, he leads our on-site rescue and safety services, which includes standby rescue, confined space program management, leading safety meetings and more. Prior to joining Roco in 1996, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Rescue Diver/Swimmer, at the Albuquerque Fire Department, and as a Rescue Squad Officer for FEMA’s New Mexico Task Force 1.

read more

Tunnel Rescue in Charleston

Monday, July 15, 2019

By Skip Williams

Contributors: Deputy Chief Kenneth Jenkins, Captain Tom Horn and Captain Anthony Morley, Charleston Fire Department, Rescue 115, and Russ Fennema, Jay Dee Contractors

Note: The following article recounts a very successful rescue that took advantage of available resources at the scene. Roco Rescue wants to share stories like this one to remind our readers that lessons learned can be gleaned from successful rescues just as they can from rescues that didn’t go so well. The important point is to take the time to perform a debriefing as soon as possible after the rescue effort. This is the time to capture the thoughts and comments from the team members while it is still fresh in their memories. Any important lessons learned need to be captured through documentation and then SHARED. The learnings can become part of your SOP/SOI or they can become integrated into your formal training. 

The other point that this article makes is to know and understand your equipment. We regularly train with our ropes and hardware, and we all tend to learn the operating limits and capabilities of said equipment. However, we need to be just as familiar with our peripheral equipment such as atmospheric monitors, radios, and etcetera. Consider spending some of your team training time learning more about that equipment and how to properly use it and what its idiosyncrasies may be. All the equipment we use should be considered life support equipment, and the word “life” should grab your attention and motivate you to know all you can about it. 

In March 2019, Rescue 115 of the Charleston Fire Department was dispatched at 09:02 hours to “man down” at an address on Shepard Street some 5 1/2 blocks NW of station 15 on Coming Street. En route, Captain Tom Horn realized the address was familiar as the entrance to the Coming Street retrieval shaft of the Charleston tunnel project (Figure 1). Now they were 2 blocks from the scene and he immediately called for Ladder 4 also from station 15, and nearby Engine 6 and Battalion 3 from nearby station 6. R115 arrived at 09:06 hours.

Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 2.44.09 PM

The Coming Street retrieval shaft is a vertical shaft 168 feet down and 20 feet in diameter to a 15-foot diameter tunnel being bored for flood control (Figure 2). Just as R115 arrived at the scene, the 12-man cage had been weight tested and prepared for lowering by crane. As R115’s four-man crew was about to be lowered into the shaft, Captain Horn eyed Captain of Ladder 4 and transferred command to him.

Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 1.51.35 PM

Just as R115’s crew got to the bottom, the patient arrived at their location from three quarters of a mile in the tunnel on a horizontal flat car driven by a battery-powered locomotive (Figure 3).

Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 1.53.06 PM

Captain Horn called for the lowering of the backboard and Stokes basket. The topside crew decided to use the crane again rather than lower with ropes. The county EMS was not included as joint training is not done. Back down at the tunnel, the patient was secured, placed in the  12-man cage, along with R115 members and 2 construction workers. The patient at the top of the shaft was treated by county EMS and was off to the hospital at 09:40 just 38 minutes from the initial call.

There are always lessons learned at any rescue. From prior experience, a member was assigned to the crane operator to ensure that the crane was moved under Fire Department control. The Fire Department used the construction company’s gas detectors because they knew that the detectors were calibrated daily. In retrospect, the Fire Department would use its own gas detectors. Also, the backboard and Stokes basket should have gone down on the first lowering to the tunnel.

The usage of gas monitors had been delayed because of differences in calibration between the fire department monitor and a plant monitor. There is no one gas that is best for calibration of fire department gas detectors because many different exposures are encountered. For a particular industrial site, the explosive gases are most likely known. 

Figure shows that the Lower Explosive Limit (LEL) varies according to which hydrocarbon is present. Figure shows correction factors if the monitor is calibrated with one gas and exposed to another. The Fire Department meter was calibrated with methane so that 0.5% by volume of methane reads 10% of LEL. A meter calibrated with pentane has a correction factor of 2 for methane. So, if a meter calibrated with pentane reads 10% LEL in pentane, the meter would read 5% LEL in methane. lf anything, the gas in the tunnel would be methane, but in actuality, the meters read zero no matter what calibration gas was used. 

Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 2.19.00 PM

Screen Shot 2019-07-11 at 1.56.08 PMThe reason pentane is sometimes used for calibration is that it overestimates the actual LEL. The caveat is that if the meter is poisoned for methane, a methane bump test is indicated. A sensor can be poisoned by chemicals like silicone.  Note well, silicone is a component of Armor All which should not be exposed to a LEL meter on a fire truck. The lesson learned here is to understand the effect of different gases on a sensor and a Fire Department may encounter many different gases.

Author Bio:

Skip Williams was a volunteer firefighter for 20 years. His last position was captain of the high-angle rescue team and emergency medical technician. He has a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech and M.S. and Ph.D. from Rutgers University and has held teaching positions at Rutgers University and the Medical College of Georgia. He designed and patented an artificial heart assist device. He is a Registered Professional Engineer in New Jersey and is a practicing engineer with Condition Analyzing Corporation engaged in condition monitoring of ships. 

Note: Captain Tom Horn is a graduate of two Roco Rescue courses.

read more

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).

 

 

  

   

  

 

 

 

  

   

  

read more
1 2 3 4 5 .. 6

RescueTalk (RocoRescue.com) has been created as a free resource for sharing insightful information, news, views and commentary for our students and others who are interested in technical rope rescue. Therefore, we make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, or suitability of any information and are not liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its display or use. All information is provided on an as-is basis. Users and readers are 100% responsible for their own actions in every situation. Information presented on this website in no way replaces proper training!