SPRINGFIELD, NJ - On Jan. 23, 2005 four New York City Firefighters died in two incidents that have collectively become known as "Black Sunday." In the deadliest of the two, six firefighters were forced to jump from an upper floor when flames became too hot to bear. Four of them had no harness and succumbed to injuries sustained in the fall.
According to Captain Michael Mastroeni, the Training Officer and Operations Supervisor at the Springfield Fire Department, that incident was the lynchpin for a greater emphasis on safety when working in multi-story buildings. The department outfitted its firefighters with rappelling systems and a nationwide trend began.
"So once [the FDNY] adopted this and once we saw what happened, departments nationwide have now took the initiative and started outfitting their guys with this [equipment]," Mastroeni said.
Each firefighter has a Petzl hook and rope connected to their equipment. The system is utilized to grip and hold on to strong points in a building so firemen can safely extract themselves from dangerous situations.
In order to keep their skills sharp, firefighters will practice with the equipment to get a better feel for their environment when using it in a real situation.
"They train all year round with it," he added. "But once a year, they do a full intensive training where they bail out of windows."
Each veteran firefighter has to do three training repetitions on the system, but for newer members who have never trained with it before, the requirement is nine practice runs. The training location, which was built on site by members at the firehouse replaced the previous bail-out training location, which had been located in the hose tower of the Springfield Municipal Building.
For Springfield firefighters, training on the Petzl equipment may be the difference between life and death.
"This is of utmost importance because this is for firefighter safety and survival," Mastroeni said. "So by doing this, we can insure and assist firefighters in getting out of upper-story windows safely."
However, Mastroeni stressed that bailing out by this method was not to be used as the first plan of escape from a burning building.
"This is a last resort type of thing," he said. "Ultimately, if someone has to get removed from a floor that's two, three or four stories, we'd want a ladder to get them down. This is last resort and strictly [a] survival mechanism. So if the room is going bad...this gives them an option to find a window and to jump out of it."
Springfield Fire Captain Erwin Heinrich is the Petzl instructor in the department. In between training runs, he said that the For Heinrich, the sensation of rappelling out of the window is a bizarre one for firefighters who might not be used to it.
"The biggest thing with the first time for doing this is the technique of coming out is you're actually head first," Heinrich said. "So you're two stories in the air, climbing out of a window head-first and you're inverted at one point."
Heinrich noted that during the initial exit, the trick is getting used to flipping right-side up.
"You're basically upside down," he said. "It's one of the most unnatural feelings that you'll ever experience. And until you gain the confidence in your system and know that it will hold you, that's the only time you can truly relax with it, when you learn that it's not going to drop you," Heinrich added.
Mastroeni also said that with the Petzl equipment currently nearing a decade in use, the department would begin the process of replacing them with newer models later this year.