A Why rappel?

Why rappel?
By Gregg Nozum
can be an essential capability for the first
tasking and useful, as well, for the latter.
The rationale stated for providing training
in rappelling is as follows:
few months ago I assisted a multi-jurisdictional clan lab/tactical team with
some basic rappel training at a local fire
service academy. The tower was a standard
five-story, attached to the burn house. We
were doing an introductory rappel course,
culminating with a modest evacuation
scenario from the second-story level.
1.To provide a means of personal
and team escape from the upper floors of
a multi-story building during an emergency egress;
For safety, everyone on rope was properly belayed. The instructor-to-student
ratio was almost one-to-one. A plan had
been prepared for every contingency
except the non-event that almost derailed
the program.
Rappelling is a good skill to
have in the tactical toolbox.
For some teams, depending
upon mission and terrain, it
can be a critical requirement.
While the rappel tower itself was of
exceptionally sturdy construction, the academy had, for whatever reason, sheathed the
exterior in crenulated aluminum siding.
The first step off the top of the tower offered little in the way of traction and had
everybody, instructor and student alike,
taking a knee to gain better footing. Of
course, some were less artful than others
in recovering from a misstep. One team
member in particular became excited and
found himself accidentally inverted. He
could not right himself and eventually had
to be lowered by his belay.
Although the affected team member
suffered no discernible injury, he later
36 The Tactical Edge | Fall 2010
2.To provide a means of raising/lowering injured persons using simple systems of
mechanical advantage;
3.To provide team members with a
basic knowledge of knots, harnesses and
raising/lowering systems commensurate
with an ability to conduct confined space
operations in accordance with OSHA
complained of a tweaked back to his
department. A precautionary trip to see
a doctor immediately became a distorted
story, and the grapevine was replete with
tales of a neglected, unconscious officer
found in his car by the side of a road,
later to be transported to a local hospital where he lay in a coma. A flurry of
concerned calls dispelled the rumors, but
nevertheless led to formerly disinterested
administrators asking “Why do we rappel
in the first place?”
Rappelling is a good skill to have in the
tactical toolbox. For some teams, depending upon mission and terrain, it can be a
critical requirement. In this case, the clan
lab/tactical team serves primarily as the
clandestine laboratory enforcement team
for that office. It also serves a secondary
function as a high risk warrant service team
for narcotics-related offenses. Rappelling
WHY RAPPEL?, continued
4.To provide team members with an
alternate, albeit relatively technical, means
of entry;
5.To provide the team with a means to
negotiate steep and/or mountainous terrain; and
6.To provide a framework for teambuilding, employing activities that engender a high degree of trust and cooperation
amongst team members, while also building
individual self-confidence and esteem.
that 25 percent of these sites experience a
flash fire and/or explosion during the period they are in operation. Most incidents,
of course, go unreported due to the illegality
of the enterprise. This also tracks with my
own experiences of being called to the scene
of fires suspected of having originated with
a chemical reaction gone awry.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
Emergency egress
The fire service is a wealth of often
untapped knowledge about many things
that might be considered, without exaggeration, “tactical.” For example, do you want
to know how to breach a door, window or
even a wall? Ask a fireman. They not only
likely know the ins and outs of construction, and most likely avenues of attack, they
probably have a tool specifically designed
for that purpose.
Recent years have seen a substantial
increase in concerns over loss of life in the
fire service and how best to allay it. Along
with new innovations on the fire ground,
such as Rapid Intervention Teams, there has
been progress in training and providing for
personal escape devices designed for use by
trapped firemen. Among these are various
escape line kits which permit a fireman
wearing an SCBA to conduct a controlled
descent from the upper floors of a burning
building. These systems are actually minirappel devices and function as such.
The possibility of being trapped on an
upper level by a chemical spill or fire is very
real. This could arise from an in-progress
reaction overheating, non-heat resistant
glass shattering, initiation of an undetected
booby trap, inadvertent clumsiness of team
members or the purposeful machinations of
a suspect bent on destroying evidence.
For those involved in the seizure and
processing of clandestine laboratory sites,
the initial threats posed to the individual
operator and team, in order of precedence, have always been enumerated as the
high potential for fire, explosion and the
unpredictable actions of the lab operator.
The threat of fire cannot be underscored,
as all clandestine laboratories, regardless of
the drug(s) being manufactured, contain
copious amounts of flammable solvents. In
statistics gleaned from the interviews of incarcerated drug lab chemists, it is estimated
The advent of personal escape kits,
usually consisting of 50 to 75 feet of 7mm
safety line, a couple of carabineers and a
small belay device offer the user a controlled
38 The Tactical Edge | Fall 2010
While emergency exit points should
always be briefed as part of the site safety
plan, the need for sudden egress from a
second story or higher is often overlooked.
Simply dropping from such a height is not
acceptable due to the added weight of team
members’ tactical gear and perhaps, even,
personal protective equipment (as with
SCBA gear).
descent, substantially minimizing the
likelihood of injury. Of course, safe usage
is dependent upon training, and the skills
required are those of basic rappelling.
Evacuation of injured persons
Those injured in the tactical environment must often be quickly moved to a
safer location before medical treatment can
be rendered. This is because the tactical
environment is often extremely hazardous
for first responders. Whether wounded
in a pitched gun battle with a desperate
defendant or having succumbed to chemical
exposure inside a clan lab, it goes without saying that the injured person cannot
remain where he/she has fallen. Due to the
nature of the threat and its location, normal
passageways may not be available for use. In
such cases, it may become easier, or at least
safer, to extract the victim by raising him
or her from a sublevel or lowering from an
upper story.
Introductory rappelling training introduces students to basic knots, usage of
webbing and harnesses and rudimentary
systems of mechanical advantage. Once
the fundamental skills have been mastered,
it is not much of a stretch to extend training into some of the simpler rope systems
for moving loads of varying weights over
short distances.
Once a person becomes injured, it is
critical that they receive care at a dedicated
medical facility as quickly as possible. For
traumatic or life-threatening conditions,
the first 60 minutes — the “golden hour”
— is especially important. If the need for
care is sufficiently urgent, the victim may
need to be moved before the location can
be tactically secured or otherwise rendered
safe. Under such exceptional circumstances,
teams may need to be creative in developing
avenues of approach and departure. A vertical response involving entry/egress from an
upper story may be just the ticket.
Confined space operations
A confined space may be defined loosely
as any enclosure with limited access that
is susceptible to questionable air quality
or poses risk of engulfment to personnel.
Confined space operations are regulated by
OSHA under 29 CFR §1910 et seq.
Work in confined spaces requires, in
part, that personnel use adequate personal protective equipment and that a
rescue plan be in place in case of disaster.
Wherever persons are at risk of falling,
and other circumstances as well, use of a
full-body harness, lifeline and winch may
be mandated.
Rappelling training gives team members a good foundation in utilizing harnesses and rope and tying knots. There
is also a familiarity with heights attained
that may pay dividends in certain types of
confined space operations.
Examples of past clan lab operations
that involved confined spaces and would
have been applicable for work under harness would be a methamphetamine lab in a
buried school bus, a PCP lab in an attic and
a LSD lab in a converted missile silo.
breach the roof (I don’t think anyone will
be holding their breath here), there may be
similar concerns about utilizing stairways.
A rappelling capability gives teams the option of going down the outside of a building
and gaining entry through any number of
openings/windows on the upper floors of a
multi-story structure.
Alternate means of entry
For the military, at least, clearing
buildings from the top while moving
downwards is preferred. While domestic
law enforcement units do not have the
same concerns, there remain considerable
advantages, nevertheless, to a top-down
Not only can entry be made in this way,
but so can pre-entry target reconnaissance.
A rappel can be performed dynamically, as
in sport rappelling, or more stealthily, as
with an inverted spider-crawl.
Due to the effects of gravity, it is easier
for a heavily-encumbered tactical team to
move downwards, as opposed to up. When
transiting from one level to another, it is
easier to deploy distraction devices while
moving down, as there is less likelihood that
the device will deflect back upon the team.
Given sufficient fluidity of movement, there
may be a greater element of surprise in effecting entry from above.
The military will often rappel or fastrope onto the target and then explosively
breach if there is no rooftop access. A roof
breach may be elected even if there is access, as stairways are a natural channel that
may be monitored or booby-trapped. While
law enforcement units may not opt to
Normally, such alternatives would not
be envisioned for use on a typical single
family dwelling. The application of such
options would be better suited for multistory commercial structures, government
buildings and apartment buildings or
Would the majority of a given team’s
entries involve a rappel if the team had this
capability? Most assuredly not. However,
wouldn’t it be a nice option to have in
the toolbox?
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WHY RAPPEL?, continued
Negotiating rough terrain
A fair number of jurisdictions encompass terrain of varying contours.
Especially in rural environs and suburban
areas transitioning to the rural, teams may
find themselves engaged in the traditionally more military pursuits of patrolling to
an objective or contact and land navigation. Steep terrain that can only be crossed
with difficulty is normally regarded as an
obstacle to be avoided. Being able to ascend
and descend via technical means, as with
fast ropes, can enable the team to literally
gain new heights. The high ground can be
denied to subjects seeking a safe haven and
used, instead, as an observation post with a
commanding view.
Team building
This is probably the justification given
most often for a team engaging in rappelling
training. There can be no doubt that training
activities which incur some calculated risk to
the participants draw them closer together as
a group. Rappelling is not something that can
be undertaken safely alone. The coordination of several people are required to properly
inspect equipment, set anchors, double-check
the donning of harnesses and other safety
equipment, and prepare for emergencies.
Integral is the mutual trust that must exist between the person “on rappel” and the person
“on belay.” Few exercises outside of a live-fire
shoothouse offer the same degree of opportunity for a team to bond as does rappelling.
An introduction to rappelling does not
automatically confer mastery to the participants, but is a good foundation for further
development. As skills grow, so does confidence and the team’s ability to surmount
a wider array of tactical problems. What
could be better than that?
About the author
Special Agent Gregg Nozum has been employed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for more than 20 years. He has been a Clan
Lab Coordinator for the Denver Field Division; a
senior instructor for the Clan Lab Training Unit
at the Justice Training Center (DEA Academy)
in Quantico, VA; an original member of the
DEA FAST team, making three deployments to
Afghanistan during 2005-2007; and is currently
assigned to the Special Operations Group of the
Atlanta Field Division. Other assignments have included the Washington Field Division and DEA’s
Office of Chief Counsel. SA Nozum was formerly
an officer in the U.S. Navy.
Photos courtesy of Captain Tom Foster,
Orange County SO
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40 The Tactical Edge | Fall 2010