Proper care of life safety rope avoids damage that puts lives at risk

Life safety rope is integral to many rescue operations, and proper care and maintenance are critical to helping firefighters avoid unsafe situations.

In this blog, we outline techniques for cleaning and storing life safety rope that meet the requirements of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). You can also check out our previous blog that introduces the NFPA-compliant Bulwark Safety X, one of the only technical-use life safety ropes to receive the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) stamp of approval, or read about a glow-in-the-dark rope popular for marine uses, firefighting search lines, camping, and much more.

If education isn’t the reason for your visit today, feel free to skip to our online selection of rope.

How to clean soiled life safety rope

The 2018 edition of NFPA 1858: Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services establishes minimum maintenance requirements for rope that’s compliant with the 2017 edition of NFPA 1983: Standard for Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services. That includes basic criteria for cleaning, decontamination, and storage of life safety rope. Following the manufacturer’s specific instructions is also recommended.

NFPA 1858 makes organizations using life safety rope responsible for its care. While these steps may seem simple and mundane, the importance of taking them seriously can’t be emphasized enough—as lives can depend on the rope’s strength during a rescue.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid dirtying rope during rescue operations. Proper cleaning is key to reliable performance given that simple dirt and grit cause wear that reduces a rope’s breaking strength and lifespan.

Typically, rope soiled with mud or dirt only requires general cleaning with a specified detergent and water. While manufacturer instructions for cleaning and drying should take precedence, NFPA outlines a procedure that can be followed when no instructions are provided. You’ll need a hose, a tub, non-detergent soap, and an appropriate place for it to dry:

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 1858

7.2.1 The organization shall be responsible for the routine cleaning of life safety rope and equipment.

7.2.2 Organizations shall examine the manufacturer’s label and user information for instructions on cleaning and drying that the manufacturer provided with the life safety rope and equipment. In the absence of manufacturer’s instructions or manufacturer’s approval of alternative procedures for the life safety rope and equipment, the routine cleaning and drying procedures provided in this section shall be used.

7.2.3.1 The organization shall determine its requirements for when rope or webbing shall be cleaned.

7.2.3.2 The cleaning procedure shall be as follows:

(1) Remove as much debris, dirt, and mud as possible at the scene.

(2) Rinse off any excess dirt with a hose.

(3) Soak the rope or webbing for about 30 minutes in a plastic tub of water with nondetergent soap added.

(4) Rinse the rope or webbing by pulling it through a rope washing device twice.

(5) Hang the rope or webbing in a cool, shady place to dry.

Dirty ropes can be washed by hand or in a front-loading commercial washing machine using cold or warm water, a gentle cycle, and mild soap. If the rope is excessively dirty, it should be soaked in water first. After soaking the rope, an easy way to avoid tangling it in a washing machine is to double it over and “daisy chain” it by making a series of simple, crochet-like stitches in the line. If the rope is small enough, placing it in a pillowcase or similar bag is also possible.

Non-detergent soaps are preferable, but a mild detergent is acceptable if used sparingly. If a front-loading machine is used, run an empty cycle first to rinse out any contaminants or detergents left over from previous cycles. Never use top-loading washing machines, as agitators can cause severe tangling and even damage from the rope rubbing against the agitator. Soaps containing bleaching agents should also be avoided.

There is a caveat: ropes can dry out and lose some of their flexibility after repeated use and washing. To avoid this, most manufacturers allow the use of one ounce of Downy Fabric Softener for every three gallons of water to be occasionally added to the rinse cycle during washing to lubricate the rope—although it’s important to measure carefully to avoid damage.

When drying life safety rope, keep these tips in mind: Avoid exposure to direct sunlight and never use a tumble dryer or any other artificial heat source, which can damage the rope’s fibers. Instead, loosely coil the wet rope—or coil it around two objects—in a clean, low-humidity area.

Avoid stacking wet coils, which increases the chances of mold, and rotate the pile in standardized intervals to ensure uniform drying. Never leave wet rope to dry on concrete, as moisture in the concrete can create a mild acid or vapor, or in areas exposed to exhaust fumes, which can cause chemical damage. Make sure the rope completely dries before storing it.

The risk of exposing firefighters to blood-borne pathogens and other infectious substances makes rope contamination from bodily fluids a particular concern.

Contaminated rope requires special handling and care

Some contaminants, such as blood or chemicals, could require more aggressive cleaning, as well as special handling or care. Rope that is known or suspected to have come in contact with hazardous materials should be evaluated on the scene to determine whether it must be isolated, tagged, bagged, and removed from service until it can be properly decontaminated.

Once the contaminant is identified, you should consult the rope manufacturer’s information to determine a course of action; these instructions should outline the proper decontamination process and which cleaning agents can be safely used. In fact, NFPA 1983 (A.5.1.2.4) requires the manufacturer to be contacted prior to disinfecting or cleaning life safety rope with any method not prescribed in the maintenance procedure to avoid impacting its integrity.

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 1858

7.1.1 Organizations shall provide a means for having life safety rope and equipment cleaned and decontaminated.

7.1.1.1 Where possible, organizations shall refer to the manufacturer's recommendations for cleaning of life safety rope and equipment.

7.1.2* Life safety rope and equipment shall be evaluated by the user for application of appropriate cleaning level after each use.

7.1.3 Life safety rope and equipment that are known to be or suspected to be contaminated with hazardous materials shall be evaluated on the incident scene by members of the organization authorized to conduct a preliminary assessment of the extent of contamination and the need for life safety rope and equipment to be isolated, tagged, and bagged on scene.

7.1.3.1 Contaminated life safety rope and equipment shall be isolated during the incident personnel decontamination process and removed from service until the contaminant or suspected contaminant is identified and the equipment can receive specialized cleaning as necessary to remove the specific contaminant(s).

7.1.3.2 Where possible and where the contaminant and its source have been identified, the organization shall consult the supplier of the contaminant and the manufacturer of the life safety rope and equipment for the appropriate decontamination agent and process.

7.1.3.3 A member of the organization who has received training in the cleaning of life safety rope and equipment shall be responsible for performing or managing decontamination of life safety rope and equipment.

Contamination from bodily fluids is a particular concern, due to potential exposure to blood-borne pathogens or other infectious substances. If that type of contamination occurs during a rescue, life safety rope can be cleaned using chlorine bleach according to the fire department’s protocols for decontaminating equipment. While a small amount of bleach is safe for a single decontamination, it’s vital that the life safety rope is then thoroughly rinsed to avoid significant strength loss. And read this carefully: Repeating the process multiple times can cause appreciable damage that can be difficult to detect through visual inspections, rendering the rope unsafe.

Proper inspection is required before contaminated rope returns to service. If there is any question about integrity, life safety rope should be retired and destroyed, or relegated to non-life safety duties. NFPA 1983 (A.5.1.1.8) defines destruction of the rope as making sure it’s “altered in such a manner that it could not mistakenly be used as a life safety rope. This could include disposal or removal of the label and cutting the rope into short lengths to be used for utility purposes.”

From the 2018 edition of NFPA 1858

7.1.4 Life safety rope and equipment that are known to be or suspected to be contaminated with body fluids shall be evaluated on the incident scene by members of the organization authorized to conduct a preliminary assessment of the extent of contamination and the need for the life safety rope and equipment to be isolated, tagged, and bagged at the incident scene.

7.1.5 Organizations shall have written procedures detailing the decontamination and cleaning processes for life safety rope and equipment contaminated with body fluids. Universal precautions shall be observed at all times by members handling life safety rope and equipment known to be or suspected to be contaminated with body fluids.

7.1.6 Soiled or contaminated life safety rope and equipment shall not be brought into a home, washed in a home laundry, or washed in a public laundry unless the public laundry has a dedicated business to handle life safety rope and equipment.

7.1.7 If the organization does not have a means to decontaminate life safety rope, webbing, or other absorbent equipment, the contaminated life safety rope and equipment shall be disposed of following the organization’s procedure for the disposal of equipment contaminated by hazardous materials or body fluids.

7.2.4.1 The organization shall determine requirements pertaining to rope or webbing being taken out of service due to contamination.

7.2.4.2 Rope that has come into contact with blood or other body fluids shall be decontaminated using cleaners approved for removing biohazards according to the organization’s protocols for decontaminating PPE.

Proper storage is key to avoiding rope degradation

Even properly stored rope can lose strength over time, so it’s critical to store life safety rope in a way that avoids degradation from the environment. Rope should be kept in a cool, clean, dry, well-ventilated place away from direct sunlight and extreme heat. Synthetic rope can be severely weakened by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays, with discoloration and broken filaments on the rope’s surface serving as warning signs of damage.

Rope should be kept off the floor, preferably on racks that provide ventilation underneath. It should also be stored away from exposure to battery acids, fluorescent light, harmful chemicals, exhaust fumes, or other abuses.

9.1.1* Rope and webbing shall be stored in a clean, dry, well-ventilated place away from direct sunlight and away from heat.

9.1.2 Rope shall be kept off of the floor and never stored on dirt or concrete floors without ventilation underneath.

9.1.3 Rope shall never be placed in areas where acids or alkalis are stored.

Rope bags are recommended for storing and transporting life safety rope (A.9.1.1). To avoid tangling inside the bag, rope should be flaked, or laid in a forward-reverse, flat pattern that allows for fast, safe removal when needed. After each use, switch the rope ends so that the end that was used goes into the bag first. Thread that end through the grommet in the end of the bag and tie it in a figure eight knot to secure the rope in place. After the rope is flaked, tie its other end through the bag’s other grommet. This video shows how to use a rope bag:

Proper care keeps life safety rope strong and reliable in an emergency

Diligent cleaning and storage of life safety rope is essential for avoiding damage that could cause it to fail during rappelling or rescue operations. Follow the simple steps above to extend the effective lifespan of your rope, ensuring it has enough strength when you need it most.

Stay tuned for a future blog that discusses how to inspect and record accurate histories for life safety rope that help organizations determine whether they are safe to use—and when they must be taken out of service.

Check out our previous blog that details the NFPA-approved Bulwark Safety X, one of the only technical-use life safety ropes to receive the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) stamp of approval. You can also read about the Night Saver Rope, a glow-in-the-dark rope popular for marine uses, firefighting search lines, camping, and much more.

If you’re looking to purchase rope, browse QRFS’ selection of technical-use life safety rope and glow-in-the-dark rope.

If you have any questions, call us at +1 (888) 361-6662 or email support@qrfs.com.

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