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“Unless you are a fire department, NFPA is probably not the right resource to guide you”

On the topic of standards and regulation, sometimes people look to NFPA 1983 for guidance in selecting a harness for rescue. Unless you are a fire department, NFPA is probably not the right resource to guide you, but let’s start there anyway.

NFPA 1983 is a manufacturing standard, and acknowledges two types of harnesses: Class II and Class III – the former being a Seat Harness style, and the latter being a Full Body harness style. This standard is largely written by and for urban/municipal fire department personnel, with the result being that many rescuers in the large, urban fire departments do wear Class 3 full body harnesses. Even so, the standard does still allow for seat harnesses – primarily for the benefit of the large proportion of rural or small town fire departments that do not see the frequency of industrial accidents and who may not need full body harnesses.

NFPA 1858 is the user-companion document to NFPA 1983; it is intended to help address some of these kinds of questions and can be viewed here.  The bit of this standard that deals with harnesses is section 5.4. It explains that the organization shall consider its needs for performance or features – and then has an appendix dialog (A5.4) which says (among other things): Specialized harnesses might be required for different types of operations and then goes on to describe the differences between Class II and Class III, finishing with the statement that “While both types of harnesses are capable of fall arrest, the most commonly used industrial fall protection attachment points are sternal or dorsal, which requires a full body harness. NFPA 1983 requires that both the Class 2 and Class 3 harnesses pass a head-down drop test to verify the harness will not allow the user to fall out of it.” Again, you can see here, both harnesses are considered appropriate for vertical work, and the main reason for using a Class 3 harness would be to accommodate industrial fall protection connections such as are common to fire departments in urban environments – which, again, is the primary population served by this NFPA equipment standard.

NFPA 1983 can also be viewed online, free of charge, here. If you look at paragraph 1.1.5, you will see that it specifically states that “this standard shall not specify requirements for any rope or associated equipment designed for mountain rescue, cave rescue, lead climbing operations, or where hazards and situations dictate other performance requirements.” So, what this says is that, according to the NFPA 1983 standard, the NFPA 1983 standard doesn’t apply to you if you are engaging in mountain rescue operations.

“what are your criteria for choosing a harness?”

A more applicable standard relative to Mountain Rescue activities is ASTM F1772, Standard Specification for Harnesses for Rescue and Sport Activities. This standard is promulgated by the ASTM F32 Committee on Search and Rescue, which is written by and for members of mountain rescue teams, rather than the fire service.

The ASTM F1772 standard “covers harnesses for human use in technical rope rescue and climbing, mountaineering, caving, canyoneering, and other rope-based sport activities” (para 1.1) and further clarifies that “Due to the diverse requirements of various rescue activities and environments, any of the included harness types may be suitable for rescue, including those marketed principally for climbing” (para. 5.3).  The standard specifications and test methods found in this standard are essentially analogous to those found in the UIAA 105 harness standard and the European EN 12277 standard.

So, what are your criteria for choosing a harness? As a mountain rescuer, I would suggest

  • Wide enough waistbelt and leg loops to allow the harness to be comfortably worn in suspension for a reasonable period of time
  • A low enough ventral attachment point to be able to lead climb if you need to
  • A high enough ventral attachment point to allow the wearer to sit reasonably upright
  • Lightweight enough to be able to comfortably carry and use in the backcountry
  • Low profile enough to permit the kinds of agility usually required in mountain and wilderness environments
  • Not a lot of metallic parts to conflict with mountaineering gear
  • Highly adjustable for different weather/clothing situations

If you are a fire department or an industrial rescue team doing mostly industrial/urban operations, NFPA Class III would be a very appropriate standard for you to use as a reference.

If you are a fire department that does mostly urban-interface operations, an NFPA 1983 Class II harness would be a very appropriate standard for you to use as a reference; or, if you want extra weight to carry, an NFPA Class III harness would work also.

If you are a mountain, wilderness, or cave rescue team, an ASTM F1772 harness – or a European equivalent – makes a lot more sense for you.

Hopefully, this information will help provide at least some guidance that will result in the most appropriate harness choice for your application, and will also help purchasing agents to realize how a “more-is-better” approach could actually result in increased risk to rescuers.

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