When it comes to rope rescue, one issue that seems to arise frequently involves the use of conditional versus unconditional belays.

Just to review, a belay is a safety line that will catch the rescuer or patient if the mainline fails. An unconditional belay will catch the load without any action being taken by the person operating the belay (the belayer). A conditional belay requires the belayer to take some action (e.g., pull, wrap, or tighten the belay rope) to catch the load.

So is there that much a difference between these two?  I think so.

Yates Figure 8 DescenderSeveral years ago I attended a rescue competition and watched a team set up a system that used a Rescue Eight (or Figure Eight) to create a conditional belay. When the rescuer placed his weight on the mainline, the safety checks had not been completed. When the system was loaded the mainline operator was assisting the belayer in checking the belay system and no one had a hold of the belay line or the mainline.

It all happened so quickly there was not even time to yell stop. Fortunately, the belayer was able to grab the rope and apply the pressure needed to arrest the fall. At that moment I realized that if teams trained to perform at a high level can make this mistake, then it can happen to anyone; at least anyone who uses a conditional belay. This is why D2000 has adopted the practice of only instructing teams to set up unconditional belays. Sometimes we say that the system has to pass the “Roswell Test.” This means that if, in the middle of a rescue, all the persons operating the rope system were suddenly beamed up to a UFO (or chased away by a cloud of chemicals or a swarm of bees) the patient would simply hang there until the rescuers returned.

The two types of unconditional belays that we use heavily in training are the tandem prusik and the Traverse 540 belay. A self-retracting lifeline (SRL) also makes a great belay device. Sometimes these systems may take a few more minutes to set up than a Rescue 8, but you should always remember that when it comes to rescue, it’s not how fast you get to your patient but how efficient you are at getting your patient out.

Remember that efficient is defined as: “The ability to function without waste, capable of achieving the desired result with the minimum use of resources, time, and effort.” When a rescuer’s or patient’s safety is compromised by the use of a conditional belay, then your team’s efficiency will suffer.

Jim Johnson April 17, 2014

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