A knotty problem: Learning an essential skill for firefighters

— Photo from Frank L. Palmeri

Knots, from top to bottom, are clove hitch, fireman’s rescue knot, figure eight on a bight, and sheet bend.

I learned about Boy Scouts while growing up by seeing them on TV shows or reading about them in books. Yet, as far as I know, no one in my family was involved in scouting, no one in my neighborhood either, and no one in any school I attended.

We lived on the borderline between Brooklyn and Queens in the East New York area. That’s a lot of territory, so I’m sure there had to be some scouting going on there, but I never saw it.

As an adult, I did scouting for a few years with my son. The good thing about scouting is the quality father-son time that you get. There is also camping, making new friends, and the skills the kids learn.

Not so sure about the Pinewood Derby, though. I’ve seen too many fathers go to such extremes to win that I wonder what the kids even get out of it at this point. Still, scouting in principle is no doubt a great thing for boys and young men to do with their fathers.

The reason I’m thinking about scouting today is it would have been so handy for me now if I’d have done it. That’s because, as a volunteer firefighter in training, I’m now learning all about ropes and knots.

It would have been so wonderful if I’d have had at least some of these skills already. That would have been one less thing to worry about among the quite extensive training that I’m doing.

Ropes and knots are very important in firefighting. Having these skills can save lives. No joke.

Firefighters are expected to be able to use these skills to haul tools all over the place, tie things down properly, and most importantly, potentially drag someone out of a bad situation. That’s how critical rope and knot skills are.

A rope is strongest when it’s totally straight. Any curve or bend in a rope reduces its strength. That’s why firefighters are always looking for the simplest knots that will do the job.

The simpler the knot — the fewer turns and bends in it — makes for a stronger overall rope. Plus, a simpler knot is easier to untie. That is really important in the heat of the moment, no pun intended.

How does one go about learning to tie knots? A lot of people are visual learners. They need to watch something done to see how it works.

If you’re like that, you can go on the internet and see how every knot is made by all kinds of folks. Unfortunately for me, I’m not a visual learner. I can watch somebody tie a knot, but often they do it so fast I just can’t follow it.

I need to have the making of the knot explained to me in clearly defined words. In fact, if someone was able to clearly state how to tie a new knot to me, I’m sure I’d be able to tie it without even having seen what it looks like first. That is just how my brain works.

It’s just like when I ask my harmonica-playing buddies how they did some “rad” technique on the “harp.” They always say, “I don’t know how I do it, I just do it.”

Some guys — farmers, boaters, and firemen, of course — have been working with rope and knots for decades, and it’s just embedded in their muscle memory at this point. That’s great for them, but I still have to learn how to tie these knots efficiently and effectively.

So now I practice guitar-playing and knot-making every day. Good thing I’m retired.

Four knots

Let’s look at the four knots I made in the picture. On the top, attached to the piece of pipe, is the classic clove-hitch knot.

This knot is so versatile, strong, and easy to make that it’s a mainstay in the fire services, and often becomes a part of more complex knots. Once you learn it, you’ll be surprised at how often it comes in handy for tying things down. The clove hitch is a truly great knot.

The second knot from the top is the fireman’s rescue knot. This knot looks like handcuffs. The idea is you can wrap it around someone’s wrists and pull them out of a dangerous area.

That works and it’s something every firefighter is trained to do, but it does put a lot of strain on a person's wrists. From working with computers for 40 years I’m probably pre pre-carpal tunnel in my wrists at this point, so I’m not sure I’d want to be dragged around with this knot.

Fortunately, besides rope, firefighters also carry strong nylon webbing, like the kind used in ratchet straps, which can be wrapped around a person’s torso and under his or her arms. That might be a better way to pull someone out in many cases.

The third knot from the top is a figure eight on a bight. When you are talking about knots, a bight is any big loop. This knot is very easy to tie and untie, strong, and versatile. It can be used to tie things down, haul things up, etc. Another all-around great knot.

The bottom knot in the picture is a sheet bend. A bend is any knot that unites two ropes. This knot is used to tie ropes or cords of different diameters, like a clothesline and a shoelace, together to make a longer one. Very handy.

Teach knots to kids

These are only some of the knots I’m expected to know how to make. Note that it’s one thing to make these knots in the comfort of your living room while drinking a cup of coffee.

The real challenge is to do them in the cold and dark, while wearing thick fireproof gloves, in the heat of the moment. That is why fire-service professionals have to get to the point where rope and knot skills are just muscle memory. Knowing these skills down pat is that important when you’re talking about saving people’s lives.

When you finish making any knot, you should “dress” the knot. This involves making sure all the elements of the knot are in their proper place, all the slack is removed, and the knot is positioned properly.

Then you apply a little pressure to the knot to make sure it’s stable before you ask it to take the full load. If you think at this point that there is a lot to learn about working with ropes and knots, you would be correct.

I didn’t have the good fortune of being involved in scouting at an early age, so I’m having to learn rope and knot skills for the first time now.

This got me thinking: Why aren’t these kinds of valuable life skills taught to kids in grade school as a matter of course?

Rope and knot skills are really, really handy to have. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just made a big, nasty mess of a knot to tie something down that was inherently weak — too many turns — and impossible to untie.

How I wish I’d have learned these skills when I was younger. All kids, not just the ones who have the benefit of being in scouting, should be taught these skills, period. There is no reason “knot” to, haha.

I always say that, when I volunteer for anything, I get more out of it than I put into it. Doing volunteer firefighting has opened up the fascinating world of ropes and knots to me in a big way. Fantastic.