26 May 2009

A device for escaping from burning skyscrapers

For those not bold enough to strap on a wingsuit, a Rescue Reel may offer a viable alternative.
The device is small enough to fit in a cabinet file drawer in an office. The user hooks a Kevlar cord to a secure point in the building, steps into the harness, and then can rappel down the wall "without special training."
Stone's major innovation is a centrifugal braking system that automatically controls the rate of descent. The Rescue Reel's cord unwinds from a spool and wraps around a shaft connected to a brake. As the shaft spins, a set of brake pads exerts force on the inner edge of the brake housing, smoothly slowing the user down. Should the automatic brake fail, the device is also equipped with a manual backup brake lever. Descending from 100 stories up takes less than four minutes—about two seconds per story.
Personally I have some doubts about how readily one could rappel down a skyscraper without prior training, but if the alternative is incineration...

Reportedly the device is past the concept stage and it will be available next year for about $1500. More details at PopSci, where this received an Invention Award.


  1. In an earlier incarnation, I was a wind-turbine engineer. If something really bad happens in a wind-turbine, which is, at the top, an environment packed with high torque spinning steel, high voltages, hot gear oil, extremely high pressure hydraulic oils etc, all at the top of a steel tower, with high voltage electrical cabinets in the base, if something really bad happens, a slow climb down several stages of internal ladder may not be fast enough, or that route may be too hazardous to enter.
    So in our machines, there were several hatches, one at the rear, normally used for uphaul of parts, oil drums, and tools. Above it, a steel gantry with a heavy duty ring-bolt. Beside the hatch, on the wall, was a rack with an escape device. You hook the escape reel onto the ringbolt, with a fast locking carabiner, drop the coil of rope out of the hatch, strap the belt around you, or clip it onto your safety harness, sit on the hatch edge... And jump into the void.
    As you fall, a brake in the reel controls your speed, and the previously dropped rope coil spools upward, on its end, another belt. So, as you make your touchdown, the belt arrives ready for the next guy.
    Which the skyscraper device doesn't seem to do.

    Picture the scene in a burning skyscraper. Mild mannered Mr Cautious, as pictured in your post, always something of a butt of office jokes, is not running about screaming like his colleagues, the elevator has gone, the stairs are crowded and full of smoke, the fit and angry are pushing their way through, trampling on the weaker folk. tempers are flaring. Mr Cautious uses his chair to smash out a window, hauls a bag out of his desk drawer, wraps a strop around a concrete pillar, starts to put his harness.......
    What happens next? Do his colleagues take a break from screaming, and wish him well? Or does the big young guy from sales club him senseless and spool out of the window, laughing?
    The device sounds quite good, but I'd feel a little better about it if it could be re-used. Or if everybody had one.
    It seems we accept that our high rise buildings need no safe escape procedure, we see no parallel to the Titanic, a ship that was never going to sink, therefore it did not need a full complement of lifeboats.

    At $1500 per high-rise occupant, there are $billions to be made.
    Despite WTC, the safety of skyscrapers is pretty good.

    Myself? No. I would not choose to work in a vertical ant-farm anyway.

  2. So easy even Grandpa can do it!


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