Becoming qualified as a rope access technician

18 April, 2013

Or: Rope Access - How to get started

Here George Smith presents a few pointers for anyone intent on a basic qualification in the rope access industry. Do you have what it takes?

Bridge inspection using rope access
Not a bad office… If you fancy hanging around all day inspecting bridges then rope access could be the job for you. © Span Engineering Ltd.

Er… What exactly does it take?

As you may know the International Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) was established to standardise and develop rope access work globally, and the pursuit of an IRATA qualification has become the standard route into the industry. However, these days there are also a number of other rope access organisations throughout the World such as SPRAT, PRAT and SOFT.

There is a progression of levels: one two and three. One is an operator; mostly making use of existing rigging to work under the supervision of a level three. After consolidation this can lead to two; setting up further rigging and carrying out more advanced rescues of colleagues. After further consolidation you can advance to three; responsible for overall supervision of rope access personnel and jobs. This gives extra technical skills enabling you to carry out rescues from any point within a worksite, manage safety at every level and show a firm grasp of associated guidance and legislation. Each ticket lasts three years before needing re-qualification.

Now, how should you approach the training?

Pre Course Preparation… Potentially you may have been attracted to the discipline through a previous involvement with sports such as climbing or caving. In the long term this could hold you in good stead by enabling you to adapt rigging to different situations, but in the short term be glad of your immunity to vertigo… Beyond that, try to delete all previous technical baggage.

New game… New rules For a couple of weeks prior to the course do some gentle exercises as a warm up for a week of vertical exercise. Don’t panic, you’ll never need to do anything as vigorous as a pull-up but you may well find you notice muscles you have never noticed before.

Alpine Butterfly Knot
Learn the Alpine Butterfly knot before your course starts and you will have saved yourself one job for the week

Get some info on knots from the web. Try to learn the:

  • Figure of Eight (on the bight and re-threaded)
  • Double Figure of Eight on the bight – the Bunny knot
  • Overhand knot (on the bight and re-threaded)
  • Barrel / Scaffold / Stopper knot
  • and, most tricky of all, the dreaded…… alpine butterfly

Tie this last knot in such a way as to produce a half metre loop. Then from the comfort of a sofa, drape a rope over your shoulder and down to your feet. Now reach to knee level, and tie the same knot - it’s just something you need to do-don’t ask!

The Training…

You will have four days in which to train. Don’t expect hours of leisurely power-points; most courses cover the supporting knowledge in time-outs as you progress through the numerous practical exercises. There is a great deal to cover so don’t interrupt the flow and don’t expect too much of a talking shop - there isn’t time. Watch and copy.

You will only be able to do some of the more complicated exercises three or four times even if you are quite organised. By the last day before assessment most trainers will have covered all the material and made space for some consolidation. Here a bit of self-motivation is required, don’t sit about drinking tea, get up there - you might not be as slick as you think!

Rescuing a casualty during training
Rescuing a casualty is a big part of the training - as seen here where a trainee is extracting a dummy from a tensioned line. © Access Techniques Ltd

The Assessment

Assessment day will be marked by the arrival of an IRATA assessor. To save you the bother of questioning their credibility; they will also be an in-date level three with reams of experience and a deep involvement in the industry. They tend to have witnessed every form of good and bad practice and encountered every excuse for mistakes - no matter how creative.

Their primary interest is in the notion that people can turn up to work with a safe approach and look after each other. They are mines of up-to-date technical information so feel free to ask questions as well as be questioned. Oh… and they have eyes like a toilet rodent!

The Rules of Engagement are important…

They will ask you questions. Don’t worry – they are not picking on you; they just want to know if you understand the rationale behind each manoeuvre.

They will point out significant minor faults such as an un-loved screw-gate so you will know where you stand. You are only allowed two minor discrepancies, as three minor discrepancies constitute a fail. You must also be mindful in keeping your back-up device as high as possible - being lax with its positioning will constitute a minor discrepancy, and forgetting it completely by letting it dangle at your ankles will constitute a fail.

However the sure-fire way of shortening your day for the worse is to end up hanging from one point of contact, or one rope. This is the thing to focus on most of all so think about it before every single operation, no matter how simple it may feel.

As a Level 1 they will not ask you to do things you haven’t done in training, although Level 2’s and 3’s may be given scenarios where they will have to work out what to do. They will not get you to operate under crazy time pressure or sniper fire, so don’t be fazed. They are only trying to see if you can apply the same learned principles to a slightly novel problem.

And most important they will tell you there and then if you have failed; so don’t give up hope after a couple of cock-ups, even if the assessor seems to be advising you quite closely you still ain’t failed until you’ve failed.

And finally don’t talk yourself out of success - self-esteem is important throughout the process. Remember – like your back-up, keep it high!

Also…

You may all start by putting together your harness rigs so make sure you do this a couple of times during the week. At some point you will also be asked to fault find on a dodgy harness, so practice that too.

All students, regardless of assessment level, will be required to ascend sets of ropes at the start. Ignore the fact that the higher casts have shot up their ropes and just go at your own pace.

During each manoeuvre avoid over-focussing. Make sure the more complex stuff is done in methodical stages and before operating a new system do a ‘function check’. If you are getting in a pickle: stop; think about something completely different (odd romantic practices, bus timetables, dolphins) and then try to re-examine the system afresh.

If you are aid climbing it is vital that you develop the capacity to count to three… I kid you not; before each manoeuvre check your screw-gates, then count the two separate connections you have, whilst making ready with the third. Avoid the fatal pose of two or three connectors to one anchor – this is only one point!

Aid climbing during rope access training
Rope access training isn’t all about hard work and practice. Try and make it fun and you might just enjoy aid climbing under an arch. © Access Techniques Ltd

On rescues, remember the casualty care as well as the chosen sequence of responses. Keep your ropes and the casualties ropes out of the way. Break the world record for slowness in your final descent if you have any type of backup device that could steal the glory by leaving you completely stuck.

If you are casualty for another student, try not to interrupt your rescuers train of thought as this could result in you later suffering ‘post assessment trauma’ when they get hold of you. If it is a complex looking level two/three rescue ignore the details as it may distract you from your more basic objectives.

Those excuses again: you’ll get away with things like “the building is on fire” or “earthquake”… er … that’s it.

Towards the latter stages of the day you will have replaced exam nerves with complacency. Have a word with yourself and continue with the commensurate level of paranoia.

Done it!

Now, with ticket in hand you can enter the jungle that is rope access work. This could take you anywhere from city skyscrapers, huge bridges, cliff face stabilisations, oil rigs and pretty much anything in-between that requires working at height. It could also take you anywhere from your local building to some very far flung reaches of the World. There is no straightforward answer to how to find work. As with starting out in any career it requires time, patience, persistence and research. Any previous experience in a trade that gives transferable skills will always be useful, and there is also no doubt that a little bit of luck in making contacts will help too.

Be mindful that you may quite reasonably be asked to perform more training as you start at any new outfit. You may also, on occasions, be presented with new items of kit that you’ve never used, so make sure you receive proper info and supervision.

Finally you may be doing this work to feed a crazy life-style, but colleagues will appreciate you leaving your ‘crazy hat’ at home.


George Smith is a member of the tutor team at Outreachrescue based in the UK. He has twenty years experience working with emergency services from many different parts of the world. His specialisms are the delivery of work at height and rope rescue applications along with water rescue systems. He has also spent an unspecified number of years hanging from ropes, as evidenced by his long involvement with DMM over on the climbing side. In 2008 he co-directed the award winning film Upsidedown Wales.