Rope Rescue or Rope Access? What is the Difference?

Rope Rescue or Rope Access? What is the Difference?

What is the difference between rope access and rope rescue? Is rope access training the same as rope rescue training or are they different?

Rope Access is a form of work positioning which uses practical rope work to allow workers to access difficult to reach locations without the use of additional support structures.

Rope Rescue is any rescue that requires rope and related equipment to safely gain access to, and remove patients from, hazardous locations with limited access such as mountains or high rise buildings by means of a rope system.

Both skills involve some of the same techniques. Rope access technicians are trained to descend, ascend, and perform activities while suspended on a rope. Many of these skills apply equally to rope rescue technicians. The key difference is the objective and how it is performed.

Rope access technicians practicing rescue techniques. In rope access, the same ropes are used for both rescue and access. Pre-planning enables a quick rescue.
Rope access technicians practicing rescue techniques. In rope access, the same ropes are used for both rescue and access. Pre-planning enables a quick rescue.

The Industial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) is the largest rope access trade association in the world. IRATA member training companies provide standardized training to individuals wishing to become rope access technicians. The IRATA Code of Practice (ICOP) is an industry wide reference and defines requirements for rope access procedures. When an IRATA member training company offers rope access training, this is the standard that is used.

The beginning of the document defines its scope. Section 1.1 of the code of practice states:

This code of practice gives recommendations and guidance on the use of IRATA International rope access methods, including training, to provide a safe system of work. It is intended for use by IRATA International members, IRATA International rope access technicians, national or regional enforcement agencies, safety officers and those who commission rope access work

It further states:

This code of practice is not intended to apply to the use of rope-based access methods for leisure activities, arboriculture, general steeplejack methods or emergency personal evacuation systems, or to the use of rope-based access (line rescue) techniques by fire brigades and other emergency services for rescue work or for rescue training.

IRATA states very clearly in its own document that emergency services performing rescue work or rescue training is outside the IRATA code of practice. Since rope access technicians and rope rescue technicians perform many of the same skills, why does IRATA make this statement?

A risk assessment, also known as a job safety analysis (JSA), is performed before rope access work is begun. This risk assessment identifies hazards and how they can be mitigated. After the risk assessment is performed any hazards that can not be either removed or managed must be planned for. A rescue plan is created before work has begun which covers how to rescue a rope access technician if the situation arises.

Section of the IRATA Code of Practice covers emergency procedures. It states: There should be suitable arrangements in place at every worksite to provide rapid workmate rescue/retrieval. These should include an appropriate site-specific plan, together with equipment, rigging and anchors of adequate strength for workmate retrieval. A rope access technician should endeavour always to be in a position such that, in the event of an incident, he/she would be able to rescue him/herself, or to be rescued quickly and efficiently by the work team or by a dedicated on-site rescue team.

How does this apply to rope rescue? There are a few key differences. Rope access technicians are working in a managed environment. The location and work to be performed has been defined in advance. It is planned. Rope access technicians are also trained similarly so have commonality of equipment and rigging. If a rope access technician needs to rescue a co-worker they are using similar equipment rigged in a similar manner. This rescue can be standardized.

What happens if someone slips and falls on the side of a cliff and needs to be rescued? How much time will be spent on the risk assessment? A person will need immediate medical care if they are critically injured. Additional time spent on the risk assessment will delay treatment. In this case the risk assessment might involve only a few minutes of planning.

Rope Rescue Training by members of the Royal Thai Army.
Members of the Royal Thai Army practicing rope rescue skills. A Rock Exotica Vortex is used as an artificial high directional to help lift a stretcher over an edge.


Is the patient at risk of falling further down the cliff? Unless approached properly the patient might slip resulting in additional injures. The rescue team can also inadvertently cause rocks or other debris to fall on the patient. There are many additional questions that must be addressed and many can not be planned in advance. The situation is dynamic and will change as more information is gathered. Training for this type of incident must therefore focus on a broader range of rescue skills that can be drawn from as needed since every incident is different.

Rope access technician rescue training focuses on rescuing a co-worker who is stuck on a rope. The patient is already wearing a harness and other personal protective equipment (PPE). A rope rescue technician is also trained to rescue an individual hanging on a rope but also many other scenarios such as someone clinging untethered to the side of a structure with an immediate risk of falling. This requires a very different approach and must be safely resolve as the situation develops without the benefit of a formal risk analysis.

While many of the skills are similar between a rope access technician and a rope rescue technician, the application of those skills is very different. A rope rescue technician must have core skills that can be relied on in any weather condition and any lighting condition. They must be able to perform in low light conditions and rain equally as well as on a bright sunny day.

Both rope access and rope rescue are unique specialties with unique requirements. Sea Air Thai Co Ltd provides rope rescue training in Southeast Asia in accordance with international standards. Contact us for additional information.

Special thank you to White Dragon Access and SafeTripp for their input on this article.

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