We still see images like this... 

And if we were faced with the above photo, beyond trying to physically catch the infant, what other options do we have? So I researched Fire Department Safety Nets and tried to find out what I could, but still, why don't we have these? Or do we?


Back in the day, firefighter's trained on how to jump into the Safety Net.


Fire Department Safety Nets

Is there really a time when this was how we rescued people from burning buildings? What was the highest someone could leap from and be saved by a net being stretched between human hands? — CBz

Fictional invention? Comedy cliché? Do you think life nets are mythical because jumping into a patch of canvas from, say, 75 feet up seems insanely dangerous. Dangerous, sure, but insane? I don’t think so. Years ago, those trapped in the upper stories of blazing buildings often faced a simple choice: leap or fry.

Life nets were one of many gambits by which the urbanites of a century ago coped with the joys of city life. If disease, filth or poverty didn’t get you, there was a good chance fire would. The ability to construct tall buildings profitably far outstripped the means to make them safe. Fatal fires were an everyday occurrence. Newspapers and reformers campaigned for tougher laws and better firefighting equipment, but it took decades before these improvements had any effect.

In the meantime, inventors came up with quick fixes, most based on the practical observation that if all else failed, you could jump. People have been improvising nets since the first multistory hovel went up in flames, of course—I find reports of rescues using rugs, tarps, even a raincoat. Now more elaborate gimmicks were proposed, some of them fanciful. One basically consisted of two giant mattresses.

The device that caught on was the Browder life net, named for the fellow who patented it in 1887. This is the iconic net of the cartoons, consisting of a rigid circular frame with a round sheet of fabric stretched across the middle from springs, like a trampoline. You unfolded the net on arrival at the fire scene, got 10 to 16 firemen to hold it at shoulder height below a trapped victim and hoped for the best.

The good thing, judging from old press accounts, was that a lot of times life nets worked. The bad thing was that seemingly just about as often, they didn’t—deaths and injuries were common. The practical limit was believed to be six stories; New York City firefighters in 1900 routinely jumped into a net from that height during their training. Surviving a leap from a taller building wasn’t out of the question. In a 1930 Chicago fire, three people jumped eight stories into a net: Two suffered minor injuries, and one bounced out and fractured her skull. One daredevil L.A. firefighter tested a life net from ten stories and landed without a scratch.

But that was rare. In the infamous Triangle garment factory fire of 1911, flames raced through the top three floors of a ten-story building in lower Manhattan. Scores of panicked workers, mostly young women, leaped from the windows. Some plummeted to the sidewalk even before firefighters arrived and set up their nets. Two women who had jumped together ripped through one net, followed close after by a third. Another woman landed in a net but died of internal injuries later. Deliverymen stretched out a tarp hoping to save some of the leapers; the first hurtling body ripped it from their grasp. With corpses literally piling up at the foot of the building, nets were soon abandoned as futile. In all, 146 people died.

Jumping from lower heights wasn’t much safer. Leapers sometimes struck something on the way down, landed on a fireman or missed entirely. Things could go wrong even if you were on target. In 1910, four women made the mistake of clinging to one another as they jumped from a burning four-story factory in Newark, New Jersey. They tore through the net and were killed.

Despite these drawbacks, life nets remained a standard piece of firefighting equipment for years. As late as 1960, the Boston Globesaw fit to spend a full page explaining optimal leaping technique. (Hint: Jump in a seated position with your limbs out in front of you, trying to land on your butt or the small of your back.)

By the 1970s, though, life nets were on their way out. Hundred-foot aerial ladders had made rescue a less perilous proposition. The last mention of a net I could find was from 1983; current firefighting manuals don’t discuss them at all.

Still, the fundamental problem remains unsolved. Improvements notwithstanding, people still sometimes get trapped by fire in tall buildings—witness the desperate souls who leaped from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Surely, you think, that qualifies as insane.

Maybe not. There you are on the hundredth floor, with a choice even starker than the one facing somebody staring down at a life net. If you jump, your chances of surviving are infinitesimal but arguably not zero. If you stay, you have no chance at all. What do you pick?

Fire departments used to carry safety nets for catching people jumping from buildings and trained on how to safely jump from into the nets.

Learning to jump into a safety net.  Fire Department Training Academy, Rochester, New York, 1912. Rochester Museum and Science Center, Albert R. Stone Negative Collection.

Does anyone know when Fire Department Safety Nets went away? And just how high up could someone be, jumping from a burning building or in the case of the top photo, dropping a baby out of a window. This seemed like a good resource when ladders would not work but was it liability concerns that stopped this piece of equipment from being used anymore, or does anyone still employ these devices, or have the option?

The Browder Life Saving Machine


Help! Help! Help! Help! Help me! Those were the words heard from people trapped in burning buildings until -------- Thomas F. Browder.

Thomas F. Browder, a Civil War Soldier and business man, was born in Greene County, Ohio June 14, 1847.

After attending school, he took one course at Forest Home College. In 1864 he enlisted in Company C, 60th Regiment Ohio volunteer infantry for three years or the war. On May 9th at Spottsylvania, he was shot through the hip and lay in the field hospital for three days. Later, he was taken to Washington D.C., and finally furloughed home. He spent time in a Columbus hospital until he received his final discharge from the service. He returned home, went to college and taught school. 

In 1876 he came to Greenfield, Ohio, where he established the first steam laundry in Greenfield. It was in 1887 that he began his work on his invention. He took out a patent that year on the Browder Life saving net.

In 1900 he added two other patents for improvements and later procured protection for his invention abroad. It was in 1900 that he invited the whole town of Greenfield to witness a demonstration on the Public Square. On the designated day the square and adjoining areas were packed with spectators. It was one of our trustee’s (Patsy Smith’s ) grandfather, Otis Long, who volunteered to leap from the top of the three-story Smart building into the outstretched Browder net. He did it with no apparent shock. The biggest test occurred in the great fire in New York City on May 7, 1901. Twenty persons leaped into the net and were saved from horrible deaths. Immediately, compliments flowed in to Mr. Browder. In 1907 he sold his patents to the Corey-Patterson Company, where it became known as The Browder Life Saving Machine.


According to the Browder Life-Saving Net booklet, “ the net is held shoulder high, almost at arms length with the palms of the hands turned up, keeping the elbows from touching the body. It is held by ten to twelve men. Made with hinges and automatic locks and can be gotten ready for use in 2 or 3 seconds. Persons leaping into it do not even receive a jar. The motion of the hangers and springs takes the jar off the persons jumping and the people holding the escape.”

The invention, The Browder Life Saving Machine, was welcomed everywhere as “a great boon to humanity.”


Life net used as a training device by the Webb City Fire Department (Olathe, Kansas - Traditions Fire Company and Museum) as a training device until the ladder truck was taken out of service in 2002.

Safety Net Forum Questions Summary:

• When were the use of Safety Nets discontinued and why, or do you still use them?

• How high could you be and still survive, jumping into a safety net?

• How would you handle the top photo that shows a baby being dropped out of a window?

Views: 29602

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

When I first joined the fire service in 1968, we routinely brought out the net and practiced with it. It might seem odd that our response area didn't have any buildings of more than two storeys, nor did we have an aerial ladder.
We trained for the out-lying area that did.

Every so often, the next town's aerial would allow us to jump from 106 feet from the ground into the net. That was some experience!

I left a few years later and when I joined another company in the late seventies, the net had become a thing of the past. I don't remember getting any explanation as to why.

I've wondered about it since, even posting the same question here a while ago.
I would think those large air cushions that stunt divers use would be great for such rescues, from greater heights than would be safe with a small fabric circular net.
At least we now know why we no longer use fire safety nets... You can always rely on Oldman to share his infinite wisdom and insight regarding the fire service.
Not too far from the truth Oldman especially in todays economy. Seriously though I think legal ramifications reared its ugly head and played a large part in its removal.
To give a serious honest answer, I don't have a clue why they are no longer used. My guess would be civilians being injured by landing wrong, or perhaps no proper training on using them by FD personnel.

But to be perfectly honest, I started in this business in 78, and have never seen one except in picture or old films.
And when they were used, how and where were they transported? They are pretty bulky and wide, even when folded in half.
I have seen pictures of them on the side running boards of early aerial trucks but have no personal experience. If memory serves me correctly there is an aerial in the Baltimore fire museum that has an aerial with one on board.
This video is often played in the state of Georgia during training such as extrication, while Ive seen it before it is a favorite.

In Turkey we use air cushions shown above just like safety nets. They are not handled manually like nets. They are deployed to the scene packaged and inflated by 300 bar air cylinders (Same as we use on our SCBA's.) I believe they are also used by many departments across Europe

However They are mostly used to secure the floor when people try to suicide by jumping from heights. I don't remember any trapped fire victim rescued by jumping on air cushion in recent years. We mostly use aerials, ground or hook ladders to rescue victims trapped at windows or balconies.

However it's another useful source at our disposal when needed on fire situations.
Yes sir, there is still some in the inventory here in our country, the Philippines but not with the browder type device, it was a collapsible big rectangular air bag sir. I'm a member of our fire service the Bureau of Fire Protection.
Thanks for giving the FFN community some insight on Turkey's firefighting capabilities being on par with the rest of Europe. I'm not sure how many, if any fire departments in the states make use of air bags. It's still very progressive and impressive.

Maybe Oldman, FETC, Jack or Ben can add some insight?

Have you personally used them during an incident? How high can one successfully jump, land, and WALK away? :D


Reply to Discussion


FireRescue Magazine

Find Members Fast

Or Name, Dept, Keyword
Invite Your Friends
Not a Member? Join Now

© 2020   Created by Firefighter Nation WebChief.   Powered by

Badges  |  Contact Firefighter Nation  |  Terms of Service