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?

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I wonder if they had any kind of springs to act as shock absorber? I can't tell from the photos.
There are several reasons for eliminating life nets as a FD rescue tool:

The University of Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute (MFRI) used to teach a continuum of best case to worst case options for rescue from heights; it went something like this...


1. Interior Stairs
2. Exterior Stairs/Fire Escapes
3. Cage Ladders/Gooseneck Ladders (permenant structure attachments)
4. Aerial platforms
5. Aerial ladders
6. Ground ladders
7. Rope rescues
8. Jumping from the structure.


Those options were based on safety for the victim, safety for the firefighters, and chances of success.

Other reasons for eliminating the life nets were the number of firefighter injuries that occurred, the number of victims that bounced off the nets and were killed anyway, net failures, and eventually the fact that they were no longer manufactured.

In practical terms, the third photo tells the story; TEN firefighters to support the net??? For some departments, that's the entire first alarm, including the chief.
But don't volunteer fire departments have hundreds of available on call firefighters at there disposal?

And, will you be kind of affected by Irene? What were you thinking Ben living on an ISLAND with the Atlantic sea knocking on your door.
Mr Waller has a point here. The reason we don't use air cushions on trapped fire victims that the cushions are unsafe.

Most air cushions are rated for 10-12 meters which roughly means 3-4 stories high. Even for the heights within the rated height it may cause injuries. Most civilians are not trained or physically fit to jump safely on air cushion.

Use of air cushions on people attempting suicides is justified because it is impossible to approach victims via ladders, victim is already dedicated to harm him or herself and victims often violently attacks approaching crews. Before fire and law enforcement officials approach victim by any other means air cushion is deployed as a precaution. And i witnessed it saved lives of suicide victims in many cases.

Air cushions are not used as a tool for firefighter rescue. It is hard for an ınjured firefighter to jump from heights with all gear and land safely on air cushion. So if a firefighter is trapped on a window aerials are used to rescue.

Although our training contains correct jump methods on cushion from low heights (3-4 meters)It mostly concantrates on correct and fast deployment of the cushion. We mostly have it deployed within first or second minute after our arrival on scene. There was a case happened in İzmir that a drunk girl jumped just before deployment of the air bag while firefighters on scene. Girl survived but paralyzed and sued fire department for not deploying the air cushion. Although court ruled in favor of fire departments. It's a nasty issue and bad PR for fire and rescue service
Here in Finland, Helsinki City Fire and Rescue Department uses those air cushions, they are placed in two rescue trucks.
What are your SOG's as to maximum jumping height for victims?
I remember a old Lucy Show where Lucy and a bunch of her friends wanted to be volunteer firefighters and had to use a safety net. The training dummy never hit the net under Lucy's commands.
If they could create a modern net that could be deployed quicky and safey and takes less personnel to setup maybe there would be a need for them.
The problem is how would one absorb impact of weight and speed of a person jumping from a certain floor height.
I`m not member of Helsinki City Fire and Rescue Department, but manufacture of those air cushions reports that max. jumping height is from 52.49 to 82,02 feet, but I`ve heard that it has been jumped from 174 feet, from aerial ladder platform (on fire dept. drill).

And I did some research, and I notice that those air cushions are also used in three other fire departments here.
Hey V-112... You crack me up! Are you absolutely sure that the distance starts out at 52.49 feet? I have heard at the fire station kitchen table, as we played cards for dishes, that the minimum distance started at 51.50 feet. Are you sure you converted meters to feet correctly? Did you include the angle of the dangle factor?

Well, here is the manufacturer`s page,, and that 16 means rescue height (16m and that is 52 feet?)

And sorry about typo, meant to say that rescue height is
16 OR 25m, not to.
V-man, I was teasing you buddy. Giving a measurement  including fractions of an inch was funny to me. 
Have we considered the injury implications for the rescuers holding the net?

Even with the springs, the force generated in a fall/jump would be enormous! Imagine the shockloading on your arms, shoulders, back, etc as the victim hits the net.

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