Straight 'chute' to safety

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
  • 436th AW Public Affairs
Fire, Fire, Fire! Sirens blare and smoke pours into the six-story high stairwell here. Rather than braving the treacherous trap of a smoke-filled stairwell, the tower air traffic controllers simply pick up the phone, call the base fire department and head out onto the catwalk toward the life chute, and slide to safety.

Although this 'fire' was only a drill, firefighters and control tower staff were trained on Dover Air Force Base's new life chute during an on-site demonstration here March 8.

Prior to installation of the chute, it was impossible for Dover tower controllers to make it down six stories of stairs safely in the event of a fire, said Master Sgt. Thomas Scheving, 436th Operations Support Squadron tower chief controller. However, the demonstration proved that controllers will now be able to survive if a fire engulfed the tower.

"The life chute allows tower staff to safely and fully evacuate to the ground level in the event of a fire," said Ralph Baker, chute inventor.

The need for evacuation routes from control towers is an issue that Air Force officials have been working on since 2003.

"The Air Force has installed Baker Life Chutes on 38 towers already," said Sergeant Scheving. "Dover's installation is the most recent; the last one was installed at Kadena Air Base, Japan, a month ago."

The chute is durable and will last for several years, said Mr. Baker.

"Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., had their chute installed 18 years ago," said Mr. Baker. "It is the oldest chute in the Air Force and is still serviceable, safe and operational."

Not only is the chute durable, it can also be transferred, said Sergeant Scheving.

"Dover is planning to build a new tower a few years down the road," he said. "With the minor installation of a 30-foot top section, the rest of the chute can be reinstalled on the new tower."

Although resources are important, safety remains paramount and the use and deployment of the chute are quick, easy and safe, said Mr. Baker.

"In an actual emergency, the tower staff would drop the chute from the catwalk," said Mr. Baker. "Then, people on the ground would tie the end of the chute to a vehicle or stationary object like a barrier. In the event that firefighters did not arrive yet, the first tower controller could still slide down safely, though the potential for injury would increase. Once on the ground, that individual could secure the chute for all the members to follow."

Descending in the chute is very easy, added Mr. Baker. The member enters the chute feet first with arms raised above the head and then begins to slide down. The speed of descent is regulated by members adding or reducing pressure to the inside walls of the chute using their feet.

The chute is easy to use and practical, said Mr. Baker, who invented it as a direct result of a tragedy and loss of human life.

"One November night in 1980, I was watching the nightly news," said Mr. Baker. "There was a broadcast of the MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, where 84 people died in a high-rise because firefighters could not reach them. It was like watching a horror movie, but it was live. People were jumping off balconies to their deaths."

Mr. Baker could not get the fire out of his mind, he said. He hoped that he could do something; wished that others could be helped in comparable life-threatening emergencies. As a result, early the next year Mr. Baker invented his life chute - a device that permits rapid, mass evacuation from high-rise structures.

Mr. Baker invented the chute to save lives, said Sergeant Scheving. As a result, the people working in the tower here are much safer.

"It is about peace of mind for the guys upstairs," he said.