Hollywood has again done us no realistic favors. Rarely is an action movie complete without a fleeing bad guy or a chasing good guy jumping off or between buildings. Most notably, the opening sequence in Daniel Craig’s debut as 007 in Casino Royale has James Bond pursuing freerunning and Parkour legend Sébastien Foucan up, over and off scaffolding, cranes and high-rise buildings. It makes for fantastic action sequences and plays on what is surely our prehistorically conditioned fear of heights.
But the reality is that our fear of high places exists for good reason. A drop from a high place can end in serious injury or death. Unfortunately, modern construction technology pushes new buildings higher above ground level, making the likelihood of an emergency escape greater than ever. So how does a smart person adjust? It begins with situational awareness and ends with serious decisions and an assessment of survivability.
Heights—Can You Avoid Them?
For the average urban citizen, heights are part of life. As real estate became scarce, buildings got taller. Finding oneself in an office or apartment above ground level is just part of city life. With this in mind, being aware of your surroundings, particularly your elevation and how to deal with it, is the key to survival.
The first and most fundamental element in escaping a high place is to know your options. For example, is there a fire escape? If so, how and where do you access the fire escape? If smoke is filling the hallways, that’s not a good time to be searching for the fire exit. Know your exits and routes. Most modern buildings have floor-plan maps with exits noted on the walls. Don’t rely on your landlord’s minimally compliant building code instructions for your own safety, though: Know where you need to go, particularly from the areas you commonly occupy.
If your exit routes are blocked and you have to consider escaping through a window, does your window open? If so, how? Is the window sealed (most modern windows are)? If so, what will it take to break it? A kick? A chair? A desk? If you manage to break the window, what is immediately below the window, in addition to all the broken glass you may have spread across your landing area?
For buildings three stories and lower, the possibilities are less severe. A drop from a second-story window is rarely fatal unless you land headfirst or on a sharp object. A jump from three stories is risky, and it requires some training, technique and a bit of luck. Understand that floor heights in buildings typically vary from 10 to 12 feet. Fire trucks can reach up to about 100 feet, so if trucks are on site and you are not in immediate danger from smoke or fire and within the range of the truck, wait for help. However, if you have to jump from three stories and below, here are a few things to consider:
1.) Find another way. Jumping should be your last resort. There may be a safer way down.
2.) If you must jump, choose the best place to jump. If circumstances allow you to jump onto soft grass rather than concrete, choose grass. Is there an escape route where you can make smaller successive jumps to get to the ground, such as on the roof of substructures? This could be a safer route if the structures below will support your weight.
3.) Get as low as you can before you jump. Lowering yourself to a sitting or hanging position before jumping can mean the difference between a broken ankle and a safe landing. For example, if you were escaping from a ledge and could lower yourself down to the full extension of your arms, you could reduce the height of the drop by 6 to 8 feet.
RELATED STORY: What Goes Up – 7 Must-Dos When Your Elevator Stops Working
4.) Keep your feet and knees together. The worst thing you can do in a jump landing is take all the weight and momentum of your fall on one foot. Military paratroopers jumping with the added weight of kit and weapons practice for weeks on the technique of the “parachute landing fall” (PLF). The technique is designed to minimize the effect of the impact with the ground and transfer the inertia through a roll that utilizes the entire body. The first step in this process is keeping your feet and knees together. This does not guarantee an injury-free landing, but it does greatly reduce the likelihood of injury versus a one-footed landing.
5.) Keep your elbows in and your chin tucked to your chest. The landing process is not over when your feet hit the ground. The inertia of the fall is likely to throw you to an oblique direction depending on your landing surface and the general direction of your exit from your window or ledge. Resist the urge to break a fall with a single hand or elbow. Like landing on one foot, hitting a single elbow or hand is a bad idea. You will likely underestimate how much inertia is behind your descent and injure yourself. Keep your chin tucked to your chest to avoid a final head snap after hitting the ground. Parkour practitioners utilize a slap landing that uses hands to mitigate impact, but this method is not advisable without practice.
6.) Protect yourself. If time allows, consider putting on a coat, hat and gloves, if they are available. This might not be an option, but any added protection from impact and abrasion can improve your chances of avoiding serious injury and mitigate cuts and scrapes upon impact.
September 11, 2001, taught us two important lessons about escaping from high-rise buildings. First, there may be no options. For those trapped above the impact of the aircraft, there was practically no escape, and we watched in horror as people leapt to their deaths. If you find yourself in a similar situation, get to the roof, as there might be a slight chance of an air evacuation. The second lesson came from the survival rate of those who were below the impact of the aircraft. One particular example highlights the value of planning and practice. Morgan Stanley was the largest tenant in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Richard Rescorla, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel, was the World Trade Center security chief for Morgan Stanley. He irritated the bankers with periodic evacuation drills that were actually utilized before 9/11 during brownouts when power grid failures shut down elevators. When the second plane hit their building, Morgan Stanley employees knew where to go and how to get there. Yes, there was heat and smoke, and terrifying events were going on around them, but ultimately all but 13 of Morgan Stanley’s nearly 2,700 employees survived. Rescorla did not, as he returned to the smoking building and was making a final sweep of the company’s floors when the building collapsed.
Like any other survival scenario, always remember, with knowledge and a little preparation, you can find a way a safe way down from even the highest of places.
RELATED STORY: Urban Evacuation – Tips to Escape a Disaster
This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of BALLISTIC™. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.