The life net (or the Browder Life Safety Net) was invented by Thomas Browder in 1847 to assist people who are stuck on the upper story of a building that is on fire.
The photo above, notwithstanding, I doubt that life nets were ever in common use by the Vancouver Fire Department, although they were purchased (from as early as 1907) and were available for use by VFD over several decades.
Given mixed success (to say the least) in other North American cities, the use of life nets in Vancouver only as a last resort makes a great deal of sense to me (World, 23 March 1907). In a New Jersey fire at the Newark Paper Box Company in 1910, for instance, a young woman who was stranded in an upper story of the building was faced with an unenviable dilemma:
Finally I realized that if I was to get out I must start, and I fought my way back to the window. As I looked out I saw women and girls jumping, crying as they fell. One girl struck a picket fence. That was so horrible I decided to stay there and burn. Before long I saw the life net and decided to jump into it. I hit the net alright, but bounced high in the air and sprained my arm.World 28 November 1910
The sprained arm that came with use of the life net, in that case, definitely seems better than other alternatives available to her.
A Texas fire two years later at a Roman Catholic orphanage however, further demonstrated that jumping into a life net was not fool-proof.
Sister Kostka in jumping from the fourth floor window to reach a life net, evidently lost her balance. Her body struck a railing on the second story. Her back was broken…Province 30 October 1912
A year following the orphanage fire, there was a fire in Montreal, this one in a multi-story shoe factory. In this case, several female employees (why is it that so many multi-story employees in fires seem to have been female?) were driven to jump 60 feet into life nets. “Many of them who took the jump were badly injured but only one…was seriously hurt…” (Province 23 August 1913. Emphasis mine).
These are just three of many examples of instances in other cities in which life nets were not successful in preserving life without causing injuries — some serious.
Life nets, it seems, required training for rescuers. There has been at least one case in Vancouver where the rescuers (who were not VFD members, in this case, but amateurs) were not trained in the appropriate way of holding a life net. Apparently, the net should be held at shoulder height. The amateurs held it at waist height. This caused the jumper to be injured, as there wasn’t enough space beneath the net to prevent him from hitting the ground (Sun 22 June 1920).
But it wasn’t only rescuers who should be trained in the use of life nets; jumpers also should receive training. The fellow who was jumping into the life net in the photo above, VFD District Chief Loftus, was ”demonstrating to his men the proper way of jumping into a life net, a hazardous undertaking to the uninitiated.” Just what was the ”proper way” wasn’t explained, but the fact that jumpers would benefit from training when most jumpers are, by definition, amateurs, and unlikely to get training before they need to make use of a life net, makes the whole notion a bit ludicrous.
Life nets have been phased out in recent decades due to the development of modern aerial apparatus available on most fire trucks, today.1
1 There is one variation on the life net which survives in Vancouver. That is the sort of semi-permanent net that serves as an anti-suicide feature beneath some of our major bridges (Lion’s Gate and Burrard Street are two examples).