MILFORD — For firefighter Frank Geer, the reality of some day becoming trapped in a burning high-rise is a fear that always lurks in the back of his mind.

Even with the best training, safely escaping a structure fire with no accessible exit route — short of a window — is a daunting task.

So, it's easy to understand why firefighters like Geer are applauding a city effort to equip every man on the force with new rescue belt harnesses.

Attached to their suit, the harnesses allow the firefighters to use a tall building's windows as an escape route during a serious fire.

Firefighters must first anchor the harness to a secure section of the building before they jump from the window. A sturdy 40-foot rope then allows the firefighter to dangle outside until colleagues come to the rescue.

"They are meant to be used as a last resort," Fire Chief Louis LaVecchia said. "Firefighters have to prevent themselves from getting into those situations."

LaVecchia spearheaded the belt initiative after meeting with firefighters who were seriously injured after leaping from burning buildings.

Given the unpredictable nature of fires and the importance of safety, acquiring the harnesses at $300 a piece was the right thing to do, LaVecchia said.

The value of the harnesses has received renewed attention after two recent incidents in which firefighters were killed or injured after jumping from burning buildings.

In January, six New York City firefighters were forced to leap from a Bronx apartment building during a raging inferno. Two firefighters died and four were seriously injured.

In December 2003, several Greenwich firefighters suffered serious injuries after they were forced to jump from a burning house.

LaVecchia noted that city firefighters will continue to receive comprehensive training to learn how to avoid being "boxed in" by fires.

In addition, firefighters will be instructed this summer on how to use the new belts during special training sessions, Fire Capt. Harold Streit said.

"You have to avoid getting yourself above the fire. Protecting the stairwell and vertical openings from fire are key," Streit said. Assistant Fire Chief James Wilkinson said that the belts provide firefighters with better protection.

"You certainly may get hurt. But the degree that you sustain an injury will be a lot less," he said.

Geer, a veteran firefighter, said he is looking forward to learning how to use the new belts.

"The first thing that you do in that situation is look for a second way to go out. Then you ask what is your third. It is nice to know that there is now a third alternative," he said.

Greg Shulas, who covers Milford, can be reached at 878-2130.