By Shawn Donovan
The Boston (MA) Fire Department has had to steadily change its laddering tactics and equipment to keep up with the changing building construction that came with the increase in the city’s population. Boston’s population was around 1,200 people when it was founded in the mid-1600s; now, it is more than 10 times that per square.
By the 1650s, Boston had become one of the originators of fire prevention with the Hook and Ladder Law, which mandated that houses be equipped with a ladder long enough to reach the ridge of the roof, with poles (hooks) and swabs (mops) available to snuff out sparks that may come to rest in the thatched roofs. One of the things that stayed constant while the city was changing was the need for ground ladders.
Evolution of Ladder Trucks
About the same time as the Hook and Ladder Law went into effect, Boston bought ground ladders for the firefighting community and stored them at the central meeting house of the town. Over the course of the next couple of hundred years, the ladder practices were changed. Soon, ladders were staged throughout the city. Out of necessity in 1820, Boston organized its first ladder truck, still in operation today, to carry the city’s ladders to alarms, making our laddering operations more efficient.
Boston, like many older cities, is not exactly built for today’s automotive traffic, let alone massive fire apparatus. Carrying a ground ladder to a fire building is a must on all multiple-alarm fires. Companies arriving on subsequent alarms need to bring the two things that make a fire scene safer: lines and ladders. Ladder companies make the scene safer by throwing ladders to the building in an effort to allow the best possible access and egress to the seat of the fire. Engine companies make the scene safer by helping overcome British thermal units with gallons per minute.
The first-arriving truck company must throw its aerial device at every call for a building fire. The narrow, congested streets do not allow for many aerials to make it to the building, so the first one is the most important. The city also has very few alleyways, so most of the time, the only way for a truck company to cover the rear is by a ground ladder. If the first aerial on scene stays in the bed, the only roof or upper floor access will be by ground ladders or interior stairs that are already congested with engine companies and lines. The aerial can be moved and redeployed easier than ground ladders; but it is, of course, restricted by the turntable location and any obstructions, the most common in Boston are power lines. The first-due truck company must go to the roof and give a report to command on anything of importance to the incident.
Why More Aerials?
Some have questioned the need for what appears to be an abundance of aerials in service at some incidents. I would like to clarify a few important points.
• Yes, we do throw aerials as soon as possible. We don’t frequently have to worry about waiting for the perfect spotting position because our streets seldom allow for being picky. We take the shot we are given when it is available.
• Yes, competition is fierce. No truck company wants to get beaten to the roof at its first due, but every truck wants to beat another truck to its first-due roof. Engine companies prefer to run lines over the truck from their house also.
• Why so many aerials? We use them because we have them and they are the easiest to deploy and redeploy if conditions change.
When the aerial cannot be used or an incident is not progressing in our favor, it’s time for ground ladders. Our recruits are trained and practice throwing one-person ladders up to the two-section 35-foot. They know what they are capable of if the need arises. The aerial operator needs to immediately address roof and upper-floor access with the aerial or ground ladders.
There is no excuse for companies to stand around waiting for orders at an active fire scene. Even the rapid intervention team (RIT) is allowed and encouraged to ladder proactively. The best RIT is the one that does not get used. On confirmed fires, Boston sends one engine, one truck, and a district chief as the RIT. These companies need to place ladders if multiple-alarm companies have not done so.
Where are we going to throw these ladders? The second-due truck company is responsible for the rear of the building. If there is any doubt as to where to throw a ladder, the rear would be a good first choice. While en route to the rear, the truck company needs to constantly size up the current fire conditions and possible scenarios, and ladder accordingly.
If Fire Is Showing
If fire is blowing out of a window, ladder the window next to it whether it is intact or not. Companies needing a hasty exit will not likely go through fire but may seek refuge in the next room.
We will ladder a window with fire showing if we are going into defensive mode. Lines over ladders is the Boston equivalent of hitting it hard from the yard because we don’t have many yards.
If No Fire Is Showing
Ladder the main egress routes first. Look to put ladders in the windows at the end of hallways, if possible. Also ladder near stairways since firefighters will be attracted to the stairways if they need to exit.
The longer the incident progresses, the more ladders will be needed. Proactive laddering needs to be done. Any ladder that is not thrown for a specific task is thrown for egress. We ladder buildings with the tip in the window, not to or below the sill. We are lucky to have the personnel to slide the butt out a foot or so if needed for evacuation. Also with the tip in the window, it can easily be found. Ladders are easier to find while sweeping the sill with a hand while crawling; a tip below the sill necessitates that a firefighters rise up and reach out the window. When conditions allow, the tip can be seen in the window from a distance. Many departments clog the radio by broadcasting ladder locations; this is unnecessary and tends to be ambiguous. Ladder the window so it can be found.
Ground ladders may be an immediate priority, even more important than search if people are hanging out of windows. A fourth-alarm fire on Nov. 21, 2015, in Boston proved that. Companies arrived to a mother and children yelling from an upper floor; companies threw ground ladders to make the rescues immediately. Brush up on your laddering skills before an emergency where lives are at stake occurs. These skills are learned and imbedded into muscle memory through repetition.
Shawn Donovan is a lieutenant on an engine company in the Boston (MA) Fire Department, where he has served for 13 years. Previously, he was assigned to a truck company and a rescue company. He has assisted with four recruit programs (more than 200 students) for the Boston Fire Department. He has taught H.O.T. classes in firefighter basics