Are You Ground Ladder Savvy? Part 1

BY DANNY STRATTON

All suppression personnel-whether on an engine; a squad; a rescue; or, certainly, a truck company-should have the knowledge, skills, and ability to operate ground ladders. Ladders mounted on anything other than a ladder truck tend to get the least attention. Personnel on a fireground should be mindful of ladders other than those on the truck or quint in front of the fire structure. The next closest rig may be a pumper with a 24-foot extension and a 14-foot roof ladder for providing access at higher elevations. The placement of ladders provides access and egress for firefighters, points for conducting ventilation techniques, and an avenue to rescue a civilian or a distressed firefighter from a high elevation. The street-level firefighter must be savvy with ground ladders to provide expeditious and efficient operation for citizen service and fire personnel egress.

A street-smart firefighter knows how to efficiently operate ground ladders so they will complement other fire service operations. The advances in personal harnesses and escape systems for egress from upper floors should not interfere with firefighters’ duty to provide for egress by a ground ladder (photo 1). Ladder egress is a safer alternative than the hang-and-drop or evading-on-a-rope technique. Furthermore, in some situations, a ladder may be the best way to remove civilians.

(1) The 14- and 24-foot ground ladders on an engine company tend to get the least attention at an incident scene and training exercises
(1) The 14- and 24-foot ground ladders on an engine company tend to get the least attention at an incident scene and training exercises. All fire suppression personnel regardless of their function should be savvy with ground ladders. (Photos by Ed Stratton unless otherwise noted.)

PREPAREDNESS FOR LADDERING

Individual firefighters must be physically capable of handling ladders; they should have a strong body core and adapted muscles. They need the muscle memory to use body mechanics properly to avoid injuries and the strongest muscles to deploy ladders. Important precautionary measures include training, drilling on how to place ladders, and participating in a physical-fitness regimen. Make it a point to remove the ladders from the apparatus and place them against objects. It takes only a few minutes for a short drill that will help firefighters to develop muscle memory and keep musculoskeletal injuries to a minimum. Your muscles will get used to doing the same thing if you do it repetitively. You can incur injuries at 3 a.m. (when the body is most prone to injury) while throwing a ladder if you haven’t done it for a time.

A physical-fitness program involving weights and stretching exercises can increase strength and flexibility and minimize injuries from lifting heavy objects. Data collected through the National Fire Incident Reporting System for the period from 2006 to 2009 showed that approximately 25 percent of firefighter injuries were from taxing muscles, tendons, discs, and ligaments. The majority (more than 80 percent) of these musculoskeletal damages occurred on the fireground. A fine-tuned firefighter will have longevity and will be an asset, not an expense, to the department. A firefighter who is off duty for a musculoskeletal injury also loses money and, more importantly, experiences pain and suffering.

Following are some ways to increase efficiency and safety when working with ladders and to make you ladder savvy.

  • Know the number and size of ladders carried on your apparatus. Make sure that the complement of ladders is at a ready status at all times. Inspect and maintain the ladders per manufacturer recommendations, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, and departmental guidelines. Maintenance includes periodic lubrication of the fly sections, pulleys, pawls, and the roof hook assembly and washing off dirt, grime, and soot after use.
  • For expedient ladder placement, tie the halyard off to a rung on the bed section of an extension ladder so that the ladder can be placed in service rapidly. All a ladder firefighter has to do is grasp the rope and pull the fly section to the desired height, lock the dogs to keep the fly in place, and ascend the ladder (photos 2-3). This alleviates the tying and untying of the rope in an urgent situation, such as when rescuing a civilian in a window. If the halyard is pretied, the fly section can move while the ladder is being pulled off a rig or transported. Be aware of this, and watch your fingers so they are not injured as the fly moves during these evolutions.
    (2-3) Pretie the halyard of the extension ladders toward the end of the extension rope. Fully extend the ground ladder, and tie the rope to a rung. Retract the ladder until it is within the bed. All that will be needed is to pull the rope to extend the fly sections. There is no need to tie or untie. This makes the device more expedient.
    (2-3) Pretie the halyard of the extension ladders toward the end of the extension rope. Fully extend the ground ladder, and tie the rope to a rung. Retract the ladder until it is within the bed. All that will be needed is to pull the rope to extend the fly sections. There is no need to tie or untie. This makes the device more expedient.
  • Know the ladder’s bedded length. This information can help you estimate the height of the ladder you will need to satisfy an objective. Think of an extension ladder as a straight ladder as well. The bedded length may be all you need to accomplish the task. Some departments mark their extension ladders with the bed length and extended height to remind members of the ladders’ capability. Also, many engine companies have put their extension ladder on the outside of their ladder rack so it can be readily accessible for rescuing a civilian from an upper floor on arrival.
  • The days of working with substandard staffing are still here and will never go away as long as there are bean counters and politicians; therefore, being savvy in placing ground ladders by yourself is essential. Know your ability and the size of ladder you can handle when operating alone. Marking the middle or balance point on the ladders will make it easy to verify where the center of gravity is and to quickly grasp and carry the equipment alone (photo 4).
(4) Marking the ladders in the middle makes them readily available for a one-person carry. (Photo by Brittany Swan.)
(4) Marking the ladders in the middle makes them readily available for a one-person carry. (Photo by Brittany Swan.)

DEPLOYMENT

Removing and transporting ladders to the objective depends on their locations on the rig, staffing, and the task to be performed. When positioning apparatus, ensure that personnel are able to remove the ladders from their mounts. If the complement is to come from a rear compartment, place the vehicle at an angle if possible. However, with an aerial apparatus, the primary consideration may have to be platform placement for the boom. If so, be sure to notify other companies to stay approximately 20 feet behind the apparatus so deployment is not hindered. Note: Bedded extension ladders are typically no longer than 20 feet.

When transporting ladders to the objective, if possible, use the proper number of personnel, preferably two or more firefighters. For a ladder longer than 35 feet, ideally, use three or more firefighters. However, if because of the lack of staffing or the urgency of the situation you have to do it alone, find the ladder’s center of gravity and carry the ladder in the middle. For longer ladders, drag the ladder to the desired location: Pick an end, and carry that end while the other end drags behind as you move forward. When practicing this drag technique, do it on soft ground so you do not scrape the equipment. Drag on concrete only when urgent circumstances demand it. In transporting portable ladders, lead with the butt end instead of the tip. You will be able to place the ladder more quickly, since the butt is placed at the ground below the objective and you will not have to flip the ladder onto its right end to position it.

If overhead obstructions such as wires or trees are present, you may have to lead with the tip instead. If the tip is facing forward, when positioning the ladder, put the butt end on the ground and place the tip up against the wall just above your head. Still at the tip of the ladder, back up a few feet toward the butt end, and press the ladder up using arm strength, as if you were doing a shoulder press to push the ladder up the wall. Repeat this until you reach the desired angle for climbing. When doing this against a rough masonry surface or aluminum or vinyl siding, lift and push the device away and back in again so that it doesn’t hit the lower lip of the siding. The rigidity will prevent it from sliding up. If the walls are smooth masonry, the tip will slide up with no problem.

Marking the balance point on the ladders will make it easier to transport them. Positioning personnel in a staggered formation makes it easier to hold the ladder while transporting it. When multiple firefighters carry ladders, they can use the same tactics. Most firefighters are familiar with the following methods of carrying ground ladders, which were learned in their original training and are usually used when the ladder is removed from a high mounted position on a rig.

  • Arm hold carry. Grasp the ladder in an arm hold and carry it suitcase, shoulder, or high-shoulder style.
  • Stretcher carry. Grab the rungs or beams of the ladder while it is in a horizontal position. Carry it flat, and place the tools and equipment of choice on the top of the ladder rungs.

One firefighter can carry the ladder at high-shoulder level, balancing the middle of the ladder on its side and the beam side on the shoulder. For two or more personnel, the ladder would be flat, and the beams would be riding the shoulders of both firefighters.

If the ladder must be transported above obstructions, carry it in the vertical position and riding on the firefighters’ shoulders.

ASSESSMENT AND PLACEMENT

To correctly place a ladder, you must consider the height of the structure, the surface, the wind, obstructions, and the tactics for implementation. Don’t count on formulas to determine the height and the proper climbing angle. A street-ready firefighter should be able to estimate these values with the eye. To perfect this skill, practice throwing ladders up into position. This will train the eye to make estimates based on sight. Keep in mind that residential stories are shorter than those in commercial structures. A residence can be eight or 10 feet per story, compared with approximately 12 feet for a commercial structure. However, commercial buildings, school gymnasiums, and places of assembly are well over a story in height. Become familiar with these structures in your response areas; some can be equivalent to three stories in height.

When laddering, consider also the structure’s layout, particularly the stairs. One of the estimations needed on the fireground is where to place the ladder for firefighter egress in an emergency. To arrive at this value, consider how the stairways are arranged in a residential occupancy. Where do the top of the stairs terminate-front, back, which side? When laddering to ensure there are two egress points on the upper levels, give priority to the area of the upper floors farthest from the top of the stairs so that if fire cuts off an exit to a stairway or a laddered point, the other will be available. If you place the ladder around the same area as the stairway landing, firefighters will not be able to self-rescue if the fire consumes the part of the floor that provides access to your laddered means of egress.

A porch roof’s edge and wood decks can be good platforms to ladder; firefighters can force a rear door or vent and enter windows. However, in the case of a structure with a masonry exterior, these combustible structural elements can be rapidly consumed if fire conditions expand, which could cut off upper-level egress and compromise the ladder. Look for other placement options, if possible, depending on the anticipated fire spread and the urgency of the situation. It may be safer to throw the ladder against the exterior masonry wall under a window where fire will not compromise its position or use. In other situations, placing a ladder to the rear or front porch roof can assist in rapidly performing operations from the “backside” of the fire, or it can enable a firefighter in distress to temporarily escape onto a rooftop or a deck to await a ladder. Remember, laddering a window on the sides of the structure gives a firefighter a better chance for escape because the firefighter has more avenues to which he can venture. If fire rapidly extends to a porch roof, a firefighter under duress will be safer if he exits a laddered window than a device placed at the porch’s edge.

Properly placing a ladder that is shorter than 34 feet at an angle of 70˚ to 75˚ uses about a foot of its total length. For extension ladders longer than 40 feet, two feet will be used to provide a comfortable angle for climbing. The distance the butt end of an extension and a straight ladder should be from a structure is about 25 percent or one-quarter of the used height of the ladder.

A savvy ground ladder firefighter should be able to accurately judge by sight the proper angle of the ladder. We are in the business of operating with urgency; checking the proper ladder angle the manual way can delay a tactic that must be done immediately. Once the firefighter begins to climb, he will know if the ladder is at the proper angle. If necessary and if time and urgency permit, adjust the ladder to the proper angle before assisting in tactical operations. To perfect this skill, place ladders and verify the estimates you made by eye using the manual method until you have it down pat. Remember from probie school: Stand on the ladder with your arms straight out in front. Your body should be at a 90-degree angle, perpendicular to the ground. It is imperative to use the proper angle for ease of climbing, minimizing the chance that the ladder will slide away from the structure and for carrying the maximum load capacity of 750 pounds. A steeply placed ladder can make climbing difficult and personnel more prone to falling off. A shallow angle negates the maximum load capacity, which may place on the ladder stress it wasn’t designed to absorb. At times in the haste of operating in urgent situations, we choose to operate in this awkward position. Do not overload the ladder with two firefighters, and try to avoid making rescues. At this position, the device may be under its load capacity, which can compromise the ladder. Secure the ladder so it does not slide.

Ensure that the surfaces on which the ladder is placed can support and secure the ladder. The ladder must not slide or fall through the platform under its own weight or the weight of the climber. To prevent a ladder from kicking out under an ascending firefighter, avoid icy surfaces and inclines in grade. If ice is present, consider removing it with a striking tool. When encountering an incline on a hard surface such as concrete, secure the ladder by tying it off or having someone foot the bottom end while personnel are ascending. Angled masonry surfaces can cause the ladder to slip if it is not secured. An element that may be present with masonry surfaces is the presence of seams. Insert the ladder heels into these crevices to keep the ladder from falling off its objective (photo 5). Another option is to place step chocks under the low side rail of the ladder to make it level so it can be footed properly.

(5) When placing ladders on a masonry surface, if possible, take advantage of grooves in the surface. Inserting of the ladder's heels into this crevasse can keep the ladder from sliding off a structure.
(5) When placing ladders on a masonry surface, if possible, take advantage of grooves in the surface. Inserting of the ladder’s heels into this crevasse can keep the ladder from sliding off a structure.

On a soil-based surface, whether flat or at an incline, particularly during rainy periods, sink the ladder into the ground. The butt end’s being sunken into the ground will provide stability so the ladder will not fall from the objective when someone is climbing. When placing the ladder on saturated soil, step in the middle of the bottom rung. This will drive the heels into the ground. Don’t step on the rung close to the beam. One heel may sink into the ground, resulting in a crooked placement. On dry, hard soil, make two shallow holes with a striking tool to insert the butt ends. A soil surface is a very safe surface for placing ladders.

Another situation where a ladder firefighter may encounter an incline is when a ladder company uses a technique called “hopping” to access a structure. This tactic is used if an aerial device is not in place. A rooftop is used as a placement surface for a ground ladder. The first ladder transitions from ground level to the top of the roof. A second ladder is placed alongside the first one. A firefighter or two on top of the roof can drag the second ladder up and place the tip against the objective. If the objective is another rooftop, this is referred to as a “double hop,” because two roofs are negotiated when ascending. Of course, if a third rooftop is being accessed, it would be a “triple hop.”

To prevent the ladder from sliding when hopping, use one of the following techniques:

  • Have a firefighter manually secure the ladder by footing it at the bottom or holding it at the top while personnel climb (photo 6).
    (6) One option for securing a ladder for safe climbing is to hold the tip at the top as another ladder firefighter climbs.
    (6) One option for securing a ladder for safe climbing is to hold the tip at the top as another ladder firefighter climbs.
  • Drive a tool such as a pike pole, the pick of an ax, or a halligan into the surface behind the ladder to keep it secure (photo 7).
    (7) When hopping roofs to gain access to upper windows or a rooftop, be sure to secure the ladder. Here the pick of an ax is buried into a roof decking.
    (7) When hopping roofs to gain access to upper windows or a rooftop, be sure to secure the ladder. Here the pick of an ax is buried into a roof decking.
  • Use a striking tool to breach two holes in the roof’s surface to ensure stability. In making the holes, set the ladder to achieve the most comfortable angle for climbing. Note the spot where the two heels are, then push the ladder forward and up. With a tool, smash open the decking in the two spots where the heels were, then place them back into the holes you created. Be sure not to make the holes too large; they may compromise the ladder’s angle and reach. The technique of blowing holes in the decking depends on the type of tool used, the amount of force per blow, and the type of decking construction.

Bibliography

http://www.workers-comp-news.com/common_injuries.php.

http://www.safetynewsalert.com/top-10-causes-of-the-most-disabling-workplace-injuries/.

http://m.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v11i7.pdf.

http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v11i7.pdf.

http://www.nfpa.org/categoryList.asp?categoryID=955&URL=Research/Fire%20statistics/The%20U.S.%20fire%20service.

DANNY STRATTON is a 27-year fire service veteran and a captain with the Camden City (NJ) Fire Department. He has served as a firefighter in the volunteer and career fire service and the United States Army. He is a course coordinator at the Camden County Emergency Training Center and an instructor for Safety and Survival Training LLC. He is a rescue specialist with NJ-TF1 and has a double associate degree in fire science.

 

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