Now Seldom Used, Pompier Ladder Was Once First-Line Rescue Tool

Now Seldom Used, Pompier Ladder Was Once First-Line Rescue Tool


Most of us became fire fighters long after the so-called good old days and according to some of the old-timers, we don’t know how to appreciate modern equipment. Be that as it may, a look into the history of some of the equipment we use today will certainly give us insight, if not a sense of appreciation.

One such piece of equipment, the pompier ladder, is rich in lore but not nearly as well known as the horse-drawn steamers. For years, the pompier, or scaling ladder, was the main rescue tool used by nearly all fire departments.

Invented in 1828 by an enterprising German, the pompier ladder, like so many inventions, was slow to gain recognition. Once it caught on, however, it was hailed as one of the greatest assets to the fire service since the fire pump.

Single beam ladder

The pompier has a single beam with cross rungs and a long gooseneck that hooks into window sills. Two metal devices, called shoes, hold the ladder out from the wall to provide climbing clearance. The biggest change in the ladder from the earliest to the present models is in the construction materials. Aluminum alloy has replaced wood for beams and rungs just as it has in other ladders.

Many myths are circulated about the pompier ladder, most of them merely a product of someone’s hyperactive imagination. One story that seems to be generally accepted attributes the origin of the ladder to a Frenchman named Pompier. Legend also has it that this man fell to his death while demonstrating his ladder. Later tests proved the invention successful and it was named for its inventor.

Firehouse sagas such as this are admittedly interesting to listen to, but as far as being true, most of them contain more fiction than fact.

Pompier ladder ad placed by Christian Hoell in the Firemen's Journal in 1878.

Invented by German

In reality, the pompier ladder was not invented by a Frenchman at all. The pompier was invented by a German named Behl. The word pompier, pronounced pom-pier, is a French word meaning fire fighter. Why Behl chose the French word for his ladder remains a mystery.

In 1828, the year Behl invented the ladder, Germany had already begun to experience crowded living conditions and buildings were being built taller to accommodate the increasing population. When fire broke out in these taller buildings, many persons died because they were unable to escape. The wooden ladders of the day were crudely built and extremely heavy, making them necessarily limited to short lengths.

Behl designed his pompier for scaling from window to window above the reach of ground ladders. The invention worked well, but the success of the ladder was limited because of a lack of organization. Southern Germany began to organize volunteer fire departments about 1849 and from that point on, the pompier began to make a name for itself in the fire service.

About 1864, a volunteer department was organized in Elberfeld, Germany, that was to have a direct bearing on the use of pompiers in America some years later. A man named Graser was appointed chief. He was a great believer in the pompier ladder for rescuing people and began to train his volunteers.

Training in St. Louis

Among the members of the Elberfeld department was Christian Hoell, who. later migrated to America and brought the pompier system with him. Hoell had trained under Chief Graser for about seven years and almost immediately upon arriving in America, he went to work with the St. Louis Fire Department.

It was in St. Louis during 1877 that Hoell organized and trained the first pompier ladder squads.

As soon as he felt that the St. Louis fire fighters were adequately trained to carry on without him, Hoell asked for a leave of absence. He then went to New York and trained fire fighters there in the use of pompiers. The New Yorkers were so impressed with the man and his technique that they tried to persuade him to remain and become a member of their department. After much deliberation, he decided to return to St. Louis and later became a captain in that department.

On August 10, 1887, Captain Hoell and three others, all members of the original pompier squad, were killed when the walls of a peanut warehouse collapsed while they were working on the third floor.

Other ladders developed

It wasn’t long after the death of Hoell and his men that the fire service began experimenting with trussed beam designs which permitted much longer and lighter ground ladders. Also, some progress was being made on a design that would permit a multiple-section ladder to be extended, revolutionizing ladder practices throughout the fire service.

The adoption of internal combustion engines to fire apparatus early in the 20th century helped to bring about further development of the aerial ladder. All these things played a part in eliminating the need for pompier ladders. Cities began to purchase ladders that were capable of reaching their tallest buildings at that time.

Codes and ordinances also played a part, requiring such facilities as exterior fire escapes, enclosed stairwells, etc. Wired glass windows and tempered plate glass became common. This further eliminated pompiers since such glass cannot be broken easily. Even completely windowless buildings have become common.

As a result of progress and change, the pompier ladder has all but become obsolete. Many fire departments today still maintain a minimum number of these ladders but use them mostly for training and the rare emergency for which they may be needed.

Pompier develops confidence

On the training ground, pompiers can be used effectively to develop men’s confidence in their climbing ability. It also helps men to learn to work at ease at unusual heights.

When trapped persons can be reached only by scaling outside walls, pompiers make short work of the task, but rescuers should always carry a bundle of rescue rope for removing the victims to safety. It would be an almost impossible task to take an unconscious victim down a scaling ladder.

Pompier ladders should be considered for use on the fireground only as a last resort. Even then, they should be used only to gain access to heights otherwise unattainable.

The future doesn’t look especially bright for pompier ladders, but that in no way lessens the important part they have played in the history of the fire service. Neither does it detract from the fact that pompiers have been credited with saving hundreds of lives at a time when they were the only means of access to upper floors.

Originally ran in Volume 131, Issue 2.

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