Positioning Aerial Apparatus When You’re Not First Due


Perhaps the biggest challenge chauffeurs of aerial apparatus face is the limitation of their aerial. As the saying goes, “You can always stretch hose, but you can’t stretch ladders.” Scrub angles and aerial length necessitate that the apparatus be placed in specific positions or locations to achieve optimum use. This can be difficult when you are one of the first units on the scene and is severely complicated when you arrive later in the incident.

Apparatus operators should always strive to place their apparatus in the optimum position available. It is tempting to think that we don’t have to worry about setting our rig up because other ladder companies may already be in position. However, we must always plan for the worst:

  • What if one of those aerials experiences a failure?
  • What if the fire continues to advance?
  • What if one of our fellow firefighters is trapped and out of reach of the other aerials?

If a spot is available, do not waste the opportunity to get your rig in position for optimum use.

Of course, this means that ladder company members must be intimately familiar with their apparatus. This includes the rig’s dimensions and specifications, scrub angles, tip loads, capabilities, limitations, and maneuvering abilities. This is not just the chauffeur’s responsibility. A knowledgeable crew member can be an asset to the chauffeur in spotting apparatus placement and assisting with positioning.

In some situations, your rig may offer capabilities not available from the ladder companies already operating on the scene. This is often the case for the first tower ladder to arrive at a fire. Tower ladders offer unique capabilities for access, rescue, and elevated master streams (photo 1). These advantages are lost if the chauffeur cannot obtain a good position.

(1) Different types of aerials have different capabilities. Exterior overhaul is much safer from a tower bucket than off a standard aerial. (Photos by Justin E. Davidson.)

Although it is easy to say that engine operators and other units should position with easy access for aerials in mind, most ladder company chauffeurs will tell you that this, unfortunately, does not always occur. Often, positioning of the ladder company will be complicated by the location of engine companies, command vehicles, police cars, hoselines, and equipment. You may also encounter other obstacles such as trees, fences, and parking meters.


In their haste to set the parking brake and get to work, many chauffeurs accept the unfortunate placement of these obstacles and work with what they have. The downside to this, of course, is limited functionality of their apparatus. Instead, the ladder company’s chauffeur and officer should work together to achieve optimum placement by taking a few simple steps.

1 Plan your route of response. When you plan your route to the scene, consider that everyone else probably already took the “fastest” route. Consider the routes other apparatus may have taken. These streets often will be clogged with other apparatus and hoselines. Is there another way you can take? It may be slightly “longer,” but will it help you avoid obstacles and ultimately get to work faster?

2 If possible, know your assignment before you arrive.If the incident commander (IC) wants you on the rear of the building, it would be a waste of time to fight your way to the front. You may have to plan a different route to access the rear. In addition, if you are going into an elevated master stream operation, you will need to consider the source of your water supply.

3 Take time to move obstacles. If it doesn’t have hose connected to it, get it moved. Have the crew drag hoselines out of the way. You may also have to cut small limbs off a tree or take out a fence or street sign to get your rig into the best spot. Your concerns are the fire and fellow firefighters.

4 Use your crew as scouts and spotters. Everyone on the rig should know about its turning radius, dimensions, capabilities, and limitations. If this is true, you can send your crew on foot ahead of the rig to scout out your best spot and route. Use your crew members as spotters and eyes to negotiate into tight spots.

5 If it needs to go on the grass, put it on the grass. You cannot effectively reach some buildings from the hard surface, particularly the rear of buildings. The chauffeur and officer will have to make an assessment about the stability of the ground; however, ultimately your goal is to get the rig in the best spot for firefighting and rescues.

At the fire in photo 2, a two-story end of the row was heavily involved in fire on both floors, and a defensive mode was in place. This tower ladder was the third aerial apparatus to arrive; the first two were tractor-drawn aerials.

(2) Spotters allowed this tower ladder to squeeze into a tight spot and use its full capabilities.

Positioning the tower necessitated the relocation of several police cars, an air-cascade unit, and two supply lines. Spotters negotiated the rig between two engine companies, with inches on each side. The front of the rig had to be placed partially on a sidewalk. A spotter made sure the boom did not contact the roof of the one engine company during operations.

The building had an intact roof covered with tin, which would severely limit the effectiveness of aerial streams from above. Placing the tower’s 1,250-gpm bucket monitor to the second-floor windows allowed rapid extinguishment of the second floor, providing penetration of walls and ceilings throughout the 60-foot-deep building (photos 3, 4).

(3) Although two other aerial devices were on-scene, the chauffeur recognized the need to obtain an optimal position so that the tower ladder’s capabilities could be effectively used.



The rig’s placement allowed full coverage of the Alpha and Bravo sides. In addition, the wood rafters were smoldering below the tin roof. The penetration of the bucket monitor was used to attack this fire from underneath, blowing the tin roof up. This allowed extinguishment of the hot spots without subjecting crews to the unstable roof or second floor, saving truck crews hours of tedious overhaul.

At a 2003 fire in Boulevard Heights, Maryland, a one-story auto body shop was well involved. This tower ladder was the fourth aerial apparatus and the first tower ladder to arrive on-scene (photo 5). The chauffeur and officer were aware of the building type and the heavy volume of fire and wanted to get in position to use the bucket monitor as the IC was directing. The response route was planned accordingly.

(5) Other fire apparatus, cars, hoselines, and power lines are just some of the obstacles a ladder company chauffeur must negotiate.

Still, the rig had to negotiate an extremely narrow street over dual supply lines, past two engine companies, between civilian vehicles, and other apparatus to obtain a position where this would be possible (photo 6).

(6) Crew members with strong knowledge of this tower ladder’s maneuvering capabilities and limitations were key to getting it into position.

One of the crew members was sent ahead to scout the path and clear obstacles. The crew members were also used as spotters to ensure that the rig didn’t strike any other vehicles, hoselines, or equipment.

Saws were used to remove part of a fence that was reducing the boom’s scrub angle. As a result, the bucket was able to be placed to a roll-up door and to knock down the fire and provide hydraulic overhaul with the monitor’s penetration capabilities (photo 7).

(7) Your concern is the fire. Do not let movable obstacles ruin your operations. Here, several sections of fence were removed to allow proper clearance for tower ladder operations.

Proper positioning can mean much more than effective fire knockdown. In July 2004, a three-alarm fire occurred at a residential high-rise in Prince George’s County, Maryland. A fire on the fourth floor was causing heavy smoke conditions on the floor above, trapping occupants on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. A rear-mount aerial was the only ladder company in the rear and had to leave the pavement, parking in the rear courtyard to effect rescues. This necessitated moving several cement trash cans and small trees. The chauffeur was able to get the rig into position, but because of recent rains, the rig ultimately became stuck in mud; it had to be removed with a heavy wrecker. Still, before the fire was over, 11 victims were removed with this aerial apparatus. The rig required a good bath and a tow truck to remove it, but 11 people were removed to a position of safety. Surely, the lives and safety of those civilians were worth the chauffeur’s efforts and a bucket of soap.

Each fire will challenge the ladder chauffeur’s abilities in placing the apparatus. The officer and chauffeur must survey the scene and determine the optimum position for the rig’s geographical and functional assignment. Don’t just accept the scene as you find it. Use your crew to scout a position. Remove any movable obstacles. Remember that once the parking brake is set and the outriggers are dropped, that rig is in position for the remainder of the job. Repositioning will require a significant investment of effort and time. Make all efforts to get it right on the first try.

NICHOLAS A. MARTIN is a firefighter with the District of Columbia Fire Department, assigned to Engine Company 11, and a volunteer with the Kentland (MD) Fire Department. He has more than 13 years of firefighting experience and has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from the University of Maryland. He is pursuing a master’s degree in public safety leadership at Johns Hopkins University. He is involved in firefighter training and instructs frequently on the East Coast on operational topics.

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