Reevaluating Truck Operations


In its infancy, fire suppression efforts con-sisted of bucket brigades that had a minimal effect on structural fires but did illuminate the need for more effective solutions for the mitigation of fires. For this reason, early volunteer fire brigades were formed. Ben Franklin is well-known for his early efforts is this area. As these initial volunteer brigades became more organized and experienced in the various stages of fire suppression operations, it soon became evident that buildings were being built larger and higher than single-story residential structures and, as a result, fires in multistory buildings were becoming more difficult to reach and extinguish. Along with the increasing organization and developing professionalism of the fire service came the knowledge that fire suppression often consisted of two basic components—the ability to reach a fire and the capability to then put it out. This realization led to the use of ladders to reach fires above the first floor in buildings and ultimately to the use of specific companies that carried ladders and tools instead of carrying hose and pumping water. This diversity of fire apparatus led to terms such as pumper, hose companies (which are still used by some modern fire departments), and ladder companies.

The first attempts at using dedicated ladder companies resulted in human-drawn wagons with wood ladders up to 20 feet in length. With the advent of horse-drawn apparatus, more ladders were carried, and lengths increased to 35 feet. The introduction of gasoline-powered apparatus saw ladder length further increase to 50 feet. During this time, pompier-type ladders were used; they enabled fireground personnel to ascend the exterior of multistory buildings by attaching the ladder to exterior windows. This operation was instrumental in using the nomenclature of hook and ladder companies that denoted apparatus that carried ladders.

Today, this facet of the fire service is known as truck companies (some are still known as hook and ladder companies), and the advancements of modern technology have produced apparatus with aerial ladders capable of extending well over 100 feet, platforms with 1,000-pound load ratings and the capabilities of flowing 2,000 gallons per minute (gpm), booms that can be articulated over walls and other similar obstacles, and a vast array of tools and equipment for specialized fireground operations.

With all of the modern advances in technology that fire suppression personnel currently enjoy, one element that has remained constant during the evolution of the fire service is that engine companies extinguish fires, but truck companies determine how a fire will be extinguished. However, before any truck company can effectively assist with determining how a fire will be extinguished, particularly when an aerial device must be properly positioned, a truck apparatus must first be safely driven to an incident and then positioned in harmony with the needs of an incident. With these thoughts in mind, let’s reevaluate the following basic considerations (some of which are debatable) that can affect the operational capabilities of a truck company.


National Fire Protection Association statistics indicate the third highest cause of death and injury to firefighters is responding to an incident and driving back to a fire station. Stated from another perspective, a United States Fire Administration Firefighter Fatality report indicates that since 1984, apparatus collisions have accounted for about 25 percent of all firefighter fatalities! Although most apparatus operators are fully aware of this statistic, an inordinate number of fire service vehicular accidents continue to be a problem. Interestingly, if drivers were asked “Are you familiar with the driving requirements of your particular apparatus?” most drivers would quickly respond with a strong “Of course!” However, it is doubtful that all drivers of truck apparatus (which continue to increase in size and complexity) are totally familiar with the inherent viewable and blind spots from their driving position. When sitting in the driver’s seat, a regular, backup, or substitute driver must be totally familiar with the areas around the apparatus that can and cannot be seen. As an example, photo 1 depicts the blind spots as viewed from the driver’s seat of a 1999 Pierce quint, 100-foot rear-mount platform. The following is of particular interest with this apparatus:

  • When viewing the area in front of the windshield from the driver’s seat, the platform overhang blocks viewing ahead much farther than one-half city block. This eliminates or minimizes viewing and anticipating traffic lights, intersections, and so on.
  • The small shaded areas that traverse outward from the front corners of the apparatus (photo 1) are the areas blocked by the A-pillars. The mobile data communication (MDC) screen mounted on top of the dash by the officer blocked the driver’s view to the front-right portion of the apparatus.

(1) Being familiar with the blind spots for an apparatus will enable a driver to anticipate blind areas that may be hiding objects that can contribute to an accident. (Photos by author.)

The knowledge of a specific apparatus allows a driver to anticipate blind areas that may be hiding objects (vehicles, personnel, and items) that can contribute to accidents. Remember that blind spots will dramatically change when the area around an apparatus is viewed from rearview mirrors that are flat, equipped with bubble mirrors, and so on. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that every apparatus driver take the time to become familiar with the blind spots of their particular apparatus. Note: Remember that all areas around an apparatus that can be easily viewed by or are hidden from a driver will vary according to the type and make of apparatus.


The late Tom Brennan, former editor in chief and then later technical editor of Fire Engineering, was often quoted as saying, “The address of a building belongs to a truck company,” which was based on the perspective that it can be more important to place an aerial device in front of a building (instead of an engine company) because “you can stretch a hoseline but you cannot stretch a ladder.” When considering the placement of the initial aerial apparatus to a building, common recommendations are to place the apparatus in front of a building for two basic reasons: (1) there is a specific requirement such as a known or visible rescue, firefighter access to a specific location, and so on; and (2) it may be needed during the incident. Obviously, this second viewpoint can result in an aerial apparatus’ not being in the proper location if an aerial device is needed at another location as the incident develops, and it can also unnecessarily add to the congestion in front of a building. Therefore, unless an aerial device is positioned in front of a building for a specific reason, the corners of a building can offer the following advantages:

  • An aerial device can reach two sides of a building (photo 2). Always remember to maximize fireground flexibility.
  • The building’s corners are the strong portion of a building and normally out of potential collapse zones.
  • Placing an aerial device to a corner will normally not place the aerial device over horizontal openings such as windows and doors. In photo 3, notice fire extending from the windows on the front of the building, yet the aerial ladder still offers a safe means of exit from the roof.
  • By driving past a building and spotting to the far corner, company personnel will see three sides of a building. If the far corner is not appropriate, consider the near corner (the corner the apparatus passes first) as an alternate spotting location.
  • Spotting to a corner also opens the front of a building for placement of other companies such as engine companies, chief officers, and so on.
  • If necessary, an aerial apparatus spotted to a corner can often be moved to other locations as incident needs develop, as opposed to an aerial apparatus that is parked in front of a building and blocked by other apparatus (this is often known as the “olive jar syndrome”).
  • An additional consideration is spotting the apparatus to a corner that would also allow the aerial device to be used as a potential defensive-exposure protection tool for an adjoining building. However, proper personnel access-egress routes should take first priority.
  • If two aerial trucks are responding to the same building, it can be advantageous to have the trucks approach the incident from opposite directions. This can result in the truck officer’s being able to see more sides of the building, and the truck officer will not have to drive by the engine company congestion in the front of the building and the trucks placed at the opposing corners of the building, and so on. 

(2) When spotted to a corner, an aerial device will be able to reach two sides of a building.
(3) Placing an aerial device to a corner will not normally place the device over horizontal openings, which can become openings for extension of fire.


Nationally, staffing on truck companies can vary from one to six persons. However, three persons is the national average. If a truck company is staffed with three persons, consider placing the firefighter on the driver’s side of the apparatus as in photo 4 (driver-1, officer-2, and firefighter-3). When the apparatus stops to position for aerial operations, the officer can exit the apparatus and place the officer side jack pads for the ground jacks. Simultaneously, the firefighter can exit the apparatus from the driver side and place the opposing side jack pads for the ground jacks and reduce the preparation time prior to raising the aerial device. Placing jack pads can be dramatically simplified by welding (or attaching, depending on the jack pad material) small-angle brackets on the jack pads (photo 5), if not so equipped (and most jack pads are not so equipped). This allows the pads to be quickly placed on the jacks. As a result, the jack pads will always be with a jack regardless of the distance from the apparatus. Additionally, always put the “handhold” on the jack pads toward the apparatus to eliminate the potential for fireground personnel tripping.


(4) With staffing of three, placing the firefighter behind the driver can simplify placing jack pads for aerial use.
(5) Brackets affixed to jack pads can allow the pads to be quickly placed on the jacks. As a result, the pads will always be with the jacks regardless of their final positioning.


As applied to master stream appliances, aerial ladders can be purchased with a pinnable waterway. This allows the waterway to be operated from the end of the ladder for elevated master stream operations or placing the master stream appliance one section back from the tip of the aerial ladder to facilitate placing the tip of the ladder closer to an objective as in photo 6. Aerial ladders with master stream appliances that can be pinned back one section should carry the appliance so that it stays back one section when the ladder is extended (often referred to as the rescue position). The primary reason for this consideration is that aerial ladders are most often used for access-egress of fireground personnel and rescue operations, not elevated master stream operations.

(6) Being able to pin a master stream appliance one section back from the tip can allow placing an aerial closer to an objective.

However, when an aerial ladder is changed to the rescue position from being extended with the master stream appliance at the end of the ladder, use extreme care to ensure that the method of pinning is completed in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. When operating pinnable waterways, be aware that their use is controlled by mechanical (i.e., electrical or hydraulic) or manual means. The mechanical pinnable waterways are relatively consistent in their operation. However, the manual pinnable waterways depend on the proper insertion of a metal pin in the correct location, or rotating a handle attached to a cam for proper engagement. If this vital step is not performed in the appropriate manner, the monitor/nozzle mount and the last section of the waterway pipe can disconnect from the fly section and become an airborne missile when pressurized with water. When purchasing an aerial ladder, consider that the pinnable waterway will greatly increase the aerial ladder’s flexibility, but the pinnable waterway must be properly secured before use. Note: For a closer look at an incident that involved this issue, see “The Importance of Training Highlighted in Aerial Waterway Fatality” by William C. Peters (Apparatus Supplement, Fire Engineering, June 2008).


Why do apparatus often park too close to a building during defensive operations? Actually, this question equally applies to engine and truck companies, as evidenced by the defensive operation in photo 7. Both of these companies are in the potential collapse zone of this building. It is likely that “spotting up close” comes from engine operations, as these companies will often spot as close to the curb as possible to simplify and shorten the implementation of attack lines. However, when operating in a defensive mode, it must be remembered that the building is under demolition, is a prime candidate for collapse, and often becomes a parking lot. As applied to aerial device operations, always evaluate the distance of an aerial device from a building when elevated master streams are being used from an aerial ladder or a platform. A common mistake is to assume that the collapse area of a wall would be outward and downward, similar to the dark triangular shaded area as illustrated in photo 8 (this is often the case). However, if a wall collapses outward in an arc, as illustrated by the lightly shaded arc (concrete tilt-up walls, unreinforced masonry construction, and so on), it can strike the aerial device or apparatus. Always allow enough room for this possibility.

(7) Both of these companies are within the potential collapse zone of this building.
(8) A collapsing wall can collapse outward and downward or outward in an arc the height of the wall.


When observing pictures of defensive fireground operations, it is common to see firefighters on the end of an aerial ladder directing a master stream into a burning building. Although this is a frequently debated subject, let’s look at both sides of the debate. On the pro side, firefighters operating an elevated master stream are normally in a position to observe the progress of the fire, the effectiveness of the elevated master stream, potential collapse problems, and other similar factors that an incident commander may need to know. On the con side, the assumption is that a remotely controlled monitor is a better alternative if available, and this operation can be inordinately dangerous from the perspective that it can place a firefighter in a compromising position in relation to the building and the fire and a failure of the water supply or monitor can be detrimental to the firefighter, and so on.

Although there are viable considerations from both sides of this debate, this operation can be safely used if two considerations are met. One, are personnel properly trained to operate elevated master streams? Two, and potentially most important, is the consideration of positioning the aerial device. If an aerial device is placed near or over a building for elevated master streams, the aerial device and elevated personnel have been positioned in a potentially dangerous position. As illustrated in photo 9 (position 2), if the roof were to suddenly collapse and a resultant vertical extension of fire dramatically increased, the aerial device and personnel on the ladder would be within the area of the vertically extending fire. However, if the aerial device and personnel are placed away from the building as, illustrated in photos 9 (position 1) and 10, the aerial device and personnel are outside of any area of fire extension and resultant danger. Additionally, due to the reach of elevated master streams, they can often be as effective away from a building as they are on top or too near a building. This is another reason straight streams should be used in most elevated master streams instead of fog or spray streams.

(9) Elevated master streams can be safely operated by personnel on an aerial device if they are placed away from the hazard as illustrated by position 1.
(10) This elevated master stream has been positioned away from the building yet is still able to effectively direct an elevated stream of water.

Note: For additional viewpoints on this subject, see “Using Master Streams from Straight-Stick Aerials,” Roundtable, Fire Engineering, April 2001 and “Tip of a Straight-Stick Aerial,” Roundtable, Fire Engineering, March 2009.


Occasionally, it may be necessary to place the tip of an aerial ladder close to and at an angle to an objective or into an area that does not offer any appreciable width, such as the need to break a window for ventilation when no other timely options exist. Depending on the type of window, some window openings are not much larger than the width of modern aerial ladders. This is a reason accessories (ladder controls, spotlights, and so on) at the end of an aerial ladder should be kept to a minimum; they tend to increase the overall width of an aerial ladder.

Another reason accessories can be detrimental is that their added width to the end of an aerial ladder can block the view of the tip of the ladder from an operator on the turntable, forcing the operator to briefly leave the control pedestal to obtain a better view of the aerial tip as it nears the objective. As an example, photo 11 illustrates the ladder tip of a 105-foot rear-mount aerial ladder. Notice the extensions (spotlights, remote ladder controls) on either side of the ladder that significantly increased the overall width of the end of this ladder.

(11) The addition of accessories at the end of this aerial ladder has significantly increased its overall width.


Another worthy debate is the status of an aerial operator when an aerial device is in a substantial position (i.e., to the roof of a building), locked, and being safely used as an access or egress device. This debate takes on even more importance when many departments are operating with minimal staffing, yet initial basic fireground operations still need to be accomplished. Although an aerial operator must stay on a turntable when an aerial device is in motion (or may be in motion), there may be times when an aerial device is positioned to a building, locked into position, and used only as a stationary access-egress ladder. In these cases, if a department can afford to have an aerial operator stand on a turntable while other important fireground operations go uncompleted, there is little debate. However, in cases of minimal staffing, the importance of the aerial operator’s completing important fireground operations near the apparatus-aerial device should be (at least) considered in concert with the time the operator will be away from the turntable.


Although platforms are superior to aerial ladders for delivering personnel, tools, and equipment to an aboveground location, can aerial ladders also be used for this operation? Currently, many fire departments routinely carry tools such as pike poles, rubbish hooks, halligans, and power saws (as an example, look at the metal scabbard just above the light on the left side of the aerial in photo 11 that is used to carry a chain saw) toward the end of an aerial ladder. However, to take this concept one step further, can personnel also be carried on the end of an aerial ladder while it is raised into position as in photo 12? Although this evolution is not for the casual user of an aerial ladder, the answer can be a qualified yes if three conditions are met: (1) Aerial ladder personnel are properly trained to perform this operation, (2) the rated tip load of the aerial is sufficient for the intended load, and (3) the fly section of the ladder must be extended outward a distance (usually six to eight feet) from the sections below it prior to personnel mounting the fly section and being raised to an aboveground location. The reason the fly section is extended is that this operation eliminates the crossing rungs syndrome and allows personnel to stand on the end portion of the fly section rungs (or the foldable steps that manufacturers often provide) without having moving rungs from the section underneath the personnel. As an example, photo 13 illustrates an aerial after it had been extended about eight feet (this distance can vary for each manufacturer) and clearly shows the rungs of the last eight feet of the fly section do not have crossing rungs underneath. Additionally, notice this manufacturer has also installed solid plates below the rungs around the side-mounted steps, so even if the ladder were not extended, personnel on this portion of the ladder would have solid material underneath the steps/rungs on which they would be standing. Although this is a highly debatable operation and would be considered an advanced aerial procedure, this can be a safe operation if it is performed as previously delineated and can result in the timely delivery of basic resources to aboveground locations.

(12) Personnel can be placed on the end of an aerial ladder while it is being raised if certain conditions are met.
(13) You can avoid the dilemma of crossing rungs by extending an aerial ladder so the fly section rungs are beyond the rungs of the preceding section.


When placing an aerial device to an objective, it should normally be positioned as perpendicular to the objective as possible. This will allow both base rails to equally rest on the objective if the ladder sags into the objective. In this configuration, an aerial ladder is considered a supported ladder. However, if an aerial ladder is placed at an angle to an objective, only one base rail will rest on the objective if the ladder sags into the objective. In this configuration, an aerial ladder is considered an unsupported ladder. It is also inherently weak because of torsional stress that can be created by ascending or descending personnel who will weight the unsupported base rail. This can cause the following problems:

  • Force the unsupported base rail downward, torsionally twisting the aerial ladder and potentially causing failure of the aerial ladder. The greater the angle of the aerial ladder to (or away from) the objective in concert with a given weight on an aerial ladder, the more critical this consideration becomes.
  • An aerial ladder can slide against an objective toward the unsupported base rail, creating a hazardous condition for personnel and the aerial ladder. Note: An unsupported base rail is one reason some manufacturers recommend operating their ladders in an unsupported condition; some aerial ladders are stronger in the unsupported position as compared with supporting one base rail. When comparing an unsupported aerial ladder (both base rails are unsupported) vs. one unsupported base rail, access on or off an unsupported aerial ladder is not perfect (as the aerial may move or bounce); however, the chance of structural damage to the ladder is reduced in comparison with having personnel on a ladder with an unsupported base rail.

Correctly centering a ladder or platform to an objective can be accomplished by aligning the centerline of an aerial on the turntable with the centerline of an objective. The centerline of an aerial is the hinge point of the bottom portion of an aerial device (arrow in photo 14 and right above the middle of the number 7722). In reality, the focus of this consideration for this apparatus requires spotting the aerial centerline (or the centerline of the compartment with the number 7722) to an objective, not the apparatus (unless the aerial device is spotted in-line with the apparatus).

Unfortunately, the increased size of modern apparatus and enclosed cabs have made this task more difficult for apparatus drivers. As it can be challenging for a driver to consistently and correctly position an aerial device to various types of objectives, teamwork and training can enhance this process. Be aware that the construction of a few aerial devices can vary this operation. As an example, notice the construction and aerial centerline of the Sutphen platform in photo 15 is different from the aerial device in photo 14. One practice spot with your apparatus will quickly delineate the proper centerline of an aerial device.

(14) The arrow depicts the centerline of this aerial device.
(15) The centerline of an aerial device can vary with manufacturers.


Ask any person who has been assigned to a truck company, “How many apparatus does it take to block a truck company out of position?” The common answer will be one engine company can totally negate the placement of an aerial device. Although this is not an uncommon occurrence, it is readily obvious when it happens. However, another example that is not quite as obvious but can hamper the full capability of an aerial device is the placement of initial engine companies that allow truck apparatus to spot to an objective but not be able to use the full capability of their aerial device.

Therefore, to maximize the reach of an aerial device to an objective, two concerns must be addressed: (1) The officer of the first-in company (assume it is an engine company; this is normally the case) must evaluate both engine and truck company operations. If an aerial device is necessary, then it is the first-in officer’s responsibility (as that person is the incident commander) to ensure that the arrival, placement, and use of an aerial device can be maximized; and (2) if an aerial device must be raised to an objective and needs to be in close proximity to another company, the aerial device should be able to be positioned inside of the other apparatus if maximum aerial reach is necessary, as in photo 16, or outside of other apparatus if maximum aerial reach is unnecessary, as in photo 17.

(16) Spot an aerial device inside of other apparatus if maximum reach is necessary.

(17) Spot an aerial device outside of other apparatus if maximum reach is unnecessary.

Interestingly, if the placement of another company forces a truck to spot outside that company, this can reduce the overall reach of an aerial device by approximately 25 feet or more. This is a 33-percent reduction for a 75-foot aerial device and a 25 percent reduction for a 100-foot aerial device!

John Mittendorf will present the classroom session “Truck Company Priorities 2011” at FDIC 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Thursday, March 24, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

JOHN MITTENDORF retired from the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department as a battalion chief after 30 years of service. He is actively engaged in teaching fireground operations in this country and Europe. He is the author of Truck Company Operations, 2nd Edition (Fire Engineering, 2011) and the recipient of the 2008 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award.

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