Safe and Effective Aerial Ladder Operations

By Steve Bernocco and Joel Andrus

All firefighters assigned to a ladder company must have a comprehensive understanding of aerial ladder operations and be educated and trained in all aspects—from positioning the apparatus at the fire building to knowing how many firefighters can safely be supported at the tip of the aerial ladder at any given angle. Rescue, ventilation, access to upper floors, and fire suppression can all be achieved from the aerial ladder.

Firefighter safety should be the primary concern of all ladder company members whenever they are working from the aerial. Members must train frequently on aerial ladder operations and be vigilant in following all safety standards.

Although this article focuses specifically on aerial ladder apparatus, many of the topics discussed also apply to ladder companies arriving at the fire scene on an elevated platform.

AERIAL LADDER APPARATUS POSITIONING

Tactical objectives and firefighter safety should be paramount in determining the proper and most advantageous location for the aerial apparatus. Positioning the aerial ladder for a rescue, accessing upper floors, placing a ventilation team on the roof, and setting up a master stream for a defensive operation all may be achieved effectively with safety in mind.

Placing the apparatus near the fire building so that members can use the aerial is imperative. Although this sounds simple, it is oftentimes challenging because of the tight competition for space at the fire scene. The first companies to arrive at the scene often park directly in front of the building. Engine companies, rescue companies, chief officers, and ladder companies should train together with apparatus placement in mind. The first-in companies need to evaluate the fire scene for optimal aerial apparatus placement. The front of the fire building should be left for the aerial, unless tactical considerations dictate otherwise (photo 1).


1. Photos by authors.

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Engine company officers should make it a habit to have their drivers/chauffeurs drive past the fire building. This serves two purposes: The engine company officer can view three sides of the structure, and it leaves the front of the building clear for the ladder truck. Remember, the engine company can always pull more hose to reach the fire, but the aerial apparatus cannot grow more rungs to reach the fire building.

What happens when an engine company has done a forward lay and there are charged or uncharged supply lines lying in the street as the ladder company pulls near the fire scene? Driving the apparatus over supply lines, whether charged or uncharged, is sometimes necessary. At multistory apartment buildings with upper-floor fires, it is vital that the aerial apparatus gets near the fire building so that the aerial can be used for rescue and ventilation.

Many of you might be saying, “Wait a minute, we have been trained never to drive over supply hose in the street. The hose will fail if we drive over it!” Driving over fire hose is not a recommended practice, but it is sometimes necessary in the real world of emergency fire operations. Charged hose can withstand an aerial apparatus’ driving over it, although the manufacturers will never recommend this practice. Remember, when lives are at stake at a multistory structure, the aerial needs to be within reach of the fire building.

If you must drive over hose in the street, avoid driving directly over couplings. They could become caught in the truck’s dual tires and permanently damage the couplings and the hose. Of course, if your ladder truck has properly designed hose bridges, use them.

Ladder company members must consider aerial stability when placing the aerial apparatus at the fire scene. Today’s aerial ladders are just as stable and strong when operated directly over the long axis of the apparatus (the front or rear of the ladder truck) as they are when placed perpendicular (at a 90° angle) to the long axis of the apparatus. This is not true with the older models of aerial apparatus. Many older aerial ladders are most stable when placed in line with the truck or in a jackknifed position. Make a point of knowing which operating positions give your aerial ladder the most stability. If you don’t know, consult your apparatus owner’s manual, or speak directly with your apparatus manufacturer.


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Try not to place your apparatus on a steep slope and work the aerial ladder perpendicular to the apparatus. This places enormous amounts of torsional stress on the aerial ladder itself. Know your apparatus specifications for raising the aerial on a slope, either uphill or downhill. The safest position for the aerial ladder on an uphill or downhill slope may well be directly over the cab or rear of the apparatus, in line with the long axis of the truck. Many apparatus manufacturers stress that the working loads of the aerial are cut in half when the grade exceeds 6 percent, or 3.5°. Again, know your apparatus specifications (photo 2).


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Always consider the collapse zone of a building when positioning an apparatus on-scene. At fires where you might employ defensive tactics, position the ladder truck outside the collapse zone—the area around the structure out as far as the building height or, even better, 11/2 times the building height away from the building. Sometimes, especially with tight building setbacks, narrow streets, and high-rise buildings, staying outside the collapse zone may be next to impossible. Remember in those situations that the corners of the building will almost ensure the apparatus a safe and effective spot from building collapse (photo 3). However, if rescues must be made near the center of the building, the ladder company may have no choice but to spot in the collapse zone.

Surface conditions are an important determining factor in aerial apparatus placement. The weight of aerial apparatus has increased over the years; finding stable ground from which to work is a must. Whenever possible, place the outriggers on concrete or asphalt. Soft dirt, grass, mud, ice, and snow are problem surface conditions you might encounter. Ensure that the apparatus has a complement of cribbing material and jack pads for operating on soft terrain.

When working in icy conditions, try to remove as much ice and snow as possible prior to setting the stabilizing outriggers. If you have no choice but to place the outriggers on snow or ice, spread sand under the outrigger pads to increase friction and reduce the possibility of the outrigger’s slipping on the ice. All ladder companies should carry a bucket of sand during the winter months if snow and ice are a problem in their area.


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Ladder companies often face narrow streets with vehicles parked on both sides of the street. This is where you need short jacking. The driver/chauffeur, with the help of the officer and other members (who should be off the apparatus, in front and back, guiding the driver/chauffeur to the correct spot), should place the apparatus on the side of the street away from the fire building. Fully deploy the outriggers on the fire building side of the apparatus. This is the side over which the aerial will be used; the outriggers must be completely extended for aerial stability. If possible, try to place the fire side outriggers between parked cars or on driveway aprons. This can increase the aerial ladder’s reach. On the other side of the apparatus, the nonfire side, deploy the outriggers out as far as you can. You will not be able to extend them all the way in a narrow or car-lined street. This is the short-jacked side (photo 4). Most aerial apparatus have an emergency override switch so that you can lower the outriggers in the short-jack configuration.

Always keep the aerial ladder at least 10 feet from overhead electrical wires. Don’t try to slip the aerial between or under wires. This places firefighters on the aerial in a very dangerous position. When in doubt, reposition the ladder truck to a side of the building that does not have overhead wires, or use your 45- or 50-foot ground ladder.

Much has been written about placing the aerial apparatus upwind to keep the aerial out of the smoke. Let’s face it, you usually have limited options for placing the aerial and are lucky if the wind works in your favor. However, consider it when feasible.

POSITIONING FOR RESCUE

Rescue is the ladder company’s first priority. Placing the aerial apparatus in the correct position to effect a rescue requires spotting the rig and the turntable correctly the first time. In an extreme rescue situation, you may not get another shot at saving the civilian or fellow firefighter.

Prior to stopping the apparatus at the fire scene, the officer should walk ahead of the apparatus and look at the building. This takes just a few seconds and reduces the chances of spotting the apparatus in the wrong place. Take the time to place the ladder truck where it will be most effective. Once it is stopped, it probably will not move again during the fire operation.

Place the aerial in a position to rescue the most people in the most danger first. This sounds simple enough. However, firefighters have mistakenly positioned the aerial to rescue people leaning out of windows and screaming for help well away from the fire area while overlooking victims who had smoke pushing out from behind them or who were above the fire. Just because a person has a good set of lungs does not mean he is in the most danger. Look at the smoke and fire conditions on arrival, and have someone (the driver/chauffeur) continually monitor the smoke and fire conditions from the turntable while the aerial is in use.


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If a victim needs to be rescued from a window by aerial ladder, line the turntable up with the window so that the aerial ladder is perpendicular to the building. Place the tip of the aerial ladder just below the windowsill for easy access into and out of the window (photo 5). Of course, if there are multiple victims, line the turntable up with the victim who is in the most danger and rescue him first. Once the victim and the firefighters are safely off the aerial ladder, reposition the aerial to rescue other victims. In some situations where there are multiple victims, you may not be able to line up the ladder with any victim because of the fire building’s size and shape or apparatus placement/access difficulties. In such cases, try to place the aerial apparatus between the victims you can see and rescue the victim who is in the most danger first.

Save the lives you can see. If you see a victim at a window above the fire location, or with smoke coming out from behind him on the fire floor, place the aerial and rescue him by the window. Leaving this victim for an interior rescue is risky. Fire conditions can change quickly. Use the aerial.

When making a window rescue from the aerial ladder, raise the ladder and extend it above the window where the victim is, then lower it to the windowsill. This technique lessens the chances that the victim will panic and jump for the tip of the aerial before you have placed it properly—which could cause a catastrophic aerial failure. This technique takes some practice, so be sure to drill on it, particularly for upper stories (fifth floor and above).

All ladder company members should be familiar with building construction and the building types in their district. When sizing up a fire building, try to identify the sleeping areas, which is where most victims are found at certain times. If you have mostly two-story, single-family dwellings in your district, then you know that the sleeping areas in these structures are probably on the second floor.

If the first-in truck is responsible for spotting in front of the building, the second-in truck should support the operations by taking the rear of the structure, when appropriate. The second-due aerial will be of little value if it is placed in the staging area or in the base area, away from the fire. Place the apparatus in the most advantageous location according to fire conditions. Of course, if there are multiple rescues to be made, the second-in ladder company should spot the rig in a position to use its aerial for rescue.

Always keep someone at the turntable to monitor conditions and move the aerial, if necessary, to effect civilian or firefighter rescues. This may be challenging in these days of decreased staffing, when ladder companies in some areas arrive at the fire scene with only two firefighters. However, do everything you can to keep the driver/chauffeur at the turntable—your life may depend on it some day.

Always position the aerial before you allow your members to climb it. Never allow anyone on the aerial while it is in motion. Arms and legs caught between moving ladder sections will be seriously mangled or severed. Never allow the practice of “shooting” the aerial ladder with a firefighter on it. This unsafe practice has caused serious injury and has forced some firefighters into early retirement. Also, prior to rotating the turntable, make sure that it is clear of all members and equipment.

How many floors can the aerial ladder reach to make a rescue? It depends on how close you can get the turntable of the aerial apparatus to the building. The closer the turntable is to the building, the more floors you can reach. This comes into play mostly at high-rise building operations. Preplan the buildings in your district, and find out the answer to this important question ahead of time.

SUPPORTED VS. UNSUPPORTED TIP


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Most aerial ladders are constructed as a truss and are designed to have the tip unsupported, with the base rails (or bottom chord) of the ladder in compression and the handrail (or top chord) in tension. When extending the trussed aerial ladder to the building, the base rails of the fly section should be about eight to 10 inches off the objective to prevent damage to the aerial and the building (photo 6). Avoid having the base rails of the aerial ladder so close to the building that the weight of firefighters climbing up the ladder causes the aerial to bounce on and off the edge of the building. Also avoid placing the aerial ladder on the edge of the building. Resting a trussed aerial on the objective may reverse load the truss system, depending on how hard the base rails (bottom chord) of the aerial are forced against the objective. These aerials are simply not designed to withstand this type of reverse loading, and the aerial ladder may fail. The trussed aerial is stronger when it is unsupported.

Some in the fire service have argued that you can rest the aerial ladder lightly on the top edge or parapet of the fire building. They believe that this technique offers more stability to the aerial ladder and more safety to the firefighters having to climb on and off it. However, the manufacturers of newer aerial apparatus base all of their specifications on an unsupported ladder and do not recommend a supported aerial ladder under any circumstances. We agree with the manufacturers and strongly advise against resting the newer aerial ladders on structures. Going against the manufacturers’ recommendations may lead to tragic results on the fireground. Again, be sure to read your standard operating procedures and your aerial manufacturer’s recommendations before making your decision.

The aerial ladder is designed to be loaded in a very limited fashion—it is stronger when the load is applied perpendicular to the rungs. Resist the urge to rest one rail on the edge of a target. This puts torsional stress on the aerial, is against the manufacturer’s recommendations, and is one of the leading causes of aerial ladder failure.

The climbing angle of the aerial ladder is important to the firefighters who must use it. The proper climbing angle should be around 70°. This is the optimum angle for safely climbing up and down the aerial ladder. Whenever possible, avoid excessive horizontal and vertical ladder angles. Older-style aerial ladders were not designed to be operated at low elevation angles. The newer aerial ladders are just as strong at low elevations as they are at the steep angles of elevation. In fact, some newer aerials can be used at negative angles. Again, consult your aerial apparatus manufacturer’s recommendations and load chart.

ROOF OPERATIONS

Aside from rescue, rooftop operations during a fire are arguably one of the most important functions of a ladder company. Opening an effective ventilation hole for the heat and smoke to escape makes the interior of the fire building better for both the engine company attacking the fire and any possible fire victims.

Before placing the aerial for rooftop ventilation purposes, read the building for fire. Place the aerial to a safe portion of the roof—well enough away from the fire so that it is on a strong part of the roof. This is critical to the success and safety of the ventilation team on the roof. By placing the aerial on a strong portion of the roof, the ventilation team can sound the roof from the strong area of the roof to the weaker area of the roof (over or near the fire), where they can cut their ventilation hole(s). This also allows the ladder company to work from the weakest part of the roof back to the strongest and safest part of the roof and back to the aerial. Of course, having another ladder for egress off the roof is critical. This second ladder should also be placed to a strong side of the fire building, where the ventilation team can retreat if the fire situation deteriorates.

Flat-roof operations. The corners of flat-roof buildings offer a strong area that is usually the last area to fail under fire conditions, providing a strong stepping-off spot for the ventilation team. Positioning the aerial eight feet from a corner gives you a 50 percent chance of laddering a structural member—namely, a purlin. This is particularly important when working on a large, lightweight panelized roof, where structural members become a major safety factor. There are also fewer windows at the corners of buildings, reducing the hazard of fire venting out the window and exposing firefighters on the aerial ladder.


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Extend the tip of the aerial ladder as far above the flat roof as possible, at least 10 feet or more. Unlike ground ladders, which lose stability if too much ladder extends above the roofline, the aerial is stable. Extending the aerial ladder at least 10 feet over the roofline of a flat roof is important for several reasons. First, this makes it easier for the ventilation team to exit the roof in a hurry. Second, this allows the ventilation team to see the aerial, particularly in smoky conditions (photo 7). Also, with the lights on at the tip of the aerial, the aerial ladder becomes a safety beacon, visible to everyone on the roof.

Note: Some of our ladder companies in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department have been taking the thermal imaging camera (TIC) on the roof for some time now, and it has proved to be an invaluable rooftop tool. Depending on the material used for the roof decking, the TIC allows us to see heat from the fire in the attic or cockloft below and confirms a good location for the ventilation hole. When the smoke is lying over the building and the roof deck is hard to see, the TIC allows the ventilation team to see through the smoke. It is particularly valuable on the rooftops of large buildings. Of course, the ventilation team should still sound the roof with roof hooks, stay on supporting members while walking toward the section of the roof that needs ventilation, and continue to cut smoke indicator holes. However, the TIC has made our job much easier. In fact, it sometimes allows the operator to see the structural members on certain types of roofs. If your ladder company has a TIC to spare, have your officer carry it to the roof at the next good attic or cockloft fire. Again, training is the key to this operation.

Peaked-roof operations. Peaked roofs pose several different prob-lems than flat roofs. First, the pitch of the roof can pose a safety concern and is oftentimes difficult to walk on. If the pitch is greater than a 4/12 pitch (four feet of rise for every 12 feet of run), then use a roof ladder. For any pitch greater than a 9/12, use an aerial. These numbers can be debated, but it is better to use the roof ladder whenever there is a question about the safety of your personnel. The roof ladder becomes problematic when the pitch of the roof exceeds 9/12, so the aerial ladder then is your best choice. However, in many cases, because of power lines and other obstructions, you cannot use an aerial ladder, and a roof ladder becomes the only option, even on a 10/12 or 12/12 pitch.

Whenever possible, use the aerial ladder to access peaked roofs for ventilation. If you can reach the roof with a ground ladder, place the ground ladder first, since this is quicker than placing the aerial ladder. While the ground ladder is being raised, the driver/chauffeur can place the aerial ladder to the roof. Having the aerial ladder deployed offers another ladder off the peaked roof. The aerial ladder is the strongest and most maneuverable ladder you have at your disposal. Use it whenever you get the chance.


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When approaching a peaked roof with the aerial for ventilation, recognize that the valleys and the peaks are the two strongest parts of the roof and the last to fail. Accessing the valley of a peaked roof with the aerial ladder gives firefighters an easier avenue of travel up and down the roof. By placing the aerial to the valley, you also leave the large spaces of the peaked roof open for the ventilation operations (photo 8).

When placing the aerial ladder to the peak, remember that your egress will always be higher on the roof than the ventilation hole you just cut. Depending on where you place the aerial ladder and what the wind and fire conditions are, firefighters could be exposed to fire or cut off from the aerial as they try to leave the roof. Generally, it is safer to place the aerial ladder lower on the peaked roof rather than higher.

Just as with flat roofs, ladder the strong part of the roof (away from the fire), and work from the weak part of the roof (where the fire is) back to the strong, where the ladders are.

DRILL WITH APPARATUS

The aerial ladder is an excellent fireground tool for rescue, ventilation, access to upper floors, and master stream capabilities. If you ride on a ladder company, know how to spot the apparatus safely and correctly at the fire scene. Also know how to place the aerial ladder to the fire building for rescue and ventilation.

The key to safe and effective aerial ladder operations is hands-on training. Make every shift a training shift. Drill frequently on all aspects of aerial ladder operations. Have all ladder company members spot the apparatus at different buildings in your district for vertical ventilation. Have them operate the ladder from the turntable and spot it to buildings. Climb the aerial to the roofs of the buildings in your district on a weekend, and talk about ventilation tactics. Stop at buildings and begin a discussion about spotting the apparatus for rescues. Note overhead wires and other obstructions in your district that would make using the aerial impossible. Become an expert at your job. The only way to achieve this is to drill as much as possible with your aerial apparatus.

STEVE BERNOCCO is an 11-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and a lieutenant assigned to Ladder 10.

JOEL ANDRUS is a 17-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and a captain assigned to Ladder 10. He has been a member of the FEMA USAR WA TF-1 since 1995 and is currently a logistics chief.

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