Training Days: The Head-First Ladder Slide


Part Three


Article and photos by Tom Kiurski

Putting together training sessions may overwhelm a coordinator. But if you first break them down into their main goals, you can determine your next training session more easily. After attending the “Safety and Survival Revisited” hands-on training session at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), I had quite a few ideas–just not enough instructors to run a session. For this training session, I focused on the head-first ladder slide.

The head-first ladder slide is controversial. Although it has been performed flawlessly at FDIC, in researching it on the Fire Engineering Web site, I found proponents and adversaries alike (“The Headfirst Ladder Slide: Three Methods,” October 2000; “Ladder Bail Out,” Roundtable, March 2001; and “Ladder bail/slide,” Letters to the Editor, May 2001). When this maneuver was performed at a training session in Manteca, California, it resulted in the death of a firefighter. Was this worth the effort and risk? After doing the research, I felt the maneuver was worth training on, and a harness would be used to act as a safety if a fall were to happen.

We reviewed the drill the week prior to conducting it at the house we would use for the session. We made some holes, rigged webbing for the safety harness, and then practiced the maneuver several times to work out any potential problems.

The training day started out with a review of the head-first ladder slide and how it is used as a means of emergency egress in a situation in which a firefighter feels he has no other, safer choice. As luck would have it, this drill was to be held the first full week of June, 2007. The week before, two Minneapolis firefighters used this emergency egress maneuver to exit a burning room they were in on the second floor of a home. With television cameras rolling, the event was caught on tape, replayed many times for firefighters across the nation.

The traditional method of mounting a ladder from an upper floor involves going out the window feet first. This leaves the firefighter’s head and torso in the upper levels of the room, where heat and flames are most intense. We discussed ladder placement with the crews, emphasizing placing ladders just below the window sill of upper floors if there is a potential need for emergency firefighter egress. In addition, we recommended a climbing angle of less than the 75 percent, since decreasing the angle would allow better use of friction as a “brake” in the descent. We informed firefighters of the training death in California to heighten their awareness of safety issues. For this training evolution, firefighters were put into Class 1 harnesses.

Firefighters practiced the head-first ladder slide out an upper window, attached to the safety rope system, and were instructed to keep a low profile while exiting the window onto the ladder. The participant could descend all the way down in the upside-down position if other firefighters were exiting behind the first firefighter. If time allowed, the firefighter would right himself in the upright position on the ladder when he exited the window and climb down normally. To conduct this turn to the upright position, the firefighter should stay low and move the body onto the ladder from the window. When below the window sill, he should reach around the ladder beam with one hand and grasp a rung from behind, with the other hand holding a rung from the top side. Slowly and deliberately, the firefighter can turn his body around, moving the hands to the rungs on the top side of the ladder when the body is comfortably upright.

Firefighters were asked to perform this maneuver twice. The first time was to get the mechanics of the movement down while wearing full turnout gear and harness without SCBA. The second time, they would put on the SCBA to get the full effect of how this maneuver feels while wearing full PPE.

Although this training session was a great learning process and ended without any firefighter injuries, we also taught another maneuver: moving an unconscious firefighter across a room. The upstairs of the training house was one large room, measuring some 20 feet in length, which allowed rescuers to practice moving a firefighter a decent distance using only the tools they carried. Dragging can be difficult since there were very few gripholds, and the unconscious firefighter was very close to the rescuer. By using department-issued webbing to move the firefighter, the rescuer could be farther away from the firefighter being rescued, as well as having a nice handle to grip. The webbing was looped around the shoulder straps of the SCBA harness, and the waist strap could be positioned through the legs to keep the SCBA from moving up the body of the unconscious firefighter. The webbing can also be looped under the arms of the unconscious firefighter. Both techniques were demonstrated and the maneuver was underway.

I am not the most seasoned training coordinator out there. I have done some homework from the experts who teach us monthly in the pages of Fire Engineering. I have attended FDIC many times over the years, and feel I can do my best to teach our firefighters some good training tips. Some of you may not have been able to attend FDIC, or don’t regularly get Fire Engineering, but put in the time and do a little research. Then get out and do some training.

Tom Kiurski is training coordinator, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.  



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