Firefighting Basics: Heel from the Front

Photos by author

In the fire service we have textbooks that help us with our understanding and skill development for all firefighters. Some of these textbooks are for basic training whereas others are for more advanced learning. With a recruit firefighter, we will use a textbook that will teach them the fundamentals so that a basic foundation can be laid.

Textbooks do not always teach everything, nor do they always relate how things are in real life. For any of you who have taken a class, whether hands on or lecture, you will sometimes hear: “You will not learn this or see this in a textbook.” What does this statement mean? Does it mean the instructor is going rogue and teaching their own version of skills? For the most part it does not, but rather simply that textbooks sometimes miss the subtleties of tactical application in the flux of fireground events. Instructors will relate real-world application in their lesson delivery in tandem with a textbook.

I was instructing one day with a recruit class and noticed that, while the ladders segment was being taught, there were firefighters heeling the ladder from behind. Why? Because they were taught this as the textbook showed. When they were informed that they could also heel from the front, they were surprised and responded with a confused look on their face.


Body to the Building

Throw Back to Basics: Ground Ladder Tip Placement

Training Minutes: Raising a Ladder: Body to the Building

Why is heeling the ladder from the front a more practical and realistic application? When we are on the fireground and facing a situation that requires us to ladder a building, efficiency and effectiveness need to be at the forefront of our minds. We are usually dealing with a manpower-limited situation. Not every fire department will have the luxury of having three or four firefighters available to put up a ground ladder. If we are fortunate enough to have two firefighters to complete this task, then we must learn how to work with the resources that we have.

When we heel the ground ladder from behind, it removes one of the firefighters from the team. Once they are committed to holding that back position, they are unable to aid or help the other firefighter climbing the ladder.

When a firefighter heels a ground ladder from behind, they are also unable to view the entire operation. They can see the beginning stages of the operation but not the end of it, nor do they have an overall view the entire operation. Firefighters wearing full turnout gear, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and a helmet will have restricted movement, and their ability to look directly up may be impaired. For some, their helmets may hit the top of the SCBA cylinder, while for others the front brim of the helmet blocks part of their view. Either way, the firefighter’s view of the operation is hindered, and this therefore becomes a dangerous way of heeling a ground ladder. You are effectively removing that firefighter from the rest of the team on the fireground.

On the other hand, if firefighters can observe the entire operation from beginning to end, they are able to assist other members with watching the building and fire conditions, the development of the fire, and any hazards that may reveal themselves during the ladder operation. They can observe the whole side of the building as well as keep an eye on the firefighter who is on the ground ladder. The firefighter that heels from the front of the ground ladder is thus still a part of the team. (1)

Firefighter footing the ladder at burn building

When firefighters heel a ground ladder from behind, they are also exposed to falling hazards. Members may be carrying hand tools up the ladder to help with the assigned task and these hand tools can fall. Gravity is working against us every time we are carrying up a hand tool; we get tired, our grip loosens, and the hand tool is now falling to the ground. Depending on how it is falling, there is a good chance that it will hit the head of the heeling firefighter. When we are breaking glass from a ground ladder, that glass falls right on top of the heeling firefighter. 

Firefighters will inevitably want to see what’s going on around them, so the heeling firefighter may look up. Have you ever heard an instructor tell you to not look up when you are heeling a ground ladder from behind? This is so that you won’t have falling tools, broken glass, falling debris, etc., hitting you in the face. When you look up, you are exposing your neck, mouth, and eyes to whatever may be falling on you. 

What if the firefighter climbing the ladder starts to slip or loses his or her balance while climbing? How quickly can the heeling firefighter come around from behind and stop the climbing firefighter from falling? Not very quickly! What if the climbing member needs assistance right away? Can the heeling firefighter assist him or her quickly when positioned behind the ground ladder? What about passing off tools or other pieces of equipment that may not be needed? Can the firefighter heeling from the back assist? The answer is no—the heeling firefighter has been removed from the team. If they were heeling the ground ladder from the front, they would be able to quickly assist the other firefighter and still be a part of the team. (2)

Firefighter with multiple portable ladders at house fire

Heel the ground ladder from the front simply and effectively by using your foot to heel the butt of the ladder while keeping your hands pressed against the ladder beams. This practical, real-world application may not always be conveyed in a textbook, but when applied in real life, it makes perfect sense!

Mark van der Feyst
Mark van der Feyst

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot (MI) Fire Department. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, and India, and at FDIC. He is also the lead author of Residential Fire Rescue (Fire Engineering Books & Video). He can be contacted at


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