By Michael N. Ciampo
Arriving as the second-due truck at a 21⁄2-story wood-frame dwelling with heavy fire showing from the first floor, we saw numerous people in the second-floor windows waiting to be removed. Their primary means of escape—the open interior stairs—was blocked by fire and smoke, telling us we would have to remove them with portable ladders.
As we pulled off our 24-foot extension ladder, we made sure that we faced the building as we slid the ladder out of the ladder rack on the rear of the apparatus (“body to the building”). This gave us a constant view of the smoke conditions; the fire’s extension; and the location, number, and mental state of the victims.
We took the ladder across the yard as the first-due truck raised a ladder to a window where two adult victims were. One of the adults was dangling a young child out of the window. Personnel told the victim in a loud, stern tone of voice to stay put and “HOLD” onto the child; then they began to beam raise the ladder. Suddenly and without any warning, when personnel were halfway up in their raise, the victim decided to drop the child. The two firefighters were stunned and didn’t see the child fall; luckily, he landed in some shrubs.
The firefighters positioned the ladder to the window, and one firefighter went up to assist the self-exiting victims onto it. The other firefighter footed the ladder from the front, enabling him to observe the ladder removal taking place and watching the changing fire conditions (body to the building). Plus, if he needed to climb the ladder to assist in the victim removal, he was in position to do so rapidly. Many times firefighters “butt” or foot the ladder from the rear, with their backs to the fire, which hinders a proper size-up of the changing conditions occurring above and behind them. In addition, if a firefighter was carrying a tool up a ladder and dropped it or if a window above was being ventilated, there’s a good chance of being hit with the tool or glass while standing under the ladder and not seeing it coming. Also, if a firefighter climbing slipped and the footing firefighter went to help, his body’s motion is coming in quickly from a sideways direction and may actually do more harm and knock the firefighter off the rung or ladder. Footing the ladder from the front offers firefighters more advantages than footing it from the rear.
Remember, stay focused and perform a continual size-up throughout an operation. Luckily for us, we were able to quickly remove a calm individual who also self-exited from another window when the ladder reached him without any problems.
After the fire, both trucks held an informal critique on the portable ladder tactics used to remove the victims in the windows. Most of the talk focused on the raise and how quickly during it they lost sight of the victim and the child. Was it their fault, or was it a flaw in the method of raising a ladder in the beam raise? Unfortunately, our training only gives us a foundation of information and knowledge from which to work; we often have to adapt it to a particular situation.
Let’s review the lessons learned from the critique and the fire.
The beam raise was a quick and easy method to use because personnel transported the ladder in a shoulder carry (placing one shoulder through the rung spacing, with a rail of the ladder sitting on your shoulder, carry the ladder in a vertical profile up against your body, and carry your tools with the opposite arm). Personnel quickly lowered the butt end of the ladder to the ground, inline with the victim (if the victim is panicking, it may be safer to place the ladder out of reach and roll the ladder over to the location). One firefighter footed the ladder, and the other firefighter raised the tip to the victims, reducing the overall time needed for removal. Using a flat raise would have required the ladder to be flipped over and laid flat, adding more time to the evolution. As the firefighter butted the ladder during the raise, it was very difficult to look up and toward the victims in the window. His helmet was hitting his air tank; initially, he took his eyes off the victims as he bent forward and placed his hands on the ladder’s rail to pull back and act as a counterweight to assist in the raise. The firefighter raising the ladder is responsible to check for any overhead obstructions prior to the raise and is in charge of keeping his eyes focused on the victims and fire conditions. During this fire, the firefighter raising the ladder walked under the ladder and watched his hand-over-hand motion up the rail of the ladder as he raised it. He even said that when he looked up, his vision was impaired by his arms and the ladder as he tried to focus on the victims.
Whenever firefighters encounter victims in a window or raise a portable ladder in the beam-raise evolution, they should keep their “body to the building,” meaning the ladder should be on the off shoulder and the firefighter should be between the ladder and the building and not under the ladder. Raising the ladder in this manner allows the firefighter to have full unobstructed vision of what’s occurring above him (i.e., wires, tree branches, victims, changing smoke and fire conditions). When training on this evolution, have the firefighter raise the ladder with his eyes closed and walk it up hand over hand. He’ll be able to do it without any problems, reinforcing the fact that we need to train on looking up at our objective. The next time you’re involved with a ladder evolution, remember that there are three good instances when you should keep your body to the building!
● MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.