Truck Company Operations: Boston’s Ladder Culture

By Shawn Donovan

Why does the Boston (MA) Fire Department (BFD) throw so many ladders?

Mainly because the fire department has discovered that it’s better to have them and not need them. The bigger answer has a lot more to do with the history of the city and how it grew.

If you ask around BFD, you will get three common answers. After initially responding, “Why would you even ask that question?” members will respond as follows: “We need to!”; “Why not? It’s a good practice!”; and “The engine companies can be more aggressive because they know ladders will be in place.”

We Need To

The first answer, “We need to,” is not obvious if you have never been to Boston. The city’s layout does not lend itself to positioning aerials wherever we want them. The roads are essentially paved cow paths that meandered around the terrain, which featured public grazing areas like Boston Common.

Just as in many older cities, Boston’s closely built housing stock is on average more than 120 years old. The difference is that for the city to expand, the waterfront had to be filled in. Like many cities, Boston expanded by annexing surrounding communities, but the city also filled in the marshlands that surrounded its original peninsula (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Boston Shoreline, 1630 vs. 1999

Click to Enlarge

Private companies did most of this land reclamation without money from the city or state, obtaining their profits from selling house lots. They sold as many as they could, building three-story, balloon-frame buildings (triple deckers) close together on most of the lots. Each floor had a residential unit, and the floor plans are identical floor to floor with rear porches and a kitchen in the rear. Boston once had 15,000 triple deckers of various styles built in the city. In some parts of the city, the first floor is at street level in the front, and the back is an additional one to two floors below grade, designed to save on fill-in material. The construction company only had to fill in the streets and create a decent footing for the building’s foundation; the rest was the new owner’s problem.

The main stairways in these buildings would usually be a tight wooden spiral staircase. The stairways were, and still are, no friend to firefighters. The rear stairs would be tighter and more difficult to negotiate. Because of this, getting ground ladders to the rear of a building became a real priority for firefighters. The average street width in Boston allows for two truck companies to get their aerial ladders into operation, but the narrow widths prevent side-by-side placement, so many times only one can be used.

The automobile brought more congestion to the streets, since the houses are very close together (three to five feet apart). There are not many driveways or garages. Vehicles blocking corners and congesting the streets make navigating the streets difficult, let alone placing an aerial ladder for access. Between the stairways and tight streets, Boston firefighters started throwing ground ladders as an alternative means of entry and egress.

Boston’s tactics emphasize that every ladder company provide its own access to the fire building’s roof. The priority of aerial positioning became important in the 1980s, when the BFD suffered huge budget cuts and closed 20 companies. Since then, the importance of placing aerial ladders in service every time remains constant. Even if aerial ladder placements are successful, ground ladders will still be thrown to the building. One of the main truck company rules is, “If you cannot get your aerial into operation, your company will bring a ground ladder to the building.”

(1) Ground ladders provide direct access to the seat of a fire Bill Noonan
(1) Ground ladders provide direct access to the seat of a fire. Crews must have confidence in their equipment and in each other’s abilities. (Photo by Bill Noonan.)

We Need Practice

Proficiency at throwing ladders takes consistent practice. Throwing ladders at a fire that is under control gives the real-world practice that cannot be duplicated on the training ground. If the fire is not under control, no staffing is lost bringing a ladder to the building when the crew is already walking up to the scene. If it is not needed, the ladder is left on the ground near the front of the building and the company goes right inside to work. That ladder will be placed as needed later or put away after the fire.

If the building has sustained substantial damage and the staffing is available, there is no reason to leave the portable ladders on the truck. If a truck company consistently shows up without ladders, it will be hard-pressed to grab one and throw it when needed. Good companies surpass not-so-good companies in the supporting actions they take. Why does the last engine in bring a big line to the front door? If you need it, it’s there; if you don’t need it, it’s good for the practice. The companies that show up empty-handed or say “We’ll grab it if we need it” don’t do as well as the “We do it every time” companies when it’s time to perform. In Boston, the same thing applies to truck companies.

(2) A four-alarm fire in Boston's Jamaica Plain section emphasizes that every aerial must find its own access to the roof Bill Noonan</i>
(2) A four-alarm fire in Boston’s Jamaica Plain section emphasizes that every aerial must find its own access to the roof. Also, 35-foot ground ladders have been placed to the building, ready to be redeployed if needed. (Photo by Bill Noonan.)

To Support the Engine Company

As for the final answer, engine companies can be more aggressive knowing ladders will be placed. Not only are ladders thrown for life safety, ladders are also thrown in support of engine operations. Ground ladders and aerial ladders provide access routes for fire attack and for egress routes for all members in the building. With consistent laddering, engine companies in any department can be bold if they know their truck companies will be bold also.

For BFD incident commanders, throwing ladders is not an option—getting water and getting ladders to the building go hand in hand. You cannot redeploy something that is still on the truck. Running down the street to get a ladder or a hoseline that is desperately needed only adds time and potential delays to the deployment. The companies need to bring this equipment when they come to the scene, whether it is used right away or not.

The marriage of hoselines and ladders starts in the academy where drills and live fire evolutions always involve the two working together. Within the first two days of the fire academy, recruits will hoist a 40-foot ladder and get a hands-on introduction to the aerial ladder.

(3) A fatal fire with victims jumping in Boston's Allston section Steve MacDonald, Boston Fire Department Public Information Officer.)
(3) A fatal fire with victims jumping in Boston’s Allston section. Ground ladders easily mitigated confusing access and compromised stairs. Engine companies made a coordinated push with big lines over ladders to knock the fire down. (Photo by Steve MacDonald, Boston Fire Department Public Information Officer.)

Additional Considerations

The best rapid intervention team (RIT) is the one you never need. BFD’s RIT standard operating procedure calls for proactive RITs to ladder for secondary egress. How better to get quickly familiar with a building than to walk around and place ladders based on the conditions found? Your RIT or a company inside may need them. With the big push on flashover awareness, how can a department say it is aware and concerned about firefighter safety and in the same breath say that too many ladders are being brought to a fire building?

Construction styles have changed, just like construction materials. Some dwellings and other buildings have confusing layouts and odd stairway patterns that require longer hoselays and a farther travel distance for egress if needed. Why not throw more ladders? If a stairway gives out during a fire, you cannot just give up that egress. It’s an easy route to find, and firefighters will be attracted to it. You have to get a ladder in there to prevent firefighters from falling and getting injured. The closer the ladders are to the point of need, the quicker they can be put into use, and the potential for injury will be lessened.

Some complain about excessive laddering and its perceived drawbacks. The only way I can put any stock in this is if they fear firefighters will get hurt deploying ladders that will not be used. If injury is a valid concern on your job, then it’s time to do more training and increase the level of skill and confidence in ladder operations. Laddering is a basic skill that cannot be overlooked in today’s high-tech, high-acronym fire scenes. Low-tech ground ladders always work.

During their time at the Boston Fire Academy, recruits will climb more than 2,000 stories on ladders of all types combined: roof ladders; extension ladders of 24-, 35-, 40-, and 50-foot lengths; and aerial ladders. They will each have to throw ladders dozens of times and also have to prove to themselves what the biggest ladder is that they can deploy on their own.

The recruits will also deploy pompier (scaling) ladders individually and as a group in chain pompier evolutions. Recruits who start the fire academy afraid of heights still have a healthy respect for heights after but have no reservations about doing any aspect of firefighting from a ladder. With a start like this, there is no question about the importance Boston puts on laddering a fire building.

The rule for ground ladders is the same as for everything else on the fireground—call for the equipment, and put it in place. If you don’t need it, you can put it away. I’d rather have it and not need it.

Additional Links

Drill of the Week: Ground Ladder Carry & Raise

Are You Ground Ladder Savvy? Part 1

Are You Ground Ladder Savvy? Part 2

SHAWN DONOVAN is a 13-year veteran of the Boston (MA) Fire Department and a lieutenant assigned to an engine company. Previously, he was assigned to a truck company and a rescue company. Donovan has assisted with four recruit programs (more than 200 students) for the department and has taught H.O.T. classes in firefighter basics.

Shawn Donovan will present “Boston’s Ladder Culture” on Friday, April 24, 8:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m., at FDIC International 2015 in Indianapolis.

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