Exterior Team Operations


Adequate staffing is critical to our success. A minimum four-person ladder company can divide into two major elements: an interior team and an exterior team. Less than this four-person minimum means that additional ladder companies are needed or some tasks may simply go undone. We must design our ladder companies for aggressive interior operations first and defensive operations second. To delay truck company duties only increases the danger to our members who conduct an interior attack and rescue civilians.

One very critical factor that the exterior team can accomplish is ventilation. The proper amount and method of ventilation at the right time and place can reduce or eliminate the danger of rollover, backdraft, and flashover; increase visibility; extend the time for occupants awaiting rescue; and prevent members from incurring painful injuries. Life safety for both our firefighters and any victims is always our first priority, and the importance of adding ventilation to this equation cannot be overstated. In some examples, such as a heavily secured and buttoned up one-story taxpayer puffing thick smoke and showing other classic backdraft signs, vertical ventilation is an immediate objective to reduce the chances of such a devastating event. Equip your department with this critical mindset. Without an effective support structure (i.e., ladder company tactics), the fire attack is less safe or even doomed to fail.

The exterior team performs many tasks that increase the amount of time interior members can operate. The team approach allows the exterior team to perform a number of tasks, which include the following:

  • Laddering—aerial, tower, or portable.
  • Ventilation—for life or fire; vertical or horizontal.
  • Forcible entry—allows an alternative means of access and egress.
  • Search and rescue—by vent-enter-search (VES).
  • Utility control—shut down electric and gas from a remote location.
  • A reconnaissance element that provides progress reports for the incident commander (IC).





Let’s focus on how the exterior team works and how it is equipped. Assigning tasks prior to the team’s arrival is critical to success and allows members to size up as it relates to their specific fireground function. Firefighters’ proficiency in vertical ventilation requires foresight, training, and planning.

In a paid department, you can accomplish such planning and foresight through riding assignments given out during roll call at a shift’s beginning. Here, a member can organize his thoughts for the required task ahead.

In a volunteer department, you can assign tasks based on apparatus seating assignments. Volunteers can organize their thoughts as to what is expected of them prior to arrival.




The exterior team can complete tasks that are many and varied, depending on the fire’s location and extent and the building type. For example, a first-floor private dwelling fire demands horizontal ventilation opposite the engine company’s attack.

While the interior team searches egress paths and the areas closest to the fire and works outward, the exterior team can enter through alternative routes to search those areas where victims are likely found, such as the bedrooms. Alternative avenues require imagination and training. Aerial, tower, and ground ladders and porch roof access are all potential ways to get to critical areas. In these situations, where the fire is not immediately below the roof and may not warrant vertical ventilation, then VES tactics would offer a better use of resources.

In other situations, vertical ventilation may prove a more effective initial tactic. An example of effective vertical ventilation is an apartment building with a flat roof. Here, the first-due truck’s exterior team uses vertical ventilation as a key element to enhance life safety. In these occupancies, where a significant life hazard presents itself (such as smoke mushrooming on the top floor), the exterior team must create openings on the roof to increase the time occupants have remaining (photos 1, 2).

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(1) A primary exterior team job is to create effective ventilation pathways. One way is to vent the roof’s bulkhead door that is over the interior stairwell. Once you force the door, probe the stairs or landing for a victim using a hook or pike pole. This photo shows a potential danger with a seemingly routine operation; this can result in a three-story fall. Situational awareness is vital to your survival. Night and bad weather will magnify the danger to members operating here. (Photos by Doug Rowell.)
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 (2) Look at the roof of this commercial occupancy. Although no bulkhead door exists, there are numerous skylights that can rapidly vent smoke buildup in occupied areas. As with all ventilation activities, exterior team members must be aware of potential fire spread to an area where they do not want it.

In addition, ventilation openings move the fire and heated gases up and out and stop the lateral spread. Accessing the roof and opening the skylights, scuttles, and interior stairwell’s bulkhead doors and taking out windows with a halligan attached to a length of rope (or the use of a six-foot hook) will improve interior conditions. A fire beneath the roof (top-floor fire) warrants cutting the roof open after venting the immediate natural openings (i.e., skylights, bulkhead door). Never forget the dangers of lightweight construction features, though. This hazard warrants operations independent of the roof, such as working from a tower ladder basket.

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These are critical tasks that the ladder company’s exterior team must perform in a fashion that does not cause greater harm. Sometimes, effective ventilation will save more lives than a window rescue. An occupant at a window screaming for help creates tunnel vision, but what if a dozen civilians are not visible and are subjected to fire gases and acrid smoke? Ventilation cannot be an afterthought.




The exterior team should consist of at least two firefighters, such as the ladder chauffeur and another firefighter. Working together, these firefighters can access the roof to perform vertical ventilation or ladder windows to perform rescues. If aerial placement is not possible, these members can place portable ladders for VES tactics. This team can also create additional egress points, such as forcing the occupancy’s rear doors and windows (photo 3), and create alternative means of escape by throwing up additional ladders.

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(3) A role of the exterior team is to provide additional egress points and ventilation points. The need for a forcible entry saw (circular saw with a metal-cutting blade) will assist in the quick removal of these bars. These conditions will cause a delay that the incident commander (IC) must be notified of. Remember, the exterior team is the IC’s eyes and ears.

The exterior team is the IC’s eyes and ears and is radio equipped and able to move quickly. The team looks not only for life in danger but also for warnings and signs of collapse and the fire’s location and extent. They relay valuable reports to the IC, such as heavy loads on the roof, open or enclosed shafts, the location of firewalls or other divisions, and occupant location. The exterior team is an invaluable contribution to a safer fireground.




Tool assignments may vary depending on the mission or the structure type and its hazards, so flexibility is key to success. The three primary truck company tools that lay a foundation for success are a six-foot hook or pike pole, a halligan, and a flathead ax. With these tools, firefighters can vent or force most windows, doors, skylights, scuttles, and bulkhead doors.

If you need a saw to cut the roof (i.e., wood-cutting blade) or to force entry on a heavily fortified steel door (metal cutting blade), this alters the tool assignments. Too many tools burden a firefighter and cause fatigue or a loss of balance, but a member should carry at least two tools.

The ladder company’s exterior team is a vital element to fireground success. In coordination with the other activities taking place, the adequately staffed and equipped ladder company enhances safety dramatically.




Avillo, A. Fireground Strategies, 2nd edition.Fire Engineering, 2008.

Brennan, T. Tom Brennan’s Random Thoughts. Fire Engineering, 2007.

Norman, J. Fire Officers Handbook of Tactics, 3rd edition. Fire Engineering, 2005.

Terpak, M. Fireground Size-Up. Fire Engineering, 2003.

ARMAND F. GUZZI JR. is a 23-year fire service veteran and firefighter with the Long Branch (NJ) Fire Department. He is also an instructor for the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy, where he has taught since 1990. He has a master’s degree in management and undergraduate degrees in fire science, education, and business administration.


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