GROUND LADDER PLACEMENT
BY JOHN W. MITTENDORF
Portable ground ladders are among the most effective and versatile firefighting tools. Effective fireground operations often depend on the timely and adequate placement of ladders for rescue, ventilation, initiation of aboveground hoselines, access to upper floors and potential exposures, emergency egress, bridging, and salvage, to name a few.
Many fire officials believe that a considerable portion of large-loss fires are a direct result of ineffective use of ladders. It is a fact that ground ladders can set the standard for firefighting operations. At times, using them ineffectively can even negate successful fireground operations. Therefore, the importance of ladders at structure fires cannot be overemphasized.
Like other effective fireground strategies, prefire planning for various types of structures will aid in developing proper ladder placement techniques. Ladder placement can vary due to numerous factors, but there are basic requirements regardless of building type, size, and use. Like most aspects of this business, fireground operations are constantly changing as a result of uncontrolled circumstances that fires can create or influence. This constant change requires suppression personnel to be versatile in their thinking and, at times, may require imagination and judgment. Prior to selecting and spotting ground ladders, you must evaluate a number of size-up considerations.
Identify the primary objective.
(1) Rescue occupants.
(2) Firefighter access: immediate (involved structure) or anticipated (potential exposures).
Evaluate the building.
Determine fire location and extension.
Support logistical operations.
(2) Salvage and related operations.
Ladders necessary for initial placement (primary location).
Ladders necessary for backup (plan ahead).
Determine proper ladder location.
Determine the type of ladder and proper length.
Consider the height of the ladder over the objective (far enough over to be easily seen from the roof; just over or just below the windowsill for windows).
Hazards: Evaluate any hazards that can affect ladder placement–for example, building construction, electrical wires, trees and vegetation, the ground surface, and vehicles.
The following examples review common types of structures and general ground ladder placement considerations using some basic parameters. The buildings are pictured as they would be seen when approaching them, and smoke designates the location of the fire. If possible, consider putting an aerial device to any roof because of its ease and speed of deployment. Remember, an aerial device isn`t used only on larger buildings.
Size-Up: This is a single-story, single-family dwelling consisting of wood-stucco exterior construction with a wood shingle roof of moderate pitch. Smoke is showing from a first-floor window on the left side of the structure. There is a slight wind from left to right of the structure, with a potential exposure (structure) to the right of the involved building. It is 0100 hours.
Initial Ladders: Use one ladder to the ridge (by the fireplace) on the left side of the structure. This will (1) give access to the strong areas of the roof (ridge), (2) not block the front of the structure (front door), (3) be away from horizontal openings (windows, garage door), (4) provide access to the roof for ventilation, and (5) be on the windward side of the smoke (although you should place a ladder away from the fire location, this placement will provide quick access to the fire area and be out of the smoke coming from the front of the structure).
Additionally, place a ladder for inside operations near the front door to ensure its availability without hampering initial fire attack operations.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the rear of the structure for an alternate means to and from the roof. A roof ladder should not be necessary for roof ventilation. Place a ladder to the roof of the exposure on the right side of the involved structure. This will provide access to the roof should the incident warrant its use. Remember, the wind is from left to right.
Size-Up: This is a two-story, single-family dwelling consisting of wood frame (ship-lap) exterior construction with multiple gable roofs of moderate pitch. Smoke is showing from a window on the first floor, and light smoke is showing from a second-floor window. The front and rear doors provide good access to the interior of the structure; however, note the security bars on the first-floor windows and front door. This is an excellent indicator that forcible entry will be required. The weather is clear with no wind, and it is 0900 hours. Additionally, this home is of an older, wood-frame, ship-lap type of construction, which indicates the possibility of balloon construction (open exterior walls into the attic). This scenario could be a simple food-on-the-stove fire or a fire that has been confined in a structure that has been closed and vacated for the day. Smoke showing from the first and second floors indicates an open stairway and extension.
Initial Ladders: Assuming a simple food-on-the-stove scenario with light smoke showing, place a ladder to a clear upstairs window. This will allow access into the structure through a window (which may be unlocked or easily opened/broken) as opposed to forcing entry through a door or ground-floor window with security bars. Additionally, entering on the second floor will provide a measure of security until the occupants return. Assuming a fire scenario, place a ladder to the front lower roof ridge on the right side of the building. This will keep the ladder away from the fire location and allow personnel access to the lower roof and ventilation of the front windows on the second floor. Place a ladder for inside operations near the front door so it is readily available, if necessary.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the right upper roof ridge to provide access if vertical ventilation is necessary.
Size-Up: This is a two-story, apartment-condominium complex consisting of a frame-stucco exterior, a potential common attic over all the units, and a moderately pitched roof. Fire is showing from a window on the second floor. There is a slight wind from left to right, and it is 1400 hours. There is good access to the fire by a front exterior stairway to the second floor and by the sliding glass patio door on the second-floor balcony.
Initial Ladders: Place one ladder to the roof on the left or right side of the front exterior stairway. This will (1) be away from horizontal openings (windows), (2) provide access to the roof for ventilation, and (3) be strategically positioned if fire extends into the attic. This ladder will provide access to the roof ahead of a potential extending attic fire, not behind or over the fire, as would be the case if the only access to the roof was provided by a ladder placed to the roof (right side of photo).
Place a ladder for inside operations close to the front stairway to the second floor. This will provide necessary access to the attic from the interior of the structure to check or extinguish any fire that may have extended into the attic.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the second-floor balcony (right side of the picture) of the involved unit for additional access to the second floor. Remember, aboveground units in these types of structures normally have only one means of entry/ exit.
Size-Up: This is a frame-stucco apartment building that appears to be a two-story from the front but is actually three stories from the sides and rear. Heavy smoke is showing from two windows on the first floor (as viewed from front of building). No wind is present, and smoke does not appear to be issuing from the hallways. It is 1600 hours.
Initial Ladders: Place a ladder to the right side of the second-floor balcony on the front side of the structure. This will provide a means of egress for occupants and access for suppression personnel to the second floor, plus it will place the ladder away from the fire and provide unrestricted access to the front door for personnel and hoselines.
Place an additional ladder to the roof corner of the front right side of the structure. This will provide a means of access to the roof and allow personnel to open the penthouse door to the interior stairway if necessary.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the rear of the structure (second and third floor if there is no exterior stairway) for an additional means to access/egress these floors.
A ladder to the roof, on the rear corner left side of the picture, could provide an alternate means to and from the roof.
Size-Up: This is a three-story, garden-type apartment complex of frame-stucco construction with a flat roof. Smoke is showing from one unit on the third floor. Good access to the fire is via an enclosed stairwell in the middle of the structure. There is a slight wind from right to left, and it is 1000 hours.
Initial Ladders: Place one ladder to the end of the third-floor balcony on the right side of the structure. This will provide a quick and easy means of access to the third floor and keep the ladder away from the fire. Place an additional ladder to the roof on the right side of the structure for vertical ventilation.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the second-floor balcony on the right side of the structure. Also, place a ladder to the roof on the left side of the building as an alternate means of access/ egress.
Additional ladders shouldn`t be necessary. There is good access to the second and third floors, enclosed hallways are not a problem with garden apartments, and the lack of any significant attic space will restrict rapid fire spread through the conventional construction.
Size-Up: This is a three-story apartment-condominium complex with frame-stucco construction and a flat roof. The complex is constructed over a subterranean parking area. Fire is showing from one unit on the third floor. Depending on the size and layout of this building and the potential problems associated with any building security, access to the fire could be a time-consuming operation. Possible extension into an open attic and fascia of lightweight construction is a consideration. It is 1000 hours, and there is no wind.
Initial Ladders: Ladder placement will depend on a prior knowledge of this structure or a quick survey of the building layout as visible from the street. If this is a simple garden apartment (no enclosed hallways) with easy access to the interior patio-garden area and the involved apartment on the third floor, then a ladder to the third-floor balcony from the garden area will give good access for personnel and hoselines to the fire.
However, if this building is similar to many garden and center-hallway apartments with building security and difficult access to upper floors, then personnel are faced with a different set of conditions affecting ladder placement. In this case, one ladder to a third-floor balcony (building exterior) to the left or right of the involved unit will give quick access to an uninvolved apartment next to the involved apartment and will allow personnel to easily enter the hallway and the involved apartment, pushing the fire outward.
Place another ladder to the corner of the roof (left side of building) to allow personnel to ventilate over the fire and check for extension in the attic and fascia, if necessary. Remember, the fascia is a potential common attic on the building exterior.
Finally, take an inside ladder for use within the fire area.
Additional Ladders: Consider deploying an additional ladder to the roof (right side of building) if extended roof operations are necessary.
Size-Up: This is a common type of older building with multiple mom-and-pop occupancies with the following features:
Unreinforced masonry construction.
Parapet on the front of the building that hides a flat roof.
Some of the occupancies may share a common attic.
There is access to the fire via the front door and window, as well as the rear door, all of which probably have heavy security. Heavy smoke is showing from a commercial occupancy. There is a slight wind from left to right, and it is 2000 hours.
Initial Ladders: Place a ladder to the right (end) portion of the single-story building. Due to the common attic and the possibility of extension, this ladder will provide a primary path to the roof and yet will be away from the fire. It will also provide access for ventilation over the fire and/or strip ventilation operations to the right of it, where the greatest probable loss of occupancies exists (three occupancies to the right of the fire, one to the left).
An inside ladder should be readily available to assist in checking for extension on either side of the involved occupancy (first priority to the right, second priority to the left). Remember that you must pull ceilings in the occupancies next to the involved unit to check for extension in a common attic.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the left (end) portion of the building if additional roof ventilation operations to the left of the involved unit are necessary. This ladder will also provide an alternate means to and from the roof.
Size-Up: This is a one-story strip commercial occupancy with the following features:
Large fascia and flat roof of probable lightweight construction.
Nine commercial occupancies (one is to the left of the photo) that share a common attic.
Access to the fire can be accomplished via the front door-window (moderate security) and probable rear door (heavy security). Smoke is showing from a commercial occupancy. There is no wind, and it is 1100 hours.
Initial Ladders: Place two ladders away from the fire that will allow access to the roof for ventilation operations. In this scenario, place two ladders to the right (end) portion of the building, not the fascia. These ladders will provide a primary and alternate path to and from the roof, as well as a ladder away from the fire. Additionally, they will provide roof access for ventilation over the fire and/or strip ventilation to the right of it (due to the greatest probable loss of five occupancies to the right of the fire as opposed to three occupancies to the left).
An inside ladder should be readily available to assist in checking for extension on either side of the involved occupancy (first priority to the right, second priority to the left). Remember that you must pull ceilings in the occupancies next to the involved unit to check for extension in the common attic.
Additional Ladders: Place a ladder to the left (end) portion of the building if additional roof access and/or ventilation operations to the left of the involved unit are necessary.
Additional Considerations: Check the fascia for extension. Remember that laddering the front of a fascia and opening the sloped portion present a danger of collapse. Opening the bottom portion of a fascia is also dangerous when personnel are operating underneath it. Opening the vertical backside portion of a fascia is easy, because it is usually of the same lightweight material as the roof. It is also safe because personnel don`t have to be working below it.
Size-Up: This is a two-story, flat-roof structure of masonry construction. The first story is comprised of two commercial occupancies, and the second story is divided into multiple apartments with the only access being a single stairway at the rear. Heavy smoke is showing from the second floor, with fire visible from one of the windows. There is a moderate wind from left to right, and no people are visible in the second-floor windows. It is 0500 hours. Rescue is a prime consideration, and extension into the attic is a possibility.
Initial Ladders: Place one ladder to the roof, on the corner of the building on the front side. This will provide access to the roof and allow personnel to check for skylights over the hallway. It will also allow for appropriate ventilation over the fire area. You can also check for extension of fire in the attic.
An inside ladder should be readily available at the bottom of the rear stairway in case it is necessary to reach the attic from the interior.
Additional Ladders: Since there is only one stairway to the second floor (in the rear of the building), it is important to determine the size and extension of fire there. Remember, all suppression personnel will have used and be committed to one way out of this scenario. Therefore, if the fire is relatively easy to extinguish, this may be acceptable. However, if the fire is extensive and the size-up indicates there is heavy smoke with fire showing, consider providing an alternate route to the second floor. This may be accomplished by placing a ladder to one of the second-floor windows. The middle window in the front of the building is probably in line with the hallway, which should be in the center of the building.
Place an additional ladder to the roof at the front of the building (other corner) for additional roof access.
Size-Up: This is a four-story, center-hallway apartment of masonry construction. Smoke and fire are showing from a third-floor window. However, because this is the only source of smoke, the fire may be contained to one unit. It is 0300 hours, and there is no wind. Due to the time of day, rescue is a prime consideration, but no occupants are observed needing rescue. There is good access to the interior via exterior fire escapes on the front of the building and the front (grade-level) entrance to the lobby.
Initial Ladders: In this scenario, although the fire is on the third floor and it is 0300 hours, there is no apparent rescue problem–the fire is confined to a single apartment, the hallways are clear, and the occupants are not yet aware that there is a fire. However, as soon as they realize that the fire department is on the scene, ladders to the fire escape balconies and proper ventilation of stairs and hallways will suddenly become very important. Initially, a ladder to each third-floor balcony on the front of the building will provide egress for any occupants and access for suppression personnel.
In center-hallway residential occupancies, you must verify the condition of the hallways. If the hallways are clear, the fire is confined to an apartment or unit. However, if smoke or fire is visible in the hallways, fire has extended to the hallways, and access to and from the fire area will be difficult. Ventilation of the stairshafts and hallways will be mandatory, and rescue will be a prime consideration. Therefore, if the hallways indicate extension, a ladder to the floor below the involved hallway (second floor) will allow personnel to return to a safe or uninvolved area with a ladder, if necessary. Remember to drop-release the fire escape ladders so they are not accidentally released during the incident.
A ladder to the fourth-floor balcony, left side of the building, will also be needed. This will provide the most direct access to the floor above the fire floor. Check for extension.
Also, place a ladder to the roof on the front-left corner of the building to reach the roof.
Additional Ladders: Place ladders to the rear of the building as necessary. There are fire escapes on the second, third, and fourth floors.
If not previously utilized, a ladder to the second-floor fire escape will be necessary for salvage.
Size-Up: This is a one-story, commercial occupancy of concrete tilt-up construction. Smoke is showing from an area of the roof, which suggests that a fire in the building has gained enough headway to burn through. It is 2000 hours, rescue is not a major consideration, it is dark, and there is a slight rain with no wind.
Initial Ladders: Place a ladder to either corner opposite the fire area. It is placed away from the fire to provide access to the roof for access to skylights, automatic smoke vents, and appropriate roof ventilation. An additional ladder placed to the opposing corner from the first ladder will provide an alternate means to and from the roof.
Additional Ladders: Depending on the size or extent of fire, an additional ladder to the roof and the inside of the building will be required. This is to check above the office area, which will have a dropped ceiling.
Size-Up: This is a three- to four-story, modern office building consisting of curtain construction and exterior glass panels. Smoke is observed in the area of the building, but there is no immediate clue as to its source. It is 2100 hours, and it is dark and clear. Due to the time of day, the building is probably locked and without occupants.
Initial Ladders: In this scenario, the primary consideration is locating the source of the smoke. Since the structure is probably locked for the night, put a ladder to the roof at any appropriate corner of the building (avoid placing it over glass panels, if possible). This will allow personnel to inspect the roof for a source of smoke before forcing entry into the building. If this operation does not yield a source of smoke, entry may be necessary.
Additional Ladders: This will be determined by future actions necessary to mitigate the incident. However, erecting any exterior ladders will be difficult due to the presence of glass panels.
Size-Up: This is a one-story, commercial building of corrugated construction. Since there are an office door (left side) and four large overhead doors, the four bays are probably common with no party walls. There is moderate fire inside the left portion of the building. It is 0400 hours, rescue is not a prime consideration, and the weather is dark and clear. There is a slight wind from left to right.
Initial Ladders: Because this is a corrugated building, don`t use a ground ladder to access the roof unless you use a roof ladder to support personnel who may be involved in ventilation. Remember that a corrugated building can be thin steel, aluminum, or fiberglass. None of these materials offer any significant resistance to fire.
Single-Family Dwellings–One Story:
12- or 14-foot extension ladder for inside work.
16- straight, 20- straight, or 20-foot extension ladder to corners, valleys, and ridges.
12- or 14-foot roof ladder for sloped roof operations.
Single-Family Dwellings–Two Story:
12- or 14-foot extension ladder for inside work.
24- straight, 24- extension, or 35-foot extension ladder to corners, valleys, and ridges. Consider laddering second-floor windows opposite the fire, since this may become a means of ingress-egress for fire suppression personnel.
A 12-, 14-, or 16-foot roof ladder for sloped-roof operations.
Apartments–Old Style (Center Hall):
12- or 14-foot extension ladder for inside operations.
24- or 35-foot extension ladder to fire escape.
24- straight or 35-foot extension ladder to sides or corners, depending on fire location.
Aerial to roof, preferably away from fire on the windward side. Remember to place aerials to corners for building strength and ease of locating them.
In all cases, raise at least two ladders to the structure.
Apartment–New Style (Garden-Type):
12- or 14-foot extension ladder for inside operations.
24- straight or 35-foot extension ladder to sides or corners, depending on the fire and fascia locations. Avoid fascias due to their lightweight construction and elevation above the roofline.
Consider using an aerial ladder, when practical.
35-foot extension ladder will reach some roofs.
50-foot extension ladder may also be used.
Aerial ladders are preferred on most commercial buildings due to their stability and ease of deployment.
In all cases, raise at least two ladders to the structure.
Try to ladder away from the fire, on the windward side and at the corners.
On commercial buildings with panelized roofs, ladder eight feet from a corner to enhance the possibility of laddering a purlin (structural member). Otherwise, ladder the corner.
Carefully evaluate the placement of ladders to commercial buildings constructed of corrugated materials (metal or fiberglass), since these materials offer minimal resistance to fire and ladder stability.
Commercial (Common Attic, Taxpayer, Mini-mall, etc.):
12- or 14-foot extension ladder for inside operations. These ladders can be used in the involved occupancy and adjacent occupancies to gain access to the common attic to check and control the spread of fire.
20- or 24-foot straight, 24-foot extension ladder to the roof. Ladder a corner of the roof away from the fire, on the windward side, and away from fascias. This may entail placing ladders on the ends or at the rear of the building.
In all cases, raise at least two ladders to the structure.
Consider using aerial ladders when possible.
1. “Dump the truck apparatus for time.” This is accomplished by choosing an appropriate objective and having your personnel correctly place all the ladders carried by your apparatus.
2. As you drive through your district, periodically pick objectives of varying heights. Ask your personnel what ladders might be necessary to reach a particular objective. If there is any disagreement, you are not sure, or you want to remove the dust from the ladders, raise them. You will like this drill for three reasons. First, it challenges your personnel to think. Second, it enhances their judgment and ability to select an appropriate ladder. Third, personnel are challenged to a contest (they like that), and it probably will result in several ladders being raised (you will like that).
3. Practice raising your ladders with as few personnel as is safely possible. Doing so can stimulate thought, increase options, and increase your available staff for other tasks.
4. You may never use some ladder evolutions at an incident. However, the more evolutions you practice, the more confident and proficient you and your team will become.
5. Use the photos in this article as training aids. These structures make excellent scenarios for challenging personnel to consider ladder placement guidelines. n
JOHN W. MITTENDORF is a retired battalion chief and 30-year veteran of the City of Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department, where his duties included commander of the in-service training section. He presents seminars on fireground operations; is the author of the books Ventilation Methods and Techniques and Facing the Promotional Interview, published by Fire Technology Services; and is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book on truck company operations, published by Fire Engineering.