Ground Ladders: Size Really Does Matter

A view of firefighters and various ladders on the fireground
Photo courtesy of Tim Olk

Ground ladders are a vital aspect of the fireground operation equation. They are used in many of the operations performed on the fireground, including access/egress, search and rescue, ventilation, hoselines (lines over ladders), and proactive rapid intervention. When fire departments spec their apparatus, particularly their aerial apparatus, they must ensure that they provide their firefighters with the assortment of ground ladders that gives them the greatest level of operational capability. To understand the operational capability of the ground ladder assortment, firefighters must first understand the capabilities of each of the individual ladders.

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Ladder Types

The following types of ladders are carried most often by fire departments:

  • The 14-foot straight and roof ladders are common ground ladders found on engine and truck company apparatus. These ladders have an overall length of 14 feet. The 14-foot roofer has a set of roof hooks on the tip of the ladder.
  • The 16-foot straight and roof ladders are also common ground ladders, but they are found more often on truck company apparatus than engine company apparatus. They have an overall length of 16 feet. The 16-foot roofer has a set of roof hooks on the tip of the ladder.
  • The 20-foot straight and roof ladders are also common ground ladders, but they are usually found only on truck or quint companies. As with the other straight ladders, these ladders have an overall length of 20 feet. The 20-foot roofer has a set of roof hooks on the tip of the ladder.
  • The 24-foot two-section extension ladder is a ground ladder commonly found on engine and truck company apparatus. This ladder has an overall length of 24 feet and a bedded length of 14 feet.
  • The 28-foot two-section extension ladder is also commonly used; however, like the 16-foot straight ladder, it is more often found on truck company apparatus than engine company apparatus. The 16-foot straight and 28-foot two-section ladders were more common on engines in the past. With the popularity of internal ladder storage, they seem to have fallen by the wayside.
  • The 35-foot two- and three-section extension ladders are ground ladders commonly found on truck and quint companies. The two-section has a bedded length of 20 feet, matching the 20-foot straight ladder. The three-section has a bedded length of 15 feet and fits on the side of the apparatus or in the ladder rack.

With the popularity of quints in urban and suburban departments and changes in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, the 20-foot straight ladders and 28-foot extension ladders have become less common. We know that quints, per NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, are required to carry only 85 feet of ground ladders. Truck companies are required to carry 115 feet of ground ladders. In 1977, truck companies were required to carry 264 feet of ground ladders. There is definitely a place for 20-foot roof ladders on all aerial apparatus. They can be used for laddering second-floor residential and commercial windows, increasing the shallowness of the angle, and roof ventilation on steep contemporary homes. There are also many residential roofs where a 16-foot roofer will not allow for seamless transition from the extension ladder to the roof ladder. If you have a 35-foot two-section extension ladder, you have room for a 20-foot straight ladder in the bed as well.

Operational Capabilities of 24- and 28-Foot Extension Ladders

The remainder of the article mainly focuses on the differences and overall benefits of carrying 16-foot straight and 28-foot extension ladders vs. the 14-foot straight and 24-foot extension. When you look at the bedded lengths of the 24- and 28-foot extension ladders, it is easy to see why the 14-foot straight ladder is commonly paired with the 24-foot extension ladder and the 16-foot straight ladder is commonly paired with the 28-foot extension ladder. The bedded lengths of the 14-foot straight ladder and the 24-foot extension ladder are both 14 feet, and the bedded lengths of the 16-foot straight ladder and the 28-foot extension ladder are both 16 feet. Matching straight ladders and extensions ladders that have the same bedded lengths ensures that both ladders will fit in the ladder bed of the apparatus.

What can become frustrating is when the ground ladder assortment of the apparatus does not provide the greatest level of operational capability allowed by the apparatus. As discussed above, the bedded lengths of the 16-foot straight ladder and the 28-foot extension ladder are the same—16 feet. Therefore, if the apparatus’s ground ladder assortment includes a 16-foot straight ladder, the ladder bed is long enough to include also a 28-foot extension ladder in the ground ladder assortment.

Yet, some apparatus will include 14- and 16-foot straight ladders but only the 24-foot extension ladder and not the 28-foot extension ladder. Although the 24-foot extension ladder is commonly used in the fire service and is a great part of the engine company ground ladder assortment, the 28-foot extension ladder can outperform it on the fireground.

Evaluate your response area to determine if you need the increased reach of the 28-foot extension ladder; if so, include it in the truck company ground ladder assortment if the apparatus ladder bed will allow for it (depending on the physical size and layout of the ladder trough caused by the compartment layout and the structural makeup of the apparatus).

Ground Ladder “Needed-Reach Equation”

The height of the target, the positioning of the base of the ladder, and the drop of the ladder tip as the ladder is moved away from the base constitute the ground ladder needed-reach equation.

Windows Are Common Ladder Targets

Understanding the differences in the operational capability of the 24-foot extension ladder and the 28-foot extension ladder depends on firefighters knowing the extent of the reach of ground ladders needed on the fireground, which depends on the height of the target. Windows are among the most common targets for ground ladders. Therefore, firefighters must know the height of the windowsill they are targeting.

Windowsills can be grouped into two categories: residential and commercial. Estimate their heights by applying rules of thumb based on their classification. Residential windowsills are typically approximately three feet above the ground and there are approximately 10 feet between each sill. Commercial windowsills are typically approximately six feet above the ground and there are 10 feet between each sill.

The firefighter throwing the ground ladder must understand that these rules of thumb are just that—rules of thumb—and that all buildings must be evaluated. The windowsill heights in all buildings—residential and commercial—will not always be the same height and the distance between the windowsill of each floor will not be the same for every building, as the construction of buildings vary. There can also be some variations in windowsill heights based on the building’s foundation, the terrain surrounding the building, or construction characteristics of the building.

Positioning the Ladder Base

Knowing the height of the windowsill is only one aspect of understanding the needed reach of ground ladders. This is because the windowsill height is the height at a 90° angle with the ground, and ground ladders are not thrown at 90° angles. Common ground ladder angles in the fire service range between 60° and 75°, depending on the operation being performed. Although 75° is considered the optimal climbing angle, it is not the best angle for rescue. The most commonly taught angles for rescue are between 60° and 65°. Rescues can even be achieved with shallower angles such as 50°. The shallower the angle, the less weight the rescuer will have to support, allowing for a much easier descent. As the ladder angle is decreased, the need to foot the ladder to prevent the butt of the ladder from sliding out is increased.

Achieving the proper ladder angle involves knowing where to properly position the base of the ladder. Firefighters can use multiple methods to determine the proper positioning of the base of the ladder. One method is to determine the working length of the ladder and then divide the working length by 4. The result is the number of feet away from the building the base of the ladder should be positioned.

Example: Residential windowsill (23 feet): 6 feet from the building

Commercial windowsill (26 feet): 6 feet from the building

Another method for positioning the base of the ladder is to place the base of the ladder five feet from the building per floor. This method results in a lower ladder angle than the first method:

First floor – 5 feet
Second floor – 10 feet
Third floor – 15 feet

Drop the Tip of the Ladder as the Ladder Is Moved Away from the Building

As the base of the ladder moves farther away from the building, the tip of the ladder begins to drop. As the tip of the ladder drops, you will need additional ladder length to achieve the proper ladder angle. For every five feet of separation between the base of the ladder and the building, the tip of the ladder will drop approximately one foot. Therefore, for every five feet of separation between the base of the ladder and the building, the firefighter throwing the ground ladder must extend the ladder one additional foot to reach the target. It is simple to determine the amount of drop the tip of the ladder will experience: The tip of the ladder will experience one foot of drop per floor. Therefore, the amount of drop will match the target floor—for example, first floor = 1 foot of drop; second floor = 2 feet of drop, and so on.

When you combine the three aspects of the needed-reach equation, you can easily determine how much ladder you will need:

Residential:
Second floor – 15 feet (13 feet target height, 10 feet base positioning, 2 feet of drop)

Third floor – 26 feet (23 feet target height, 15 feet base positioning, 3 feet of drop)

Commercial:
Second floor – 18 feet (16 feet target height, 10 feet base positioning, 2 feet of drop)

Third floor – 29 feet (26 feet target height, 15 feet base positioning, 3 feet of drop)

When looking at the rule-of-thumb windowsill heights, you can see that neither the 24- nor the 28-foot extension ladder will provide the 60° rescue angle to a third-floor commercial windowsill. The 28-foot extension ladder can still reach a third-floor commercial windowsill, though at a safe angle between 60° and 75°, whereas the 24-foot extension ladder cannot. The 24-foot extension ladder will not even reach a third-floor commercial windowsill if it is positioned flat up against the building at a 90° angle, as the windowsill height is 26 feet and the overall length of the 24-foot extension ladder is only 24 feet. The 28-foot extension ladder also outperforms the 24-foot extension ladder when thrown to a third-floor residential windowsill. Achieving the 60° rescue angle for a third-floor residential window requires 26 feet of ladder. Again, this is greater than the overall ladder length of the 24-foot extension ladder. The 24-foot extension ladder can still reach a third-floor residential window at a safe angle between 60° and 75°, but it does not provide the same level of operational capability as the 28-foot extension ladder, particularly with regard to third-floor commercial windows.

Although both the 24-foot and the 28-foot extension ladders are effective ground ladders, the 28-foot provides a greater level of operational capability than the 24-foot. This greater level of operational capability is the reason you should include the 28-foot extension ladder in the apparatus assortment, especially for truck company apparatus. The 24-foot extension ladder is a great ground ladder for the engine company if space does not allow for a 28-foot, but the 28-foot extension ladder should be included in the truck company inventory. If the truck company ground ladder assortment will include only a 24- or a 28-foot extension ladder and the ladder bed will accommodate the 28-foot extension ladder, replace the 24-foot with the 28-foot extension ladder.

Ground ladders are an important, often overlooked, piece of equipment, especially during the specing of apparatus. With the increase in courtyard apartments across the United States, having the appropriate assortment of ground ladders is important. All too often, departments give way to ladder length to place ladders internally or to maximize storage space on quints and meet only the minimum required footage of ground ladders. Departments are buying quints with sticks 110 feet long with 85 feet of ground ladders.

It’s important to remember that ground ladders can go anywhere, whereas the aerial cannot. Ultimately, understanding ladder usage is important for operational knowledge but should also be kept at the forefront of your mind while specing aerial apparatus.


ANTHONY ROWETT JR. is a captain with the Mobile (AL) Fire Rescue Department. He was previously a firefighter with the Ogdensburg (NJ) Fire Department. He has multiple degrees in fire science and emergency services management. He is a graduate of the Alabama Smoke Diver course and a fire service instructor. He is the founder of Port City Fire Training. He is a contributing author for multiple fire service publications. He has instructed at multiple fie service conferences as well as for individual fire departments. He is a co-host on the Generation Engine podcast on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio.

CLAY MAGEE is an instructor with Magic City Truck Academy and a firefighter/paramedic with Birmingham (AL) Fire and Rescue. He began his career with the East Oktibbeha Volunteer Fire Department in 2004. He has a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University and an associate of fire science degree from Columbia Southern University. He has been published in Fire Engineering and contributes to the Fire Engineering Community. He is an organizer of the Deep South Fire Conference. He has taught HOT classes at the Alabama Fire College, LSU FETI, Metro Atlanta Firefighters Conference, Firemanship Conference Portland, and multiple departments across the state of Alabama.

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