LADDER BAIL OUT

I remember most of the “stuff” related to self-rescue I was taught in recruit school back in October 1975: how to jump into a Browder Life Net (no longer a tool “option”), how to slide a rope (3/4-inch manila hemp) by wrapping my leg and lifting the rope up and over the instep of my one foot (manila hemp is now only for “tools”-not people), and how to don and doff SCBAs in “blacked-out” conditions (if we opted to wear them-there was no mandatory mask policy back then). Finally, although I never attempted it, I was taught to try to roll over to my stomach and catch the gutter “with anything” sliding past if I were sliding off a roof. None of these-none-were reinforced once I was assigned to “the line.”

The fire service has changed in many ways since then. Firefighter safety has taken a strong position at the forefront of this profession, and I believe it will hold this position for a long time.

The last two or three recruit classes put through the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue recruit program were put through the entire Firefighter Self-Rescue or Saving Our Own program-ladder slide and all! For incumbent firefighters, we divided the program into four modules and are putting all members, from firefighter to chief, through the program. This year, we are beginning module 3, which includes the ladder bail out. To date, no injuries have been attributed to any procedures taught in the Saving Our Own program and, more specifically, the ladder bail-out procedure.

Rick Lasky, chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department, came to our city in 1998 and presented the program to us and some other area departments. We took the plans of building your own mockup for this training, published in the May 1998 issue of Fire Engineering, and are making three more mockups and will be putting all members through the entanglement drill and the ladder bail out, at a minimum of four times a year. What becomes routine will more likely be reverted to in times of panic.

To my knowledge, we have not yet had to use any of the techniques taught. However, with repetitive training, we, hopefully, will be prepared if the need arises. (If I may editorialize here for one second. This is a dangerous job. At times, we must extend ourselves beyond reasonable limits. These evolutions should be the unusual and not the norm. Training injuries occur frequently. On occasion, training fatalities occur. The ladder bail-out training, as well as all training, should be conducted as safely as possible. We have the tools and the knowledge at hand. Not to use them would be truly negligent.)

John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of operations, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue; author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997); editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering; and member of the FDIC Educational Committee.

Questions: Have you trained or do you plan to train your department in the ladder bail-out technique? If you have trained your members in the technique, were any substantial injuries incurred by trainees during this evolution? If your department has trained in the procedure, have you had any confirmed “saves” using this technique-members bailed out of a window to avoid injury?

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: Our department sent several members through the Saving Our Own class in January 1998. This class was designed as a train-the-trainer program, allowing the students who attended to return to their departments and teach the skills. Lewisville members who attended did exactly that. After completing the class, they returned to our department and put a firefighter survival program together. They taught many of the skills they learned along with the headfirst ladder bail. There were no injuries as a result of the headfirst ladder bail. They addressed safety from the beginning of the program through its completion.

There have been no confirmed “saves” or an instance in which a firefighter needed to use it, but the understanding throughout the program was that this is a last-chance effort to save your life. We would rather our people know how to do it now and hope that they never have to use it later. We must train our firefighters in many, many areas. Firefighter survival training is no exception. Each year, we lose brothers and sisters while performing this job and often find out later that had they had this kind of training, they might have stood a better chance of surviving.

We understand that our job is extremely dangerous and recognize the fact that we need to train safely. It doesn’t make any sense to hurt our people during training exercises. At the same time, however, it doesn’t make any sense not to train our people on how to get out of trouble.

If you take your time, structure your program, and address all of the safety issues, you should be able to train your people on just about any topic including firefighter survival training. The Lewisville Fire Department has trained and will continue to train its personnel in firefighter survival training, including the headfirst ladder bail. We hope they never have to use it; however, if they do, we would know that we had given them every opportunity to get out alive and make it home.

Tom Brennan, 20-year veteran (ret.),
Fire Department of New York;
chief (ret.), Waterbury (CT) Fire Department

Response: I am committed to excellence in interior firefighting. To accomplish that, you must be aggressive and have all the attributes that go with that term. All the tactics are not always in place to make the individual, courageous act to account for life within the fire envelope as routine as possible.

Many of these new and explosive entrapment events have been put on us thanks to fire service leaders who, over the past 15 years, have given up on our ability to perform tactics that will keep aggressive firefighters from entrapping themselves, and worse. The defined and paid leadership did this by failing to speak to the issue of structural firefighting in terms of tactical necessities. THIS IS TRANSLATED INTO ADEQUATE STAFFING.

Now, with all that said, I have always had an aggressive nature when it comes to increasing our abilities or “bags of tricks” to get firefighters out of unplanned for, unsafe, and murderous situations within the fire structure. I have always been in favor of their being able to choose alternatives (including gravity) to beat the death angel-the personal rope and harness, the proper placing of the tips of the portable ladder below the windowsill (in rejection of some of the standards written by well-meaning committees that don’t go to fires), and now this evolution.

Anyone who has been in near-flashover conditions or whatever makes the individual search member believe that the atmosphere has deteriorated to intolerable levels will nod in agreement with this technique. To put it simply, if you are cut off (in your mind) from a comfortable alternative exit and are burning but are alive at a window you entered by ladder or are at a ladder someone wisely placed for you, if you need to get up (into the killing heat stratum) and get out the window or if the only bullet in your gun is to turn around and straddle the window (or whatever) and perform as in probationary school, you will become a statistic by exposing the vital upper torso to the heat you don’t want to be in.

If you want victims to survive, you put those you find on the ladder head-down until they get additional help or you can get below them to move them out farther. Why is it not the same for firefighters? If I were to abort a primary search by retreating to the portable ladder I placed to get me in there in the first place (primary search-not check a paint job!), I would go back to the ladder for two reasons: (1) I found a victim I want to get out of there and (2) the fire is chasing me out of there.

You have two choices now:

  1. Stand in the flue of escaping killing gases, flame, and heat, and turn and face the devil with your plastic facepiece, your plastic helmet, and your arms that want to cover up instead of operate.
  2. Get your head, arms, and torso out of the flue, and give yourself a chance to survive-burn your butt and back and legs, but SURVIVE.

The thing to keep in mind here is, this is the way it is in the real world. The firefighter will do this to avoid pain. Why not let firefighters practice this alternative escape method so that when they recover their senses they will understand how to get stability into an unstable situation?

I believe that the critics of the ladder bail have never been there in the first place. They fail to understand the tactics (truck work that enables more rapid engine work and fire control) and give up the vital staffing needed to accomplish the team effort that would keep the room from exploding in the first place. In other words, firefighters have been put in this “killing” position because control tactics have been reduced because too few people are responding. Why not teach them to save themselves until some sanity and professionalism return to structural firefighting operations?

Garry Morris, assistant chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: In Spring 1998, the Phoenix Fire Department hired a consultant team to conduct a Saving Our Own train-the-trainer program. The weekend-long training was also offered to other training officers from Phoenix metro-area fire departments.

The training consultants had analyzed several firefighter fatality incidents in which rescuers were unable to rescue downed firefighters. The analysis resulted in several new techniques for rescuing firefighters in a timely fashion.

Following the train-the-trainer program, the department spent the balance of 1998 delivering Saving Our Own training to all our members through our district training program. The training was also inserted into the recruit training program. The firefighters who participated described the training as one of the best and most practical training events in which they had engaged. They especially enjoyed the new techniques that allowed efficient movement/rescue of a downed/firefighter, such as lifting a firefighter up and over a windowsill and out of a basement through an opening in the first floor.

One of the training components included the ladder bail out. During this phase, a safety officer was designated, and other safety support was provided. Our approach at the time was to describe the event as a last-resort technique; the training, however, was conducted in a safe, slow, deliberate manner. Even so, some minor injuries occurred.

Fire Engineering Editor Bill Manning’s Editor’s Opinion in the April 2000 issue regarding the fatal bail out of Captain C. Thomas Moore of the Manteca City (CA) Fire Department was certainly an eye-opener. That report was forwarded to our Safety Section and Training Academy. The bail-out technique is presently under review for potential revisions or discontinuance. In the meantime, students engaged in bail-out training are on a belay line to prevent their falling.

A review of our own experience, as well as the national experience, reflects that a rapid, life-threatening bail out is rare. Most often, the firefighter has adequate time to properly mount the ladder. Phoenix has not experienced a bail-out situation on the fireground.

What the bail-out procedure incorrectly assumes is that a ladder is present at the window. Prepositioning ladders on all sides of the building when firefighters are working on upper floors is simply not a common practice in the U.S. fire service. How many times have we seen in a photo or video a firefighter hanging out a window waiting for a ladder? Too many times!

For such a self-rescue to occur, a ladder must be immediately available. The Phoenix Fire Department recognized this need some years ago. Our fireground SOPs, and the RIC procedure in particular, require that ground ladders be thrown to all four sides of a building when crews are working on upper floors during fire operations. Where appropriate, aerial devices are also raised and prepositioned for a potential rescue event. The lesson: When a firefighter gets in trouble and needs to get out of an upper-floor window quickly, he can’t wait for firefighters to dash out to the street to retrieve and raise a ladder! When we talk about self-rescue, the discussion must include the need for SOPs that require the prepositioning of ladders.

I believe it’s also important that this discussion consider how to avoid getting the firefighter into a life-threatening bail-out situation in the first place. Often, interior company officers (and crew members) as well as the incident commander overlook (or disregard) early signs of changing, deteriorating conditions. On other occasions, both parties underestimate the time required to safely withdraw from a building. As a result, firefighters get trapped, injured, or killed. These circumstances have repeatedly been cited as contributing factors in firefighter fatality investigations. We simply should not push the envelope!

Incident commanders and sector officers must always know where personnel are operating, develop and manage a risk/safety plan, monitor the fireground constantly for deteriorating conditions, and ensure that members operating in the interior don’t get caught in a situation that would require a bail out. It’s not okay to die at a structure fire!

Ronald Hiraki, assistant chief of administration
Seattle (WA) Fire Department

Response: The Seattle Fire Department does not train its members in the headfirst ladder slide. At this time, we have no plans to implement such training. We have heard through the grapevine that members of our department have knowledge of and have tried this technique. The department does not sanction their actions and experiences.

The department is always looking for new information and new skills to enhance the safety of our firefighters and service to the community. The benefit of any new method must outweigh its risks, creating a “profit.” In business, a company measures its profit in dollars. In the fire service, our profit is measured in the safety of our firefighters and the protection of community members and their property.

The information the Seattle Fire Department has received at this time does not support pursuing headfirst ladder slide training. In situations where firefighters must escape from upper stories, it would be prudent for us to explore other options before considering the headfirst ladder slide. They would include placing additional ground ladders to provide additional exit points from the building and making those exit points known to the firefighters working inside the building.

In addition, many members have a strong desire to refocus our training on basic skills, including recognizing fire conditions, communicating and operating as a team in hazardous or critical situations, and practicing the coordination necessary for multiple companies to achieve a common goal. To accomplish this, we have scheduled live-fire training for this summer.

Unfortunately, firefighter rescue techniques are an essential part of our business. It is important, and good, to think ahead and ask, “What if I can’t get out the same way I came in? What if I get trapped in here?” These questions need to be answered by the incident commander, fellow firefighters, and ourselves. Let’s answer these questions before the “bell hits” as well as during the fire. Planning for the unexpected must include trying to avoid situations in which firefighters must take evasive action as well as training to rescue firefighters. We continue to train in incident command, accountability, rapid intervention operations, and the use of techniques such as the A.W.A.R.E program developed by Lieutenant Jay Olson and the Portland (OR) Fire Bureau.

Frank C. Schaper, chief,
St. Charles (MO) Fire Department

Response: I have never seen the “ladder dive for life” performed on the training ground or the fireground. But I know this new firefighter life-saving technique is being taught and used throughout the fire service. That certainly is the case in the St. Louis area.

In researching this month’s topic, I contacted several fire departments in St. Louis and St. Charles counties. I talked, for example, with chief officers of the Maryland Heights Fire Protection District and learned that that department has taught and practiced the technique. The same holds true for the Pattonville Fire Protection District where, I was informed, the whole department went through the evolution. Since St. Louis County has an organized training program and many excellent training officers, I can only assume that many more departments in that county have trained on the procedure.

St. Charles County is no exception. The technique has been taught and practiced countywide on several occasions. In fact, the Wentzville Fire Protection District successfully deployed the technique at a house fire. I do not know all the specifics about this incident, but I understand that a fire captain and a firefighter used the “ladder dive” to exit the second floor of the burning building.

Some say the technique is too dangerous to practice and that it should not be taught. They fear that you can be seriously hurt while learning how to do it. My understanding is that at least one firefighter was killed and several injured while performing the exercise. Should we discontinue teaching the “ladder dive” because it is dangerous? No. I do not think so. Most of what firefighters do is dangerous.

It would be easier to say “teach the basics” so firefighters don’t get into these situations to begin with, but anyone who has been in this business for any length of time knows that situations change quickly and conditions inside a burning building deteriorate rapidly. Knowing and having a way out of a bad situation is vitally important. That is why an F-18 fighter pilot sits on an ejection seat. Surely the fighter pilot tries to avoid dangerous situations at all cost, but when conditions deteriorate, he punches out. Yes, he can be injured or killed using his ejection seat, but more than likely it will save his life-just like those two firefighters in Wentzville.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant,
Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety

Response: We have not implemented ladder bail-out training but expect to do so in the future. The tragic death of Captain Moore of the Manteca City Fire Department will affect the technique we eventually adopt. Locally, I know of some departments that are instructing in the “ladder slide,” but I have not heard of any problems in training or of anyone who actually used this method to escape from a building.

I think there was an extraordinary combination of factors present when this tragedy occurred, any of which could have affected the outcome. There may be better ways to accomplish a ladder bail out; none are totally without risk. I don’t think the technique should be abandoned. Being unable to exit a structure quickly seems far riskier than a ladder slide.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief,
Cedar Hammock and Southern
Manatee Fire Districts, Florida

Response: Cedar Hammock and Southern Manatee Fire Districts have not trained their personnel in the ladder bail-out self-rescue technique, and there are no immediate plans to do so.

Within the past year, we have sent several of our personnel to the Firefighter Survival Course offered at the Central Florida Emergency Services Institute in Orlando. The ladder bail out was not part of the curriculum; therefore, when our personnel taught our firefighters, it was not included. However, they did teach other emergency evacuation techniques. The Florida State Fire College does include a ladder bail-out technique in its Rapid Intervention and Survival Course. None of our personnel have attended this course to date.

Larry Anderson, deputy chief,
Dallas (TX) Fire Department

Response: We taught the ladder bail-out technique to all in-service personnel two years ago as part of Saving Our Own. The bail out was one of the most controversial aspects of the training. We did incur some injuries (mostly pulled muscles and shoulder injuries). The training was halted for a while until we reevaluated the program. We then decided the training was worth the risks involved, and the full program was completed.

It is difficult to say exactly how many “saves” this technique has accomplished, but I know it was used on several occasions. The great majority of our troops who underwent the training had high praise for it and seemed to appreciate the fact that they were being taught something they could use to save their lives. If you “practice like you play,” sometimes certain risks are involved. We try to make sure that the probable outcome justifies those risks.

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