Laddering Options to Help Avoid Fatalities

By Bill Schnaekel

The following photos are from a fire in Norristown, Pennsylvania. They were graciously provided by Dave Jackson. Sadly, a young and heroic boy lost his life when he ran back inside in an attempt to find his father, who had escaped by jumping out of a window. I would guess that there are plenty of lessons that can be learned from this incident, but for the sake of humanity and compassion, I will focus primarily on the use of ground ladders. There isn’t anything fancy about it; as the expression goes, “You have to know what’s in the box before you can think outside of it.”

(1) Photos courtesy of Dave Jackson/ActionImages.



One of the first things you’ll notice when looking at the pictures is that I’ve “numbered” the ladders. This is simply so you and I are on the same page as to which ladder I am referring to. The number of each corresponding ladder is the same in both photos. In regards to which windows have priority and should be laddered first, it’s hard to say based on these two photos alone. The first thing that comes to mind is that it is safer to work off of a platform, like the front porch roof shown here, and you can usually provide an exit path for two rooms with only one ladder. Providing an additional ladder to the porch roof becomes redundant unless you have the potential to remove several victims or there is a need to escape the second floor front all at once. That being said, there is almost always a potential for one or the other, so if you have the hands available to do it, why not?

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It is also best to ladder the quadrant nearest the fire and work your way out on both sides from that point. Immediate lifesaving efforts by an aggressive search (typically under adverse conditions) may be called for nearest the fire; if something bad is going to happen, it’ll happen there first. I’ve heard truck chauffeurs taking a lot of criticism because a ladder was deployed to a window with fire blowing out of it. The argument is that if there was anyone in the room, they obviously have not survived. This is understandable and, while doing so, wouldn’t be my first choice; it is okay to provide a means of egress to that particular room once the fire has been knocked down. There’s no immediate sense to ladder a window where a fire presents itself, but it may be beneficial to reassign one afterward during overhaul, specifically if the floor or any other structural stability is in question.

Also keep in mind that small windows are generally for small rooms (such as bathrooms) while big windows are in bigger rooms. Look for and ladder the average-size windows first; they are typically bedrooms and where we should potentially be focusing our interior or vent, enter, isolate, and search efforts. Most bedrooms with two windows have the windows located on two different sides of the house. Be careful not to ladder the same room twice unless you have more than enough of them and the members available to get the job done.

I’ve seen some impressive ladder work from the Norristown area, and this incident was no exception. The chain-link fence that runs along the Bravo (or number 2) side re-emphasizes the need to become proficient at beam raises. When we practice throwing ground ladders, we often make the mistake of doing it where it is convenient or when we have the approval. Think about it for a minute: We square off to and ensure that the ladder is perpendicular to the building, but the fact is that we more than likely won’t have that luxury. When we place a ladder between buildings that are relatively close to one another, we seldom have the chance to do it the “correct way we were taught.” Not to mention, it takes time to rotate a ladder, and the less you have to do it, the more effective you are.

You can secure the ladder several ways depending on the design and intention. The ladder is more stable when it is held at the top instead of the bottom, but for reasons of practicality, this practice isn’t done as frequently. You can use the hooks on a straight ladder, but that is only when assuming that the sill is shallow enough for the hooks to get around and the window will have already been vented or will be through the use of the ground ladder itself. Remember, if the window is intact, we don’t want to just break it without communicating with the interior crews with all the new information about fire attack.

It is also important to recognize that when you secure the tip of the ladder in this manner, it will be a few inches over the sill. As you can see from the photos, the ladder tips are set at different locations; this brings up another topic of discussion that I’ve heard several times in the past. It would be wise to consider, however, that the deeper the tip is in the window, the more difficult it will be to escape or remove a victim. On the contrary, with doublewide or picture windows, placing the ladder into the structure may help access and egress, so examine both sides of the coin with the situation at hand.

Every argument is a valid one, and there are just as many ways to accomplish safety as there are opinions on how to actually do it. That being said, I recommend following your department guidelines and past practices so everyone knows what to expect. When footing it from the bottom (as most do), International Fire Service Training Association recommends one of two ways: 1) Facing the building on the outside of the ladder and 2) Being underneath it with your back toward the structure. Although either way is viewed as acceptable, I believe it is best to face the building. When you perform the task in this manner, you are less susceptible to falling tools, and you can monitor changing conditions in the building. Simply put, it’s better to be an asset as opposed to an anchor as the expression is told.

Getting back to the photos, you have a partial view of the front of the home in one of the two provided. There are two ladders thrown to the porch roof (7 a/b) and they both appear to be the same size. As I mentioned earlier, there could have been several reasons for this, so I’ll ask that you put any preconceived notions aside. What matters more is your ability to recognize what sizes they are simply by looking at the photographs. Indulge yourself and stay committed to learning. Only perfect practice makes perfect. You can do this by first becoming familiar with what you carry on your apparatus as well as the neighboring jurisdictions.

You’ve seen posts on other social media sites indicating what lengths the extension ladders are when they are stored. Knowing this information as it relates to building construction won’t provide you with more ladders but it certainly will give you confidence and other options regarding what you have. For instance, most engines carry a 24-foot extension ladder; without it being extended, it is 14 feet in length. If a home is built on a slab, a 14-foot ladder usually has enough reach to hit the second floor sill almost every time. Take into account that there is an average of 10 feet from floor to ceiling and another three feet from the floor to the sill; that’s 13 feet, so what about the other foot? We lose just about that much in height for any length up to and including 28 feet when we pull the ladder out to 75°.

Twenty-eight feet seems to be somewhat of a “magic number.” If you include that or add to it (like using the full length of a 35-foot ladder), you will lose about two feet when the ladder is placed a quarter of the way away from the building. Here’s my disclaimer though: Like anything else, this is the fire service, and there aren’t any constants. Its application will depend of many variables such as building and ceiling height, the distance from the floor to the sill, topography, and grade, to name a few. How pertinent this information is to you and your success depends on your repetition. Simply put, there is no better way to learn than to do.

In the instance where you are looking at the front of this home, it appears that 14-foot ladders are thrown to the porch roof. It is difficult to tell since the view of the top and bottom of the ladders are obstructed. If they were 16-foot ladders, we also know that a 28-foot ladder is the same length without being extended. This information comes in handy because we now know that we can place them side by side and they will be the same length. The home in the picture has a cellar, as most older homes built in snow-prone areas often do. In this instance, the distance between the ground and the first floor is only about two feet. If that distance were greater and you add another 10 feet to get to the porch roof, this only provides you with a rung or two (at best) to grab. Obviously, that will not only make it uncomfortable but also very difficult and dangerous in a hasty retreat.

If you’re hoping for a little more assurance, let’s take a closer look at those pictures again (use both so you can see the side of the house from a different perspective). We can tell that the first and highest ladder on the left (#1) is 28 feet. It’s above the roof line of the second floor and almost fully extended. Could it and should have been extended all the way? Absolutely, not only would it be easier to access and egress that portion of the roof, but it would also make it easier to see when the smoke is drifting that way.

How do we know it’s not a 24-foot ladder like the one underneath it? Because there is a difference of at least around 22 feet between the ground and the roof. If we used a 24-foot ladder to accomplish this task, it barely would have made the roof, let alone go above it when placed at 75°.


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The second ladder (or the one underneath the first) (labeled #2) is 24 feet. We know this because it has to be extended only a couple of rungs to make up for the distance of the 16-foot ladders beside it (#’s 3, 4, and 5). Since the home has a cellar and the first floor is about two feet aboveground, these 16-foot ladders reach the second floor window sill as if they were built into the design and sold with the house. I mentioned earlier that securing the tops of the ladders is preferred, but the soft ground or this fence is doing just fine. Keep in mind that when the exposures are close enough, you can use the building opposite the one involved to physically butt the ladder against.

You might also notice that it’s thrown fly in when compared to the other ladders in the photos. This may be a coincidence, but some training agencies and organizations teach that it is better to leave the fly in as long as it doesn’t affect its rating. The reason behind this idea is that is easier for a single firefighter to deploy without flipping the ladder over as well as safer to descend.

Similar to many actions on the fireground, there is also an understanding that when a fly is placed in, any unconscious victim removed from that ladder would have to be “lifted” over where the sections overlap.

I would also like to call to your attention the ladder that is the highest to the right (#6). This is a two-section 3-foot ladder that happens to be about 20 feet long when it’s stowed. We know this because it is at an angle less than 75° as it is outside the fence, and there is still a lot of overlap in the ladder itself. Despite this, it would not be ideal to use this ladder if the roof were the intended target, even as a secondary means of egress. If the ladder was inside the fence, it might extend only a couple of rungs over the roofline, but it would also create a much steeper climb.

On a separate note, it could typically be deployed to a fourth window or balcony if the residential building you respond to is built on a slab. It goes without saying that the latter of the two (the balcony) may not be ideal depending on the type of railing that you’re throwing it to. However, it is along those lines that if you’re in a position where you have to ladder a cantilevered balcony, ladder the brick wall to the side first. The tip is less likely to slip, and you can provide multiple means of egress when it serves more than one platform.

An older trend for many organizations was the purchase of a three-section, 35-foot ground ladder. Part of the reason for using this ladder is that it is more forgiving when members haven’t thrown ladders for a long time. It fits nicely with a 14-foot roof ladder, as it is approximately 15 feet in length when stowed. It is far more cumbersome and less likely to be pulled from the rig, however, which almost defeats its purpose when you consider how limited staffing can be. There is, of course, a way to alleviate this, so train as often as you can with what you have. Just like anything else, every ladder out there offers a different perspective depending on who’s using them. For instance, Duo ladders are lighter than Alco-Lite, but they might not seem as sturdy when you’re climbing them. The best ladders to serve your organization will depend on your preferences and the challenges you and your crews face.

Most new straight trucks have a waterway and rescue mode. When the lever or pin is set to rescue mode, it keeps the ladder pipe back a section to permit access to a roof or window, limiting the potential damage to the nozzle. If the roof needs to be laddered, the best option would have been for the truck chauffeur to position closer to the far side of the street if the space was available. By being further away from the building, he can maximize his scrub area at a lower angle as well as extend the tip of the aerial and not worry about the ladder pipe being in the way or coming in contact with the roof.

As always, I thank you for your time and encourage you to keep your thoughts and prayers with the family of the young man who lost his life. Sanford was a real hero. His untimely death re-emphasizes the need to not only have a meeting place but for us, as firefighters, to teach fire safety every opportunity we can. Please read more about his story here with the link that is provided. I’ll also ask that you consider making a donation to help the family recover what they lost in the fire and to give Sanford the proper burial this loving child deserves.


Bill Schnaekel is a fifth-generation firefighter and a lieutenant with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department, where he has worked since 1998, 100 years after his great-great grandfather had joined the fire service. He has had eight other relatives in the fire service since 1898. He is also a part-time firefighter/chauffeur with the West York (PA) Fire Department as well as a state suppression instructor for the state of Pennsylvania. Schnaekel has served as a battalion training officer and assisted in training recruits and field personnel at the Fire and Rescue Academy. He is working on a degree in fire science at Tidewater Community College.

In February 2013, Schnaekel created the Facebook Page “Holding1and1,“ a resource to discuss fireground operations and firefighter interests with his friend, Lieutenant Mike Dowling. See more at:

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