By Michael N. Ciampo
Pulling up to a building with fire showing and victims in the surrounding windows can tax the resources of any unit that arrives first due. From early in our careers, we’re taught that above all else “life” is our primary concern and, in this case, removing these victims becomes one of our primary responsibilities. Of course, we’ll need to size up which victim is in immediate peril and needs to be rescued first, compared with those not so exposed to the fire and in less danger. In some situations, it may be apparent that a victim’s emotional state may dictate who is removed first. During these operations, it’s also extremely important to stretch a hoseline—to start attacking the fire or protecting these victims and the firefighters going up to rescue them. Normally, it may be quicker to remove these victims with a portable ladder if they are within reach, compared with setting up the apparatus for a lower-floor fire. Portable ladders are pretty simple tools of the trade to operate; the actions and tactics we must perform with them or on and off them are the hard part to master.
While preparing to place a ladder up to a window with a conscious victim straddling the sill in a heavy smoke condition, personnel decided to raise it to a point just under the sill while favoring the victim’s leg side. This was so the victim wouldn’t grab onto the ladder and interfere with its placement. (Remember, often we may have to raise a ladder to its proper height out of a panicking victim’s reach and roll it toward the victim.) Personnel gave loud verbal commands to the victim as they raised the ladder. As the ladder contacted the building just below the victim, the victim made a slow spinning movement and began to place his legs onto the ladder while attempting to self-evacuate. A firefighter quickly ascended the ladder to meet the victim.
As the firefighter climbed with his hands sliding up the back side of the ladder rails, the barefoot victim began to slip while making the transition from the sill to the ladder. Luckily, the firefighter was close enough to the victim that he was able to push his chest into the victim’s back and pull inward with his arms to pin him against the ladder, stopping any movements and preventing the victim from falling. Holding the ladder in this position allowed the firefighter to maintain his balance and grip while keeping control of the victim as they faced the ladder during the descent.
As the firefighter communicated to the victim that he would be okay and they would climb down the ladder slowly together, he maintained his position almost directly behind the victim with his hands sliding down the rails. They climbed down in succession; this way, if panic ensued or the victim slipped again, the firefighter could pin the victim back into the ladder to gain control. If the victim is large and you’re not able to reach around him to maintain both hands on the back side of the beams, you may consider climbing down a rung so your shoulder or chest is in the victim’s lower back and your arms can reach the ladder. Also, if the victim becomes fatigued or the smoke causes him to become unresponsive, the firefighter could easily place his knee between the victim’s buttocks to support the weight. Then the firefighter could slowly transition his leg from rung to rung or use the opposite knee-to-knee climbing motion to move the victim down the ladder.
If firefighters choose to climb down behind a conscious victim with their hands on the rungs, a few things could occur: if the victim turns around or panics while descending, a firefighter could lose his grip, or his arm could get entangled with the victim’s arm or legs during the descent, causing a slip and fall. If the victim falls or slips while the firefighter is changing hand position on the rung, the firefighter could lose his balance and both of them could fall off the ladder.
Recently, another incident called for skill in portable ladder operations. This time it involved removing a conscious but emotionally distraught victim up two ladders, out of an elevator car, and then out of the shaftway. Normally, we train on removing conscious and unconscious victims down ladders; how many of us can say we practice moving victims up ladders? Just as in the case of coming down, the firefighter should place his hands on the backside or underside of the rails and slide them up during the climb. Guard the victim closely, and verbally encourage him as you climb up behind him. Again, depending on the size of the victim, the place from which you operate should ensure your safety first and also enable you to support the victim in case he slips.
In some instances, it may be necessary to be a little lower than the victim and place your shoulder in the victim’s buttocks as he climbs upward. This will support the victim, encourage him to advance, and take some of the weight off of him, allowing him to climb up the rungs more easily. It’s not recommended to reach down and grab the victim’s leg and physically move it to the next rung during the climb. Doing so could cause you to lose your balance and slip off a rung, or the victim could step on your hand.
Portable ladders are tools that will play a significant part in your fire service career. Knowing how to operate with them quickly and efficiently can prove beneficial when it involves using them to safely remove victims. Always remember that many of these victims will need your support and encouragement throughout the operation.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 27-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.