One-Firefighter Ladder Carry

BY JAKE JARVIS AND RYAN GILBERT

Today is just another shift, and the fire you’ll get today may be just another residential fire. But what if there were one important difference? What if you were presented with multiple rescues above the first floor? Would you be ready?

Fire departments are cutting staffing and training. All the while, the senior firefighters with so much experience from the “war years” are quietly retiring. Ultimately, however, none of this adds up to an excuse when our purest mission materializes in front of our eyes.

You are on the first-due engine at an apartment fire. When you step off the rig, you immediately see an occupant hanging out of a third-story window and turbulent black smoke pushing out over her head. As you move to grab the extension ladder, you realize that the rest of your crew is busy and you are the only one immediately available to make the grab. This rescue will be yours alone.

Life is always our number-one priority. At a fire with victims trapped, it is inevitable that the first-in company will have more tasks to accomplish than people to accomplish them. This is especially true in today’s economy when fire companies are being shut down, browned out, or reduced in size. Doing the best we can with what we have may mean firefighters operating alone in many situations. Therefore, it is more important than ever that you can throw an extension ladder by yourself.

How many firefighters in your company arrive packed up and ready to go? Will the company officer be occupied giving a size-up and performing a 360° survey? Is it possible that there will be other equally pressing concerns like knocking down flame impingement under the victim’s window? What if there are multiple victims in different rooms?

Of course, all of these scenarios are possible, and we would be negligent if we did not account for all of them in our training. In the fire service, we do not have the luxury of being risk averse.

THE TECHNIQUE

In a traditional one-person extension ladder raise, you would typically ground the butt spurs where the building meets the ground, “flat raise” the ladder into a vertical position with the fly sections in, and then extend these sections while slightly leaning the ladder away from the face of the building. After the dogs are locked, pull the bottom away from the building to the correct climbing angle, and roll the ladder into a “fly out” position. By eliminating some steps, you can streamline the process, making it faster and more versatile.

In essence, this technique consists of putting the ladder in a high shoulder carry, then grounding the butt spurs, and raising the ladder as you normally would with two firefighters. A few simple adjustments can make this a fast, efficient, and streamlined process for one person.

THE CARRY

The high shoulder carry is integral to this technique (photos 1-2). Not all firefighters are initially comfortable with this because the ladder may seem unbalanced or top heavy. In addition, some firefighters feel that the ladder slightly blocks their vision. Simple training can mitigate these purported downsides. Start with a 14-foot straight ladder to get the technique down, then progress to 24- and 28-foot extension ladders. Also, there is no need to leave your tools on the rig. You can hook a New York hook or pike pole to the rung block of the bed section; it will lie on the beam throughout the process of carrying and throwing the ladder. With practice, you will need only one hand to balance the ladder, leaving the other hand free for irons, a saw, or whatever else you need.

1 (Photos by Ryan Gilbert.)
1 (Photos by Ryan Gilbert.)
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As apparatus design evolves, ground ladders are being stored higher and higher. We can adapt to this change by embracing the high shoulder carry. The high shoulder carry can feel as natural as any other with practice and a dedication to proficiency. In certain situations (rugged or hilly terrain and loose footing, for example), you may still default to the low shoulder carry (photo 3) until you are adequately confident with this technique.

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From the Rig

To put the ladder in a high shoulder carry from the apparatus, pull the ladder out of the compartment until the midpoint is clear. You can easily mark the balance point on the beam with a piece of tape, permanent marker, or department sticker or by painting the unit number there. If possible, remember to keep your body toward the building throughout the evolution so you can keep an eye on the fire’s changing conditions. Secure your hook to the block of a rung three-quarters of the way up the bed section, and lay it along the beam (photo 4).

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Your shoulder will keep it there as you walk. Turn and face the butt spurs; then put the balance point of the ladder on your shoulder. Make sure that the bed section is on your shoulder and the fly sections are on the outside. Keeping your outside hand high on a rung will balance the ladder. Your inside hand will be free to carry any additional tools (photos 5-6).

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If your ladders are mounted on a ladder rack off the side of the apparatus, lift the ladder off the rack so the balance point is on your shoulder. If the ladders are stored flat in the back of a ladder truck, use the ladder flip as detailed below to get the ladder into a high shoulder carry.

From the Ground or a Low Compartment

To lift a heavy and unwieldy extension ladder from the ground to a high shoulder carry by yourself can be daunting, but you can easily master it using a couple of simple techniques. The easiest technique is to walk the ladder up onto your shoulder. If the ladder is flat on the ground, pick up one side of the ladder so that it’s resting on its beam. Lift the tip end of the bottom bed section onto your shoulder. Now walk forward and pull the rungs of the bed section toward you as the beam slides up your shoulder. As your shoulder reaches the balance point, the ladder will rock back onto your shoulder, and you are ready to approach your objective (photos 7-10).

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Another method is to “flip” the ladder onto the high shoulder position using an Olympic clean and jerk-style lift. Lift the ladder from the middle rungs so that the beam is resting against your legs with the fly sections up. For right-handed firefighters, the tip end of the ladder will be to the right; for left-handed firefighters, it will be to the left (this ensures that you are facing the butt spurs when the ladder is on your shoulder) (photos 11-12).

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Using primarily the legs and hips, explosively lift up while flipping the ladder so that the beam that was farthest from you comes to rest on your shoulder. Push the opposite beam up and over with your dominant hand so that the ladder is oriented with the bed section on your shoulder. With good mechanics and practice, this technique will make your ladder evolution quick and easy. This is also a great way to high shoulder a ladder if it is loaded flat in a ladder truck. Most importantly though, keep your back straight, and perform this dynamic movement with your hips and legs (photos 13-16). Not only will it take practice to master this skill, but it requires also upper-body and cardiovascular strength if you are attempting to lift anything bigger than a 24-foot extension ladder. As long as you are aware of your footing, are using good body mechanics, and have worked your way up in training from light to heavy ladders, this will be a safe and reliable evolution.

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Raise

Now that you have the ladder on your shoulder, stay aware as you approach your objective. Get your game plan straight as you are walking up to the building. Check the overhead for obstructions, drop your tools (but not the hook) (photo 17), and then ground the butt spurs at their final intended location (this is the spot where the ladder will give you the best climbing angle, and it won’t have to be repositioned to reach your objective) by pulling down on the beam and driving with your shoulder. Continue to pull the beam toward your waist while sliding the beam up your shoulder to complete your beam raise (photos 18-19). If performing a beam raise perpendicular to the building (photo 20), you can seamlessly execute a quick 90° rotation at the apex of your raise by rocking the ladder onto the far butt spur and pushing the closest beam 90° (photos 21-22).

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Rotate

Always face the building when extending the fly and putting the ladder into the building. If you find yourself facing the building but the ladder is oriented “fly out,” you’ll need to rotate the ladder 180° so that you can see the building and have access to haul on the halyard. The important thing is that you maintain your relationship to the building as you rotate the ladder. In other words, don’t “do-si-do” around with the ladder. Simply rock the ladder up on a beam and swing the opposite beam around. Step to the side and catch the beam as it comes around. This more elegant motion reduces the trip hazard in addition to being quicker and more efficient (photos 23-26). As a side note, always rotate the ladder with the fly sections retracted. If you need to change the orientation of the ladder after the ladder has been extended, just roll the ladder after it has been put into the building and the halyard is tied.

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Extend

Foot placement is critical when extending the fly sections by yourself. The most stability is achieved by “hooking” the instep of one foot around a butt spur while placing your knee against the front of the same beam. This stabilizes the ladder in a manner similar to that when two firefighters are footing opposite sides of the same beam (photo 27). Your other foot should be comfortably back to provide a stable base for raising the ladder (photo 28).

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Keep the ladder vertical and pull straight down on the halyard when raising the fly. It’s tempting to keep the ladder slightly tilted toward the building while pulling away with the halyard. Much more control is maintained, however, by keeping the ladder vertical and feeling some pressure on your knee as you pull the halyard in line with the ladder. If the ladder begins to tilt away from the building, it’s easy to push your knee into the beam and bring it back to vertical. As an added measure of safety, you can flair your elbows out as you raise the fly so they rub against the beams of the ladder (photo 29). When the fly is at the needed height and the dogs are locked, place your foot on the bottom rung and gently lean the ladder against the building (photo 30).

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Tie the Halyard

In a rescue or other critical situation, taking time to tie the halyard is of questionable worth. A compromise solution to time-consuming wraps and interminable half-hitches is the pared-down clove hitch detailed below.

After putting the ladder into the building, push the halyard under any convenient rung with your right hand. Reach over the rung with your left hand and grab the bight from your right. Now pull the bight over the rung and your right hand and pass it back under the rung. Hand that bight back to your right hand, and pull it through to complete the clove hitch (photos 31-36). Now you have a secure backup knot, and it took only two seconds to complete. Leave the excess slack on the ground. If you regularly place your ladders “fly out,” the excess will be under the ladder and out of the way. If you place ladders “fly in,” the excess rope can be kicked under the ladder to mitigate the trip hazard.

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If you need to quickly undo the hitch, simply pull on the tail of the rope, and you are ready to lower the fly and move to your next objective.

Fly in or Fly out?

Ground ladders are one of the original fire service tools, and the dispute over whether to place ladders “fly in” or “fly out” is equally time-honored. I won’t presume to end the debate here, but I will just add some fuel to the fire.

Both of the National Fire Protection Association-compliant fire service aluminum ladder companies design their ladders for fly-out application. One manufacturer states that its ladders are approximately four percent weaker when placed in the fly-in orientation. However, this number is negligible when remembering that the ladders are rated at 750 pounds and have a 4:1 safety margin.

It’s often beneficial to place a ladder fly in so that the firefighter pulling on the halyard can look at the building. Also, when descending a ladder placed fly in, the mid-fly and bed section are comfortably protruding so that you don’t step off into space. Alternatively, when taking an unconscious victim down a ladder or performing a ladder bailout, the bed section can get in your way if placed fly in.

I see both sides of the debate and have internally resolved it by deciding that whenever I throw a ladder to a windowsill or a balcony, it’s placed fly out. All other instances, I put up the ladder fly in.

•••

There are many reasons to train in solo firefighter extension ladder work. But before we make a decision about prohibiting or embracing any technique in our repertoire, we have to honestly answer this one fundamental question: If it were your family trapped above the fire and your fire department responding, would you want the firefighters to be skilled in this technique?

The risk of injury to the firefighter will be reduced if quality training is given before fireground use. Conversely, if we prevent our firefighters from becoming comfortable with solo ladder work in a training environment, the risk to firefighter and victim soars when the need to use this technique arises.

Quality training inspires safe and confident firefighters who can perform when needed. After all, true liability does not lie in training on tactics like this but in having to perform under stress without the necessary proficiency. Let’s not shrink from the possibilities of our job; let’s be confident that we are ready to meet them head on.

JAKE JARVIS has been a member of the fire service for eight years and of the Bellingham (WA) Fire Department for the past five. He received the 2010 Dana Hannon award for training from the Fraternal Order of Leatherheads.

RYAN GILBERT has been a career firefighter for 12 years and works on Engine 3 at the Bellingham (WA) Fire Department. He has previously been published in Fire Engineering.

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