Positioning Portable Ladders for Work on Fire Escapes


Fire escapes are designed and meant to provide a safe emergency egress route for tenants who can’t use the interior stairs during a fire. Although they may seem like a safe and effective way to escape from the structure, we as firefighters must question just how reliable they are when numerous victims are on them. We must also consider that many of these people are already in a state of panic because of the fire; they will be even more upset because their normal escape route is blocked. In addition, they are now using an emergency exit with narrow passageways, stairs, and ladders, which they might have never even considered using before. Exposure to escaping smoke, heat, or flames while “scaling” a building at a high elevation will add to their anxiety. Consider also that fire escapes were probably designed for an orderly escape by people using a rational thought process in perfect weather conditions.

The presence of overcrowding and panic should heighten our awareness when we pull up at a scene. The major concern should be the weight load and movements on the fire escapes. Fire escapes are made of steel, and many have been exposed to the elements for numerous years with minimal preventive maintenance being performed other than being painted from time to time. Rust will make any part of the metal components of fire escapes weak. For example, it can deteriorate the stair treads’ support bracket and their connection points, which could snap off when an unsuspecting firefighter or tenant is on them (photo 1).

(1) Luckily, this firefighter didn’t fall completely through the rusted-out platform of this fire escape. Always use caution while operating on fire escapes. (Photos by author except photo 1 by J.J. Cassetta.)

Recently at a fire in the Bronx, New York, the end of the safety railing snapped off the fire escape from a rusted-out attachment point. Luckily, no civilian or firefighter fell off the fire escape when it failed at this upper-floor fire. Fire escape platforms are normally attached to the building’s walls with bolts and anchors set into the masonry or with threaded lag bolts in wood walls; in better installations, they may be connected completely through the walls with through bolts. The chances of a bolt, a lag, or an anchor pulling out of a wall is far more common than a through-bolt failing. Plus, the through bolt is stronger and more capable of supporting a heavier load during a fire. However, a firefighter operating on the fire escape can’t see the inside wall to determine if a through bolt is present.

Fire escapes in large multiple dwellings may be present on many sides of the building, and normally the front fire escape does not have a gooseneck ladder to the roof. There are buildings that may have them, but usually because of the ornamental cornice jutting off the front or because it could take away from the aesthetics of the building, gooseneck ladders are not present (photo 2). With no means of escape to the roof, firefighters should expect that if the interior stairwell and hallways are banked down with a heavy smoke condition, it’s more than likely that overcrowding will occur in the front. It’s also likely that any other fire escape on the building will be inundated with escaping tenants, too. Often we’ve pulled up to the scene of a fire and have had numerous people showing on all floors of the fire escape with no visible smoke or fire showing anywhere. Once we’ve gained access inside the structure, we’ve found furniture burning fiercely inside the stairwell, making the public hallway, stairs, and landings impassable. At another incident, we had people jumping off the first-floor landing because the drop ladder would not release; at this incident, the smoke condition was caused by “food on the stove.”

(2) The front fire escapes often don’t go to the roof because of the front cornice. Note that the drop ladder broke free from its track when it was released.


If you’ve ever been confronted with severe overcrowding with numerous people screaming and in a state of panic on the fire escape, it can be an overwhelming experience. The first thing you should do is size up the location of the fire in relation to the tenants fleeing the structure. If any are in immediate danger and are being exposed to escaping flames, they should be the first ones rescued and removed either by portable ladders, aerials, or tower ladders.

If no one is in immediate peril or getting ready to jump off the fire escape, you should have some sort of systematic plan for relieving overcrowding of the fire escape. First, lower the drop ladder (the vertical ladder secured by a pivoting steel brace/hook, which provides access from the ground to the first-floor landing) if it has not been done already. Firefighters should always be positioned under the first-floor landing when dropping this vertical ladder. There have been numerous instances in which the drop ladder released from its guide track and fell forward and to the ground. If a firefighter were to be hit by this falling ladder, he could be seriously injured. The drop ladder is very difficult to climb; it is a narrow and vertical climb for firefighters and tenants (photo 3).

(3) The safety guard around this drop ladder can decrease the space from which a firefighter can climb while wearing an SCBA and possibly carrying a child. A portable ladder on the opposite side will be a better means of access.

In some instances, you may encounter a counterbalanced stairway (held up in the air with a weight-and-pulley system) instead of a drop ladder. When releasing this stairway, do not stand under it or the pulleys and weights. You should be positioned out in front of the stairs so in case the stairs or the lowering system fails, you are not struck.

Many experienced firefighters will initially bring a portable ladder with them when they leave the apparatus and ladder the first-floor landing opposite the drop ladder if possible (photos 4-5). Not only will this relieve overcrowding of the first-floor landing, but it also will allow rapid access and egress for firefighters and fleeing tenants.

(4) Laddering the opposite side of the drop ladder may be difficult because of the ornamental features of the building. Also, fleeing tenants may be exiting the building rapidly, adding to the confusion at the base of the ladder.
(5) A perfect place to ladder this fire escape landing is at the opposite end from the drop ladder.

Remember, it is very time consuming and difficult for tenants to spin around and lower themselves onto the vertical drop ladder. Add to that the fact that they may be holding small children, or elderly people may be involved. Also, there have been numerous occasions where people have fallen off this vertical ladder because of the difficulty of the climb. In addition, if conditions were not so severe on arrival but worsened, the ladder is already in position for a secondary means of egress off the fire escape.

Place the ladder next to the first-floor landing with the tip one to three rungs above the railing and resting on the building. Placing the ladder in this manner permits a good climbing angle and is quicker and easier to climb or descend than using the narrow drop ladder, and there shouldn’t be any worries about the rungs of a fire department ladder failing compared to those of the drop ladders. Moreover, the building is a solid support and can carry the weight load that will be placed on the ladder compared to a fire escape in poor condition. If time and conditions warrant, secure these ladders with a utility rope, a hose strap, or tubular webbing to prevent them from moving.

A key point to remember is that the tip of the ladder must be higher than the railing of the fire escape. This allows a firefighter to climb to a proper level to lift his leg up and over the railing, permitting an easier transition onto the fire escape. It also allows a fleeing tenant or firefighter to grab onto the ladder using it as a hand hold when transitioning off the fire escape and back onto the ladder. Remember, just as in other operations, when transitioning off the ladder, always check the stability of the fire escape platform with your boot before letting go of the ladder completely. Do not jump onto the fire escape when transitioning over the railing; it could cause an impact load and possible failure or collapse of a component or the complete fire escape.

When laddering the first-floor landing opposite the drop ladder, you have a few options relative to which ladder to choose. The height and location of the fire escape will determine if a step ladder, a straight ladder, a roof ladder, or an extension ladder is needed. Normally, a straight or a roof ladder will work, but there will be times when the first-floor landing is higher or obstructed by a canopy or an ornamental feature of a building and you may have to use a 24-foot extension ladder (photo 6). Some firefighters find it easier to use the 24-foot extension ladder from the start; it is 14 feet in the nested position, making it easier to maneuver, and is extendable to whatever height is needed at the landing. Placing a 20-foot straight or roof ladder into position alone is often difficult because of the ladder’s length and having to maneuver around sidewalk obstructions, parked cars, and fleeing tenants. Whenever faced with panicking tenants reaching for a ladder being raised, you might have to place it out of their reach and roll it into position so it gets there safely.

(6) The canopy may necessitate the need to use an extension ladder or to ladder the side nearest the drop ladder.

Make all attempts not to place ladders onto the front or side/end railings of the fire escape. They can protrude over the railing, creating an obstruction, and may easily slide and possibly fall if a fleeing tenant accidentally strikes or bumps into it. Since you have metal on metal, the ladder can easily slide while a firefighter is transitioning from the ladder onto the fire escape, causing a possible fall and injury. Adding a weight load on the railing could also cause a collapse of the fire escape or section if it is of questionable structural status.

In some instances, the fire escapes may be unable to be laddered at the end of the first-floor landing because of signage, canopies, or windows. If they must be laddered to the front railing, it is recommended that the firefighter initially put pressure on the ladder to check the stability of the railing before climbing. Secure the ladder at the tip, if possible, with a hose strap, rope, or tubular webbing to prevent the ladder from sliding when placed in this position. If a firefighter has to climb this ladder, he should do so slowly and deliberately; running up the ladder could cause bouncing or undue stress on the fire escape and a failure of the railing section if it is of questionable status.

However, in some circumstances such as when fire escapes are recessed into the building’s façade or blocked by an ornamental feature, the front railings of the landings may be the only place to ladder. Some departments choose to ladder the first-floor landing with roof ladders, if they are within reach, as a means of relieving overcrowding or if the end of the fire escape isn’t accessible. Prior to doing so, size up the height of the landing; using a short roof ladder can make the climb vertical and difficult; too long of a ladder can interfere with firefighting operations and result in a longer angled, time-consuming climb. Place the hooks of the roof ladder in the open position and secure over the railing, to prevent the ladder from sliding off the fire escape. This also removes the obstruction of having the tip of the ladder protruding too far over the railing and impeding the passageway.

Again, it’s a good tactic, but always use caution and check the stability of the railings; a firefighter and one or two escaping tenants on this ladder at a time are placing a severe weight load on the fire escape’s railing. Also, firefighters in bunker gear transitioning onto and off the ladder may find it a little difficult to raise their leg up and over the railing; use caution when performing this tactic.

If severe overcrowding is still occurring on the fire escape, place a second ladder at the second-floor landing on the drop ladder side. Position this ladder as the first ladder: next to the landing with the tip one to three rungs above the railing, resting on the building. Use caution at the base of the ladder because the fleeing tenants using the drop ladder are in the same vicinity. You could place another ladder to the third-floor landing, but it may be difficult because of the base position of the first ladder. The ladder will be at a steeper angle, and the climb will be longer. If a tower ladder or an aerial ladder is available, it may be easier to use it to relieve the overcrowding on the upper floors.

Removing panicking tenants off a fire escape can be a time-consuming job and requires the efforts of additional firefighters to place ladders and assist in the removal operations. On buildings with more than one fire escape, it could mean two separate operations running concurrently at different locations. Fire escapes have been exposed to the elements for many years and aren’t the safest or easiest things to work from or on. When faced with overcrowding conditions on a fire escape, it is up to us to safely remove or rescue fleeing tenants while keeping in mind our own safety when operating in, around, and on fire escapes.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 26-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.
Michael Ciampo will present “Through the Windshield: Through the Truck Officer’s Eyes” on Thursday, April 19, 2012, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC in Indianapolis.

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