Tactical ladder applications on the fireground
John J. Gelinas
Cambridge (MA) Fire Department
The traditional and basic mission of the fire service is to provide protection to life and property against fire. Throughout the centuries, the fire service mission has evolved to include numerous and divergent duties. Today, the protection of the environment can be included, as well as provision of emergency medical care, hazard control, special rescue functions, and public education. The fire service has willingly (and rightly so) taken on these additional responsibilities.
In spite of the changes in the fire service mission, the protection of life and property against fire is still basic. The fire service historically has utilized three basic units to provide this fire protection: an attack pump, a water supply pump, and a truck company. Truck company duties are numerous and personnel-intensive. They include forcible entry, ventilation, overhaul, salvage, reconnaissance, control of utilities, provision of portable lights, search and rescue, and laddering of buildings. Because of the personnel needs and the cost of providing these personnel, some fire departments seriously neglect these basic truck company duties.
All too often, ladders are neglected totally and without reservation on our part. Yes, maybe the aerial ladder is thrown to the roof or window. Too often, and shamefully so, in many of America`s communities, no ladder truck responds and no ladders are thrown. In many situations, inadequate numbers of ladder companies are operating on-scene. Too often, one firefighter–the driver–responds with the ladder truck. Every one of us knows that a ladder truck does not make a ladder company–the firefighters on- board make the company. We may be fooling the public, and we may even be fooling ourselves. It is almost the 21st century. Do we need ladders, or are they old-fashioned? Maybe some type of reasoning tells us that since we don`t have the personnel to throw ladders, we don`t need ladders.
All of the above sounds good if we don`t mind a little fantasy or self-deception in the fire service. The real story is that we cannot operate safely at fires without proper and timely ladder placement. Remember the reasons for raising ladders: for firefighter access and egress, ventilation, forcible entry, and the rescue of occupants. The traditional fireground rules remind us to raise a ladder to each floor on each side of a fire building. This is an old but still valid rule. If we send firefighters fully geared in personal protective equipment into a fire building and expect them to make an aggressive fire attack on upper floors, we must throw ladders. We owe it to these firefighters.
Any building under normal circumstances is required to maintain two means of egress. Especially during this time when a building is under direct assault by fire, raising ladders to windows and roofs will create exits and means of egress for the inside or roof firefighters. We cannot in good conscience allow firefighters to work on a roof without two means of escape. We cannot allow firefighters to operate inside a fire area on any floor without two means of immediate egress available. Rescue after the fact is not a legitimate option.
Consider the following scenario: The members of Engine 5 are making an aggressive attack on the fire on the third floor of a three-story, wood-frame, multiple dwelling. They have advanced through the interior and rear stairway and have pushed the fire back through the burned area. They are making good progress on the floor. The ceiling over the rear hall, bathroom, and kitchen collapses in a ball of fire behind them. No member of the company is injured, but the escape route is blocked. Knowing that a 30- or 35-foot ladder had previously been placed to a third- floor window on each side of the building, the members of Engine 5 calmly go to the appropriate window, ascertain the exact location of the ground ladder, and make an orderly exit from the building. Consider the alternative if the ladders were not there!
Yes, we work in a dangerous environment, and things do not always go as expected. Yes, it takes an adequate number of fire personnel to throw ladders. Rapid intervention, firefighter assist, and safety teams; personal rescue ropes; firefighter survival training; PASS devices; thermal imaging units; and the two-in/two-out rule are the latest rage, but we must remember ladders. A judiciously placed ladder is a proactive tool that will prevent injury to a firefighter before rapid intervention is needed. Is it reasonable to order a rapid intervention team to stand by while an engine company is operating on an upper floor of a fire building where no ladders are in place? It is almost unconscionable to send our firefighters into a burning building with an inadequate number of truck companies working at the fire. Ladders thrown to a fire building are not just for photo opportunities. Ladders save lives–maybe some day those of our own department members.