The Arm Lock Maneuver


Firefighters polled while performing hands-on training around the country admit that there are very few times, if any, when a firefighter performs a leg lock maneuver while working off a portable ladder at a fire. Despite the fact that numerous firefighters are now equipped with personal lifebelts or harnesses, they are quick to admit that they don’t use these items when performing a relatively short task when working on or off the portable ladder. Add that to the fact that most firefighters still complain that it’s a real nuisance to perform a leg lock on a portable ladder because of full bunker pant pockets and the size of their bodies and boots. Firefighters admit that they’d rather gamble with their safety while working on or off a portable ladder than perform a leg lock.

Is gambling something we want? The original leg lock is something we’ve all been taught and had to perform to pass a Firefighter 1 or basic/introduction training class, but we all admit that the technique is not used to its full potential once we leave the academy grounds. A while back, sensing a growing trend of firefighter falls from ladders, I introduced the “hook in leg lock” and “hyper-extend leg lock” maneuvers (Fire Engineering, April 2003). Although they may not be the total answer, they do offer more options in safety while working on portable ladders.

Normally when working off a ladder, firefighters are performing a variety of tasks. The most common tasks are venting a window and pulling the screen, blinds, and curtains out to permit full ventilation of the room. Many firefighters during their initial training were taught and “encouraged” to do this in a manner so they don’t hit and injure a victim who “possibly” could be lying on the floor under this window. Also, dropping the curtains and blinds may cover up a victim. Now some of you are even questioning why you should climb ladders to vent when you can let the ladder do the actual ventilation by “throwing it through” the window. Well, some departments strictly forbid this type of action on their fireground and only permit firefighters’ climbing ladders to perform this vital tactic.


Perhaps while operating on a ladder at a fire you’ve been in this predicament: The six-foot hook you’re using gets caught up in the curtain-and-cord assembly (unbeknownst to you, the whole assembly is attached to the wall with three-inch drywall screws). As you begin to pull outward, you realize you need to exert some “extra” force to get the curtains and cord to release. Pulling the hook harder and backward away from the window, your body’s momentum is pulling you off the rung and working plane of the ladder. Suddenly, the curtains and cord release and come flying out the window toward you. In an instant, you feel your body flying backward off the ladder. Quickly, you grab for the ladder and readjust your body’s position to regain your balance on the ladder. Nice job. You did your job saving the victim from the curtains-and-rod assembly, but you just decreased your life span with the undue stress you just placed on your heart as you nearly fell two stories to the ground.

(1) A firefighter operating on a ladder and preparing to use the arm lock while venting a window. (Photos by Joe Gaeta.)

I admit that this was one of those fireground experiences “that happened to me once, too.” I got lucky that time but realized that the next time I’d better come up with a better game plan or course of action. My first course of action was to inform others that if you’re not doing any type of safety maneuver to keep yourself on the ladder, why are you pulling all the stuff out of the windows?

Let’s look at this: Pulling backward with a hook standing on a small ladder rung two stories above the ground, your body is going only in one direction, away from the ladder and building and down to the ground-and on a lights-and-siren ambulance ride to the hospital.

(2) A view from another angle of the firefighter’s positioning himself to use the arm lock maneuver.

This also goes for the leftover glass left in the frame. Smack it in; there is always the chance that visibility will be limited because of smoke conditions. The hook could get caught on the window frame as you pull backward to remove the glass, and suddenly your grip could slip or the hook could grab onto something more substantial-and you will fly backward. Plus, why do we want to hit our firefighters with flying glass shards as they are performing other critical fireground tactics?

I know many of you are concerned and worried about the victim who’s supposedly inside, but I think it’s time we start thinking about ourselves first. If we are going to gamble with our safety on a ladder, then why not gamble with the safety of the “supposed victim” under the window? Over the course of years and actual fireground experiences, training, and drilling, an idea came to mind that has increased the safety of venting windows from a ladder. Many of us may be naturally doing this already, but there are still many firefighters who haven’t been exposed to this maneuver or given the opportunity to learn it.


The arm lock maneuver is a small procedure that can be used for fireground tasks such as venting a window with a hook when working off a portable ladder. It is easy to perform and requires very little time to get into position, thus saving critical time for other important tasks.

Let’s use the following scenario to learn the technique:

A firefighter places a portable ladder between two windows on the second floor of a dwelling that needs to be ventilated. The firefighter has climbed to the proper level to operate on the ladder and is going to vent the right-side window first. He holds the whole hook in his right hand and inserts his left arm between the two rungs in front of him. Now, he moves the hook’s handle into both hands and is in a position to break the glass out of the right-side window to facilitate ventilation.

If the opposite window also needs to be ventilated, all he has to do is hold the whole hook with the left arm, which is still between the rungs; insert the right arm into this position between the rungs; and hold the hook in the right arm while he pulls out his left arm and goes to the left side of the ladder to hold the hook. The left-side window is now ready to be ventilated.


The main reason for the arm lock maneuver is that the hook’s handle acts as a safety brace, a brake, or a stop between the ladder and the firefighter. If a firefighter were to swing the hook into a window and the hook were to bounce back off the window, the handle would come in contact with the ladder’s side beam/rail and act as a safety stop as long as the firefighter maintains his grip on the hook. This homemade brake prevents the firefighter from falling backward off the ladder. It also offers him the chance to pull himself back into the ladder to regain his balance anytime during the swing.

For the maneuver to work properly, the firefighter must use the reach of the hook and avoid “choking up” on the handle. If the firefighter chokes up on the handle, it is possible that as the tool is swinging toward the window, the bottom end of the hook could strike the ladder’s opposite beam or rail. This would cause the swing to come to an abrupt halt, shake the ladder, and cause the hook to come up short of hitting and venting the window.

Another point is that the firefighter operating on the ladder doesn’t have to lay his body into the ladder. He can afford to create a small working space between his body and the ladder; this space allows for easier swinging of the hook. Of course, as always on the fireground, the slope you’re operating on and the ladder’s sometime precarious position will determine your final body position. Finally, whenever working off a ladder, resist the urge to overreach. Remember, if your tool can’t reach the work area, then you need to reposition the ladder or get the proper size tool.

On today’s fireground, we’re faced with more and more thermal pane windows. When struck with a tool, it is not uncommon for the tool to bounce off these windows. Also, Lexan® or Plexiglass™ windows, which provide greater security, are found in many areas. Recently, a firefighter who wasn’t performing any type of leg lock fell off a ladder after striking a Lexan® window while fighting a fire. When this firefighter wound up the hook to strike the window, he gave it that little “extra” force, as so many of us often do. Unfortunately, on impact the hook quickly bounced back off the window; the firefighter lost his balance and fell two stories off the ladder and injured his leg.

When teaching this arm lock maneuver at seminars and conducting field testing at live-burn and hands-on training classes, I found most of the feedback to be positive. Many firefighters were miffed that they hadn’t been taught this previously. Most felt it was a simple safety maneuver to use and something they would be sure to use on the fireground to vent a window or perform an overhaul tactic. The arm lock kept them from pulling material out of the window and themselves off the ladder. It can also be a reliable way to remove the center sash of some windows. Members performing this tactic were more inclined to strike the center sash inward and downward to get it to snap or release from the frame instead of trying to pull it out. In addition, with most of the material going inside the structure, the firefighter on the ladder was less likely to be struck with debris.


There were a few cons discussed about the maneuver. One was the possibility that the swinging motion and recoil of the hook bouncing off a window could cause a backward force that may pull one beam or rail of the ladder off its resting position. It was felt after numerous test applications that the firefighter’s natural reaction to adjust to these conditions was to immediately pull himself back into the ladder by using his arms and the hook. Some other firefighters were upset that this maneuver wasn’t the answer to all of their problems of working off a portable ladder and performing overhaul operations.

• • •

The arm lock by no means is the total answer for the leg lock dilemma or when working off a ladder. It is just another small, practical safety tactic that some day may be helpful on the fireground.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 20-year fire service veteran 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 FDIC H.O.T. Ground Ladders and an editorial advisor to Fire Engineering.

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