Since the first days of the American fire service, the fire service has either embraced change or fought it with intensity. Programs, ideas, and innovations have come and gone. New ones have flourished, and old ones have been resurrected. Often, we have stepped back and asked, “Why did we stop doing this?” or “Why did we go away from this in the first place?” One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that we still lose each year an average of about 100 brothers and sisters in the line of duty.

Several years ago, we realized we weren’t focusing on firefighter survival training as much as we should have been. Although we were training in all of the different areas within the fire service, we seemed to be neglecting the area of training our firefighters to save one of our own. The need for such training was recognized: Several programs presented by a variety of talented instructors surfaced to the top of the “training topic pool”-among them, “Get Out Alive,” “Mayday, Handling Our Fireground Emergency,” and “Saving Our Own.” Innovative thinkers such as Mike Lombardo of the Buffalo (NY) Fire Department, John Norman of the Fire Department of New York, and others have been teaching firefighter survival training for years.

Understandably, this type of training took off. With the emphasis on rapid intervention teams and two-in/two-out, more and more fire departments got onboard.

Students and instructors alike have enthusiastically embraced the training in which firefighters came to realize that it’s not necessary to get technical with our rescue procedures and that, most times, we don’t have the time to rig a “4 to 1” hauling system or get real fancy. They came to see that the choice when a downed firefighter or they, themselves, have to be removed from harm’s way is that you either get “down and dirty” or you lose another family member.

With this in mind, firefighter survival training is not like typical, traditional training evolutions. Firefighters who become lost or trapped in buildings present a multitude of situations and tasks that necessitate quick thinking and sometimes actions that may be questioned after the fact. But, if we look back, we will see that firefighters have done some pretty phenomenal and wonderful things in their efforts to save civilians and fellow firefighters.


Firefighting has always been and always will be a dangerous job. How well we train and the areas in which we train will help to make the fireground safer. The dangers associated with firefighting and the fact that we can end up in some pretty bad situations or become trapped require us to do some things a little differently-things that some will refer to as nontraditional techniques. One thing that doesn’t change each time we finish a firefighter survival program is the type of comments heard from the students: “This was the best training I’ve ever had” and “Why haven’t we done this sooner?”

Through this type of training, it becomes apparent that getting a firefighter up a flight of stairs, out of a second-floor window, and out of all the other emergency situations that might occur just isn’t easy. Nor is it easy to rescue yourself: breaching a wall to get out, disentangling your SCBA, or finding your way out of a building after becoming separated from your partner or crew.

Many firefighters can become endangered by various conditions. Consider the following scenario.

You are searching a bedroom on the second floor of a 21/2-story wood-frame private dwelling. The fire is on the first floor and is being attacked by the first hoseline team. You gained access to the second floor by the interior stairs early in the operation. After reaching the second floor, you entered a bedroom to search. Fire conditions worsened on the first floor, and you and your partner are ordered to suspend your search and return to the first floor.

As you exit the bedroom to make your way to the stairs, extreme heat and smoke cause you both to retreat to the bedroom and close the door behind you. You radio your situation back to the incident commander and the outside rescue team. You then locate and break open a window in anticipation of your escape. The rescue team radios you and tells you that a ladder is being raised to your location.

Conditions in the room are now rapidly deteriorating, and heat and smoke conditions are bordering on unbearable. You tell the rescue team to “HURRY” with that ladder. When it is finally dropped into place, the heat; smoke; and, now, fire are such that you are forced to literally “crawl” over the windowsill and onto the ladder. This is just one harrowing example of why you may be forced into using the headfirst ladder slide.

If these conditions occur while you are on the first floor, and you can’t make it to a door, it would be fairly easy to bail out from that first-floor window or hang from the window and drop the few feet to the ground.

However, when these conditions occur while you are on the second floor, and the window is the only way out, you could still consider the hang-and-drop maneuver if the height makes is feasible. If a ladder is available, definitely use it, but leaving by ladder in the traditional manner may not be an option if the room is beginning to light up. To stay low in the window and out of the extreme heat and move quickly enough so that the rest of your crew can make it out, your only choice may be to leave the window headfirst onto the ladder. Several methods of headfirst ladder bailout that have been used by firefighters to escape from dangerous circumstances, such as those described here, are being taught. No one method is considered to be better than the other. If there is one thing we have learned in firefighter survival training, it is that there is no one way to do something. The ideal is to become familiar with some of the methods that seem to work best and then to be able to choose one in an emergency.


The death of Captain C. Thomas Moore of the Manteca City (CA) Fire Department in June 1999 has focused much attention on the headfirst ladder bailout. Moore, serving as an instructor at a multi-crew live fire training exercise at the Regional Fire Training Center in Modesto, fell 18 feet from the second floor of the training facility when he exited the window headfirst at a high rate of speed. He lost his grip as he was grabbing the ladder beams, shuffling with both hands. He fell straight down and landed on the left side of his face. He was pronounced dead 45 minutes later.1

In spite of the fact that many in the fire service are now questioning the validity of this technique, we maintain that when taught properly, practiced safely, and used only as a last resort, the emergency ladder escape technique is a valuable and effective method for firefighters to use to escape rapidly changing and hostile fire conditions, when there is no other option.

This is a true and realistic tactic that can be learned and practiced safely. It is also a dangerous tactic and, as already noted, should be performed only as a last resort. But, as dangerous as this tactic may be, it is far more dangerous to be forced into performing it some day at a fire without ever having been trained to do it safely and correctly. This tactic, like many other firefighting tactics and procedures, is just one option or tool firefighters can employ to escape dangerous and deadly situations.

When training on this tactic, appropriate safety measures are mandatory. They include connecting the exiting firefighter to a safety line secured and staffed by experienced training personnel.

Editor’s note: Typically, the ladder angle used for the ladder slide training evolution is set at less than the recommended “one-quarter of the working length,” or 751/27. Nor is the tip extended into the window. This is done for safety reasons-that is, to build in a margin of error for students who are not experienced in the procedure. However, this raises an obvious contradiction, placing this technique at odds with common fireground ladder angles and recommended practices. This must be reconciled. First, all safety precautions must be followed. Second, fire departments should not practice any version of the ladder slide training without first receiving instruction from a qualified, well-experienced instructor. Third, consider any “umbrella” regulations regarding ladder use (see the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Fourth, realize that familiarity with a survival technique at an angle of inclination of less that 707 is far better than no experience should a firefighter be forced to egress out a window, down a ladder to survive. Fifth, consider that the 757 angle, apart from ladder strength/support issues, facilitates climbing up, not down. With firefighter survival and victim removal foremost, should we reorder our idea of ground ladders-that is, seeing them first as firefighter survival tools and second as access/ascending tools-and take steps accordingly, with all that that implies?


The following techniques are based on the assumption that a firefighters(s) has become trapped or cut off by a rapidly advancing fire. The only means of escape is through this window. It may be a window from which he had gained access or one to which a portable ladder had been placed-it is the only way out. High heat conditions force the firefighter to approach the window while as low as possible to the floor. On reaching the wall, the firefighter reaches up; breaks out the glass, if necessary; and performs one of the following.

Method A: Use for escaping from a high place such as the attic or a third-floor window (a quick turnaround and descent is feet first).

  • Stay low. Move out the window headfirst.
  • As you exit the window, reach under the ladder rung just below the windowsill until the inside of your elbow joint is against the rung and your hand is grasping the next rung down, palm up (see photos 1,2,3). Reaching around the outside of the beam also works well.
  • As you continue, with your other hand, reach out and down. Follow the beam until you can reach the rung just below your other hand. You should be able to clear the window with your body.
  • Swing your body down, around, and upright. You can now descend the ladder in the traditional manner. If you are being pressed by other escaping firefighters behind you, slide the ladder (see photo 4).

Method B: Use for escaping from a high place: You will be able to descend feet first, and the turnaround is done after leaving the hostile environment, farther down on the ladder.

  • Get on your hands and knees (as we almost always should be).
  • Locate the window, usually by finding the windowsill or molding with a gloved hand. If you had entered through this window from a ladder, the window will already be opened (cleared). If you are encountering this window for the first time, you will have to break, vent, open, or otherwise clear the opening enough so you can climb quickly through it.
  • After clearing the window, if conditions are so hot or severe that you cannot maneuver onto the ladder in the conventional manner (feet first), you may be forced (meaning you have NO CHOICE) to literally crawl over the windowsill and onto the ladder (see photo 5). You may not have ever been there before, but you will now be on this ladder upside down, facing the ladder. As bad as conditions were that forced you to crawl out onto that ladder, you WILL do it deliberately, almost slowly, because you are in very unfamiliar territory.

Never “jump” out of the window onto the ladder. Your feet should never lose contact with the floor until your body is moving over the sill onto the ladder. You don’t “grab” for the ladder, as some other techniques require. Except for the fact that you want to grasp the rungs as you crawl onto and down the ladder, there is nothing to remember. You are simply crawling over the windowsill and down the ladder.

When your toes hit the windowsill or any of the ladder’s top several rungs, you are OUT and SAFE, and you can even briefly stop (unless other firefighters are following you out) (see photo 6).

This is the point at which we suggest you slowly turn yourself around until you are standing on one of the lower rungs. This maneuver is performed by releasing the grip of one hand and reaching over and around the beam. Pivoting on the one hand, still holding the rung below, and with two legs, rotate down to a position of standing on a lower rung (see photo 7).

We stress here that you are OUT and your emergency is OVER. Even if another firefighter is following you out of this window, when this maneuver is performed at realistic speed, you will be out of the firefighter’s way as he exits. The firefighter can’t climb out onto the ladder until your boots are off or past the sill. Once your boots have cleared the sill, you are several rungs (six to eight) below and are climbing down the ladder toward the ground. You are also now in a position to assist the firefighter exiting behind you.

Method C: Use if more than one firefighter needs to leave immediately (less chance of collision) and if the ladder is not perfectly placed against the building (it will be less likely to slide).

In one movement, move up and over the windowsill onto the ladder. You can use the sides of the window or the sill to pull yourself out the window.

  • As you start down the ladder, grip the rungs with your hands.
  • Once your head and shoulders are out of the opening, bend at the waist and let your body lower onto the ladder (see photo 8).
  • Using your arms, go rung to rung down the ladder, while still upside down. Note: An injured or tired firefighter can use his legs to hang from the ladder until help arrives or his strength returns. This is done by hooking the feet in the windowsill or by hooking the feet on a rung and along the rails of the ladder (see photo 9). Once help arrives, or when the firefighters feels it is safe to go, he continues down headfirst until almost reaching the ground and then lets his feet spin sideways off the ladder until they touch the ground.

By remaining headfirst, the way you left the building, your chances of falling off the ladder or of the ladder’s sliding along the building front are decreased. Also, if another firefighter must get out immediately behind you, he can follow you straight down the ladder, since you do not have to stop to spin or hang on the ladder.


1. Manning, Bill, “To Bail or Not To Bail,” Editor’s Opinion, Fire Engineering, April 2000, 4.

RICK LASKY, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was a member of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department, where he served as chief and training officer, and the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught for the Illinois Fire Service Institute and the Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association in a variety of programs. He was the 1996 recipient of the ISFSI “Innovator of the Year” award for his role in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC and FDIC West advisory boards.

JOHN J. SALKA, JR., is a battalion chief and 20-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Battalion 18 in the Bronx. He has instructed at the department’s probationary firefighters’ school and in its professional development program, which he helped create. He has been a presenter at the FDIC and has been published in various fire service publications.

BOB PRESSLER, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a retired lieutenant from Rescue Company No. 3 of the Fire Department of New York. He created and produced the videos Peaked-Roof Ventilation and SCBA Safety and Emergency Procedures for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate’s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University. He is a technical editor for Fire Engineering, a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and a member of a volunteer department. He is the coordinator of Hands-On Education for FDIC and FDIC West.

No posts to display