Truck Company Ops: Working the Ladder

By Mark van der Feyst

Ground ladders are one of the basic tools firefighters use on the fireground, and sometimes we may overlook their importance. We may not train on them regularly, and when it comes time to use one, it may look as if this is our first time using a ground ladder. Knowing how to work our ground ladder is important and will aid us in making our job easier.

There is a well-known video that has been circulating for a few years showing a firefighter falling off a ground ladder. It is tilted “Improper Ladder Heeling.” This video shows two firefighters using a 12-foot ground ladder to gain access to the roof of a garage. Onene firefighter is heeling the ladder from the underside of it using both of his hands on the beam to hold the ladder from kicking out. The other firefighter then starts to climb up the ladder to the roof.

The ladder has been set properly at the correct angle; it has three to five rungs above the roof line, yet the ladder kicks out and the firefighter falls to the ground. This happened just as the firefighter reached the top of the ladder. When he put his foot on the rung that rested just above the roof line, the firefighter that was heeling the ladder walked away, thus allowing the ladder to kick out. The video stops short of us seeing the nature of the injuries sustained and the reaction to the firefighter who was heeling the ladder.

Firefighter footing a ladder


There are many ways to heel a ground ladder. We in the fire service seem to gravitate towards the method just described above.  In most basic training classes, we see firefighters heeling the ladder from behind as seen in photo 1. In most of our textbooks, we see this method being employed the most. The other ways to heel a ground ladder is to heel it from the front by using our foot against the beam at the butt. The other way is to have our foot on the bottom rung while standing in front of the ground ladder.

Why do we choose to always go behind the ground ladder to heel it? Why are we instructing our future firefighters to heel ground ladders from behind? Although this may be an acceptable practice, it is quite dangerous.

When a firefighter heels a ground ladder from behind, they are unable to view the entire operation. They are only able to see the beginning stages of the operation, but not the end of it. This was the case in the aforementioned video. The firefighter who was heeling the ground ladder from behind was only able to see the beginning stages of the climbing operation, but was unable to see the finishing stages of the climbing operation. As soon as the firefighter who was climbing the ground ladder cleared the view of the heeling firefighter, the heeling firefighter walked away.

What he did not see was that the climbing firefighter was only two rungs away from getting off the ladder and onto the roof. This was the cause of the ladder kicking out and the climbing firefighter falling. We are unable to look up all the way to view the entire operation. When we are wearing our full turnout gear, our SCBA and our helmet, we are restricted in our ability to look all the way directly up. Some firefighters’ helmets hit the top of the SCBA cylinder, whereas others’ helmets block a part of their view with the front brim.  Either way, the view of the operation is hindered and thus becomes a dangerous way of heeling a ground ladder.

Another aspect that is dangerous when heeling a ground ladder from behind is that we are exposing ourselves to falling hazards. Often firefighters carry hands tools to help us with our assigned task, and these hand tools may fall. Gravity is working against us every time we are carrying up a hand tool. We get tired, lose our grip, and suddenly our hand tool is falling to the ground. Depending on how it is falling, there is a very good chance that it will hit the head of the heeling firefighter.  

When we are breaking glass from a ground ladder, that glass falls down right on top of the heeling firefighter. Firefighters naturally want to see what is going on, so we look up. Have you ever heard an instructor tell you to not look up when you are heeling a ground ladder from behind? This is so you will not have falling tools, broken glass, falling debris, and the like falling on your face. When you look up, you are exposing your neck, mouth, and eyes to whatever may be coming down.

What if the firefighter climbing the ladder starts to slip or lose his balance while climbing? How quickly can the heeling firefighter come around from behind and stop the climbing firefighter from falling? Not very quickly! What if immediate assistance is needed? Can the heeling firefighter assist him quickly from that position behind the ground ladder?

The best method to heel a ground ladder is from the front. By being in the front of the ground ladder, we can view the entire operation. We are also able to view the entire building. This allows us to constantly monitor the conditions and activities of the situation. Whether we are heeling the ground ladder with our foot against the beam at the butt or on the bottom rung, we are still accomplishing the same safety goal of preventing the ladder from kicking out.

Firefighter footing the ladder from behind


In photo 2, we can see this in action. Here the heeling firefighter can view the entire operation from start to finish. He will also be out of the way of any falling debris. The heeling firefighter in this position can also assist the climbing firefighter by preventing them from falling.

Firefighter pins a falling member on the ladder


As seen in photo 3, the heeling firefighter can quickly climb up the ladder to pin or stop the climbing firefighter from falling off the ground ladder. This will work within distance of one section. If you have two or three sections of distance between the heeling firefighter and the climbing firefighter, then you will not be able to reach them safely in time.

The next time you conduct ladder training, try to incorporate the front heeling method into your routine. Compare the two methods to see the differences and consider how heeling from the front may make for a safer operation.

In the Training Minutes video above, Mike Ciampo explains some of these concepts.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is a full-time firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, and India, and at FDIC. He is a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and an instructor for the Justice Institute of British Columbia. He is also the lead author of Residential Fire Rescue (Pennwell).





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