WHEN SHOULD YOU PURCHASE AN AERIAL LADDER?
BY HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D.
The question “Does my community need an aerial ladder?” is not an easy one to answer. While researching this topic as a municipal fire officer and fire protection consultant, I discovered a mechanism for arriving at a series of answers to this question but no all-encompassing rule that could be offered for every situation.
For many years, it was thought that the answer to this question had a firm basis in fact. We were governed by the old rule-of-thumb that said an aerial ladder was necessary when five or more buildings of three stories or more in height or their equivalent were within a fire protection jurisdiction.
A recent phone call inquiring as to the exact citation of that recommendation touched off an extensive search of my personal library. It had been quite a while since someone had asked me to cite the source of that rule.
I found the citation under Section 540 of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) Fire Suppression Rating Schedule. It specifically states, “[R]esponse areas with 5 buildings that are 3 stories or 35 feet or more in height, or [have] 5 buildings that have a Needed Fire Flow greater than 3,500 gpm, or any combination of these criteria, should have a ladder company.”
Is this all one needs to know to justify the need for an aerial unit in a community? I then asked myself. What about the communities that want more than just code and rating schedule quotations? Are there other criteria that could be used to back up the ISO recommendations?
SEARCH FOR ADDITIONAL CRITERIA
My search for additional criteria began in the same location at which many of our current standards and recommendations began their lives: the old American Insurance Association (AIA) Bulletins. AIA Special Interest Bulletin #69, “Fire Department Apparatus, Ladder and Elevating Platforms,” addressed the issue of the appropriate ratio of aerial ladders to pumpers. This was a complementary reference to those remarks in the rating schedule that spoke of the need for a basic structural fire response of two pumper companies and a ladder or service company. I then selected data that could help broaden the basic requirements.
Some interesting clues related to the thinking of the individuals who developed this document were detected by reading between the lines. Relating to building conditions in the years following the Civil War, the bulletin stated: “As the height of buildings increased, it became evident that ladders long enough to reach the upper floors could not be handled by hand alone.”
This seemingly urban problem from the 1870s and 1880s led to the development of an elevating ladder attached to a horse-drawn turntable vehicle. Thus, the aerial ladder was born. Undoubtedly, the debate over which fire departments should have one began at that point.
Since the ISO grading schedule speaks to how a unit becomes a rated aerial company, its existence is therefore acknowledged. And its guidelines give us a starting point. Unfortunately, we are still left with the question of how to further justify such an acquisition.
JUSTIFYING AN ACQUISITION
Whether to purchase an aerial ladder seems to be a local decision based on local building conditions. However, we have seen that many communities that did not need an aerial ladder had one and other communities that desperately needed one could not get one. What then to do?
These concerns led me to additional research and the development of the rules, given below, for determining if the acquisition of an aerial ladder or elevating platform device is warranted.
An aerial device is recommended when a number of buildings within the jurisdiction appear to be beyond the reach of existing fire department ground ladders. This recommendation is not only based on ISO recommendations but is a basic common-sense concept. If a significant number of your buildings are beyond the reach of your ground ladders, you had better do something about it.
The number of buildings beyond the reach of ground ladders in itself is not an absolute criterion; its significance will vary from community to community. For example, consider two communities, each of which has 15 buildings beyond the reach of a standard 35-foot portable ladder. The first is a farming community, and all 15 structures are barns or silos. The other community contains a series of apartment buildings, each more than 35 feet in height and housing approximately 40 residents. We can make a distinction in this case and would give an aerial to the latter.
In determining the need for acquiring an aerial device, we are not going to ignore the recommendations in the National Fire Protection Association`s Fire Protection Handbook, 17th edition, which recommends the following response patterns:
High-hazard occupancies (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, high-rise buildings): at least four pumpers, two ladder trucks, and other specialized apparatus as may be identified or available for the hazard.
Medium-hazard occupancies (apartments, offices, mercantile and industrial occupancies not normally requiring extensive rescue or firefighting capabilities): at least three pumpers, one ladder truck, and other specialized apparatus as may be identified or available.
Low-hazard occupancies (one-, two-, or three-family dwellings and scattered businesses and industrial occupancies): at least two pumpers, one ladder truck, and other specialized apparatus as may be identified or available.
Rural operations (scattered dwellings, small businesses, and farm buildings): at least one pumper with a large water tank (500 gallons or more), one mobile water supply apparatus (1,000-gallon or larger tank), and other specialized apparatus as may be necessary to perform effective initial firefighting operations.
These are excellent recommendations. However, as we have said, in many in-stances, the listing of a requirement or recommendation does not satisfy the incessant questioning of a municipal government official. That is the reason we are looking for actual physical criteria that can be used to justify acquiring such an expensive piece of firefighting equipment.
RULES GOVERNING THE ACQUISITION OF AN AERIAL DEVICE
l. Consider acquiring an aerial device when the portable ground ladders in your community will not reach the upper windows or roofs of buildings in your community. This is a simple but easily overlooked way to justify your need.
2. If you need long ladders and do not have enough people to raise them, consider an aerial ladder or elevating platform device.
Given that it takes four to six firefighters to raise and place a long ground ladder, ask the next question: Do you have enough people to lay out the attack and supply hoselines and raise a long ground ladder? This fact is fairly easy to establish.
A review of existing records can tell you how many people in your community respond during the various time periods. In almost every one of my consulting assignments over the past 15 years, there has been a diminished staffing level during the 0700-1700 hours time frame. This condition is especially prevalent in small fire departments. If you do not have the people, you cannot raise the ground ladders.
3. If the terrain and topography in a community rule out using ground ladders, you must consider aerial devices. Topographical and landscaping oddities may prevent the firefighters from approaching from the two-story side of two-story structures, such as townhouses, to raise ground ladders. In addition, Queen Anne (Victorian) homes–although not common in every U.S. community–do not provide good access for roof operations. In these situations, an aerial device would be needed to make the necessary rescues or accomplish ventilation operations.
William E. Clark, in both editions of Firefighting Principles and Practices (Fire Engineering Books), refers to such problems of access, terrain, and topography. If you cannot reach the roofs and upper floor windows by means of a ground ladder, you must opt for the aerial.
The citizens expect you to be able to reach them in times of emergency–regardless of structure height or other access difficulties. If your community needs an aerial device but has an insufficient workload to justify the expense of purchasing one or cannot afford to buy one, consider a mutual-aid or regional purchase agreement (all parties in need of the aerial device share in the cost and one department serves as the host agency). When contracting with another department, be sure to work out agreement details before the need for the device arises and develop a written contract establishing procedures for requesting and providing aid and the equipment/services (or money) that will be offered in return for use of the aerial.
By sharing an aerial device with neighboring departments under an automatic-aid agreement, a fire department can lower its ISO rating (and consequently insurance rates). Under the automatic-aid agreement, a department arranges in advance to have another department`s assets (equipment, personnel, or both) automatically respond to a call in the contacting department`s territory; no request must be made at the time of the emergency (as must be done in a mutual-aid arrangement). Fire departments can receive up to 90 percent of the full credit (points) they would have received under the ISO Fire Suppression Rating Schedule if they owned the equipment. The number of credits that can be earned depends on the alarm receipt/dispatch, fireground communications, and joint-training arrangements between the aiding and aided departments. (See “Fire Suppression Rating Schedule,”by Dale Perry, Fire Engineering, June 1995, page 10.)
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If you have developed a tight package of justifications, have sold the proposal to the powers that be (if you are a municipal fire department), and have sold it to the citizens in your community and still have not been able to gain approval for the funding of the level of fire protection you consider to be adequate, keep the paperwork, for there is always next year. n
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., is a battalion chief with the Newark (NJ) Fire Department, a past chief of the Adelphia (NJ) Fire Department, and a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia.