TOM BRENNAN, technical director and former editor of Fire Engineering, spent more than 20 years in some of the world’s busiest ladder companies in the City of New York Fire Department. He currently is chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department.

I often pose the following scenario at courses, seminars, and training sessions that I am part of: You arrive at the structure. No doubt there is a well-seated and spreading fire within. There is the unmistakable smell of burning wood, furniture, and paint in the air. As the apparatus rolls to a stop, you look up. A window at the third floor gets your attention. You try to focus on that one spot, but you don’t know why—yet. The glass is blackened and streaked by rolling balls of condensation. You know from experience that it is hot and will begin to craze and fail in moments. The fire is in close proximity—perhaps (hopefully) not in that room yet, but too close.

Now you know why your attention is in microfunction. You see a human handprint, a palm plastered to the inside of the skillet-like glass. It’s there, he’s there—no mistake. You look away for an instant and back— the palm…it’s gone.

What do you do? Think! Outline your actions now! You only have a moment. Most answer, “I’d get a portable ladder and go up and rescue the victim.” Well, if this is the first time you thought of it, you already have wasted too much time thinking. If this is the first time you thought of it and you’re on the fireground, you won’t be able to think in time to be successful.

Some questions that must be answered in this situation (and you only have one shot) follow.

What ladder do you take off the truck? Do you know for sure? Are you sure right now? To answer that, you must know how your ladders are stored. You must know the exact ladder you need and how to get at it, to be able to reject all others that your hand touches in your search for it. If you don’t know exactly which you want, you’ll come away with the first one you find!

Are your trucks—engines and ladders—set up with the ladder that you need most often in your district on top, or at least most easily accessible? Or are your trucks set up for parades? Most units have their ladders set for parades or for what looks the nicest.

Is the 35-foot extension on bottom, the 28or 24-fbot extension set into the upper fly of the 35-foot, because it fits? Then follows the 14or 16-foot hook ladder because it fits, and then the folding attic ladder and the multiangle, multipurpose, multishaped overhauling tool—because it fits.

Remember, the ladder you pick must fit up against the sill of the window that is your target, the one at which you last saw your victim —that is, if you are to be successful. If the ladder you carry away from the truck is too short, how will you get in? If it’s too long, how will you get in? And, more important, how will you get your victim out —conscious or not?

Portable ladder in position, at the base of the sill, now what? Here is where myth and romance separate ability and truth. Sure, climb the ladder and make a “door” out of the window. There are no “firefighter” carries, chair carries, fore and aft carries, or pack strap carries now. You’re alone and it’s too hot. What do you do?

Well, if you haven’t called for help, now is a good time. It is virtually impossible to remove a person larger than a baby by yourself. I know training sessions and periodical photos sometimes show one person carrying a “victim” down portable ladders. But how did that victim get off the floor, onto the sill, and draped across the rescuer’s outstretched arms latched onto the beams of the ladder? And where are the heat and the smoke? You will need help always!

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The best you may be able to do is to lift and drape the victim over the sill and have half the body down the top few rungs, hopefully head first. Now you must snake yourself over the victim and begin the slow process of inching him/her down little by little until it becomes manageable and safe and help arrives.

Now think of all the other ladder positions you’ve seen and discussed. If the tips are above the window sill —a foot or more—what will you do with the victim? How will you ascend into that high heat and get yourself out and down? How about the too-tall ladder placed to the side of the window? Sure, you can swing into the opening. But how are you going to get an unconscious person out? How will you get out? Right portable ladder! Practice, practice! Right position—for removal and escape and not for entry!

My answer is to do it! Do it at drills. It makes for a great company drill. We spend too much time on the sophisticated, overtechnical, management, and leadership stuff. What about the emergency stuff?

Get a portable ladder to the second floor of your station. Select a “victim.” You even can cheat here by selecting the lightest member of the shift on duty. Tie a few ropes on that poor soul. He or she may need all you can provide. The “victim” is “unconscious” and noncooperative. All set? Go up the ladder, into the window, and simply get the victim out. It is damn near the most impossible task you can perform alone on the fireground.

Now you’ve realized it. You’ve tried it at drill. You’ve critiqued it. You’ve thought it out. You’ve preplanned logistics and your actions. Now you’ll be able to operate at the hot window with the palm print you “luckily” just noticed! (More on this next month.)


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