Portable Ladder Safety
Editor’s note: Oftentimes we and our authors find we’d like to make a few comments on a subject without addressing each and every aspect of the topic. This new department is intended to provide that outlet. Herein, each month, we’ll present short clips of information on firerelated matters—short “tips” on related or unrelated themes that should stimulate conversation and communication.
Injuries on the fireground account for 60 to 70 percent of firefighter injuries and deaths. Even though the fireground is the least controlled environment in which we operate, there are some thoughts we can share to help reduce the mishaps there. Portable laddering operations is a good place to start.
First of all, we never seem to have enough ladders in place at a structural fire. The interior search team’s route should be known to those operating outside, and a secondary means of egress—the portable ladder—should be in place for escape. I can vividly recall photographs of firefighters tumbling out of a shaft window or calling wildly from a bedroom window on the floor above the fire. A better answer is training, to put a ladder there in the first place.
How safely we can use ladders depends on where they’re placed in relation to windows.
Next to the window is fine if our plan is to ascend and break the glass for horizontal ventilation. And access is possible from this position if you step from the ladder to the sill, hold onto the window frame, and then step through the fully cleared opening.
But how do you get out the window and onto the ladder for egress? It’s one of the most difficult operations even in a calm situation. If you’ve found someone, getting out to a ladder that’s next to the window will be nearly impossible—if the person’s conscious. If the victim’s unconscious, you’ll have to stay until the ladder is moved or leave the victim.
Safety and rescue are best served if the tips of your ladder are at or slightly below the sill. Every inch (hopefully not foot) that the ladder extends above the sill into the window opening places an obstacle in the opening into the fire structure. If exit becomes necessary because of interior heat and smoke build-up, you’ll want to slither out that opening as low as possible.
When a firefighter is working on a flat roof at a top-floor fire, wind shifts, poor judgment, flashover of the roof material, or collapse can easily cause the person to be trapped behind an extending fire, opposite the ladder. Placing a minimum of two ladders at opposite sides of the structure should be the standard operating procedure for all roof operations.
Countless injuries occur on roofs only because the firefighter can’t find the ladder needed for escape. Ladders at or under the parapet or roof edge give easy access, but they’re _____ually impossible to find and use for emergency egress. Ladders should be extended above the roof line. Some departments require an extension of two or more rungs or two or more feet of ladder. But the point is for it to be seen in near-panic situations.
All ladders—including wood ladders, when they’re wet—conduct electricity. Insulating materials are great until they’re negated by such things as water—and it sure is hard to envision a fireground that’s dry. On any fireground, you have to be aware of— and keep ladders away from— electrical wires and services. Heads up! Know where the tip of your ladder is.
Climbing techniques can also account for injuries. Whether to place your hands on the rungs or the beams seems to be a matter of choice and locale. But only one of these practices is safe. If we hold onto the rungs (never mind additional tools, equipment, and human beings), we can grasp safety only every 14 inches on center. The chances of grabbing air are one in six. Using the beams for hand security, contact can be maintained constantly, and the beams are always in the same place when you need them.
A ladder placed must remain in place. Any ladder to an opening or location must be assumed to be in use until proven otherwise. If you want to move a ladder, you must contact the user before doing so. If, as a user, you’re running into the problem of other firefighters swiping your ladders on the fireground, carry your own 25-foot rope. Quickly secure the tip of the ladder as you leave it and take one or two turns around a radiator or sofa. Other firefighters thinking they’re free to move the ladder at will will get the message.