Safety at Random

By Tom Brennan

We are still discussing search as a tactic that supports the interior firefight during a structure fire and how it relates to safety. The objectives of search (discussed so far) are to find the fire and its spread and human exposures to it with some degree of priority as related to the fire location (see how it all relates and fits in?).

Another objective for the search team is to find and report anything related to problems for the interior firefighters: questionable storage (probable hazardous materials); odors (not so easy today); noises (collapse indicator requiring investigation); holes in the floor; stairs or parts of stairs missing or broken; and dangerous layouts such as open areas, shafts, ramps, and chutes (hmm, what’s the difference between a ramp and a chute?).

It is extremely important to show and record progress on a primary search and, for sure, a secondary search. For example, we just had three serious injuries to firefighters who fell from a fourth-floor window after becoming trapped by extending fire as they were looking for a victim a half-hour after secondary search was reported negative!

The use of portable ladders certainly is a tactic related to routine structure fire and interior firefighting. Alternate entry for search, removal, and rescue, for sure; but secondary exits for our searching or operating firefighters is the primary reason at least for this discussion. At the fire in the example above, not one portable ladder was placed on this structure. In fact, a 35-foot extension ladder was lying horizontally on the ground directly under the window from which the firefighters jumped. Believable? You bet!

There are never enough portable ladders placed on any fireground (or enough portable lighting to complete that answer). The improper angles at which they are placed is another injury factor. Ladders that are too steep in angle to the objective fall out under the ascending load of a firefighter, and we all certainly can relate to an angle that is too shallow. I knew a firefighter who broke his neck when he was on the third rung from the ground as a poorly angled ladder “skipped” out from its butted/footed position.

Ladder placement can easily be the cause of direct and indirect injuries. First, what is the objective of the ladder? If it is to enter an opening below the roof level, the tips of the ladder belong as close as possible to the windowsill or the base of the opening. If you have to err, do so with the tips below the opening. You or the climber can become trapped by the ladder you just used!

What makes you abort your search and return to the ladder you just used to get to the floor you are on? Either you find someone to remove or the fire is chasing you out of there. In either case, the beams of the ladder that extend into the window are now an obstacle AND an entrapment device.

If the heat is chasing you and you are at the floor level (where you belong), it becomes virtually impossible to get above the two tips of the ladder that are now above the sill that you wish you could slither out of. (If it is not too hot, you left too early.)

If the ladder is above the sill, what do you do with your victim? Even a child becomes unmanageable in this situation. One of my firefighters in Truck 111 found just those circumstances with an eight-year-old unconscious nonbreathing victim. The firefighter could no longer get up to the level at which he stepped into the room just moments before. He lay on top of the child and protected her as best he could and prayed that the engine advance was that good. It was. But in this case, a routine rescue could have added to our painful injury statistics. Why? The mechanism of injury was a poorly placed ladder.

Portable ladders also can cause problems (injury and death from falls) when firefighters place them adjacent to the opening to enter and above the sill area. This position is for venting with a ladder belt or leg lock and not for entry for primary search. “Sure,” the old salts say, “it is much easier to make a door out of the window and step from the ladder to the sill and swing into the room around the window frame.”

“Yup, you’re right,” I say. But, how do you get out? How do you talk a conscious victim out and onto that ladder when the beam is more than a foot away from the side of the building? What do you do with an unconscious victim and yourself? What do you do if the fire is chasing you out of the structure?

Portable ladders conduct electricity! Hello!

Some of my brothers and sisters in and around the West Coast say, “Well we have wood portable ladders!” Hmm, DRY wood ladders are insulative. Do you have dry ladders on the fire scene?

The saddest thing about injuries caused by electricity conducted through portable ladders to the firefighter is that they most often occur in preventable circumstances. Firefighters in the South were killed performing a drill against their own fire station. Firefighters in the Northeast were killed taking down a portable ladder after the fire/emergency was over. It seems as though we watch like hawks while the emergency is underway, but complacency is the culprit with these situations.

TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Un-plugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He is a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.

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