They’re Not Just Ladders

By: Pat Nichols

Every year the fire service laments the perpetual fireground injury and death statistics. Moreover, each injury and fatality is analyzed and investigated to find out the individual or cumulative actions that caused the event. Advancements in equipment notwithstanding, it often becomes a consequence of a fire department’s operations that contribute to fireground injuries and death, specifically, whether or not a department has gotten away from performing the fireground basics.

Solid techniques have emerged from fireground tragedies that have now become familiar and basic standards in the fire service: proper hose placement, personal escape techniques, and good, strong ground and aerial ladder placement. Yes, there have been mandated advances in command and control of fireground incidents; however, I’m talking about the hands-on, down and dirty fireground basics that are the foundation upon which the fire service was built. I am referring to the basic elements that must come together during every fire that allow equipment advances to actually assist our operations. We often take for granted in our urban fire departments, our ability to get personnel, equipment and apparatus placed at every fire. However, complacency takes form in many instances when we forget the very reason(s) we put them there. One stark example is our placement and use of ground and aerial ladders.

Ground and aerial ladders are often underutilized during fires. In Boston, our standard operating procedures (SOPs) require ladder companies to report in with tools and ground ladders when appropriate. At wood-frame structures, the first due ladder company is not necessarily required to place a ground ladder, however, it is often aggressively done in the front of the structure to the second and or third floors; the aerial device is also placed to the roof as well to cover any developing need. Commercial structures such as ‘taxpayers’ can benefit from aggressive laddering as well when firefighters are operating on the roof and need a secondary means of egress. The absence of portable and aerial ladders on the fireground should be considered unacceptable since we have plenty of ladders to go around.

Boston ladder companies each carry a “Little Giant” folding ladder; 10-foot, 14-foot, and 16-foot straight wall ladders; a 28-foot and two 35-foot extension ladders; and 40- or 50-foot pole ladders, not including the aerial ladder which can range from 100 to 110. That is a total compliment of at least 230 of ground ladders, not including the accompanying aerial device! Furthermore, many of Boston’s tight streets, like many urban cities, limit access for aerial apparatus; and closely spaced buildings have made it a necessity that every Boston firefighter becomes proficient with ground ladders. Every generation of Boston firefighters will avow that laddering is an integral basic fireground responsibility.

Firefighter safety is always attributed to the adherence to proper fireground basics. When it comes to laddering the fireground, an understanding of why and when they should be always placed will prevent someone from ever having to say “they’re just ladders,” or “do we need to use them on the fireground?” Let’s validate this by correlating the use of ladders with some basic fireground functions. For example, search is perhaps the principal function performed by the ladder company; and laddering becomes an integral component of this task. Ladders placed for entry allow us quick access to victims on upper floors or remote areas of the structure. An example is the use of ladders for vent, enter and search (VES) operations. Knowing what window or porch to place the ladder at and where the tip of the ladder should go is important for several reasons. Seconds count when it comes to searching a fire building, time and fire conditions may prevent you from accessing an area of the fire building to conduct a search, and critical areas have to be searched in coordination with the advancing nozzle. Placing a ladder in the right spot can give us the time we need.

Another example of access concerns involves the condition of the stairwell and whether the stairs are overcrowded or their stability is questionable. If the stairs are overcrowded with evacuating occupants, it is prudent to raise additional ladders to create additional egress routes. If the stairs’ stability is questionable due to age of the building and/or burned through due to arson or the fire’s location, simply placing a ladder over the stairs will allow for continued operations. I would never advocate operating in unsafe buildings; however, there are many times this tactic is necessary to rescue trapped occupants and/or to safely operate in sound vacant buildings or buildings under construction. Just as important as access for search operations, access for ventilation also requires the use of ladders.

Being able to place ground ladders to ventilate windows by those assigned outside ventilation duties is a basic task every firefighter should be able to accomplish. Knowing how to move a ladder to multiple windows by “rolling” it across and down the side of a structure will ensure that the engine company has ventilation for its advance to the fire area, and the inside ladder company firefighters have a more tenable area to conduct searches. This can be accomplished with wall and extension ladders. Moving an extension ladder that has been extended may not be an everyday requirement and care should be exercised when doing this. Always secure the halyard prior to moving any extended ladder. Along with the use of ladders for horizontal ventilation, vertical ventilation is often conducted with the use of ladders.

Vertical ventilation at the roof level may prevent rapid fire progress, flashovers and backdrafts from injuring firefighters working inside the fire building. In other words, the sooner roof ventilation is accomplished the sooner firefighters are operating in a safer environment. It should also be understood that in order to access the roof for vertical ventilation, ladders must be placed to get you there. Ladders must also be placed to the roof to get you off as well. The importance of timely roof ventilation can not be underestimated when the advancement of the hoseline with simultaneous searches are underway.

Some may debate their department’s ability to rapidly and properly place ground and aerial ladders. For those who cite staffing concerns in their respective departments as an obstruction to the timely use of ladders, consider additional training. A well trained crew of just two firefighters can place a 24-foot, 28-foot, or 35-foot extension ladder by simply performing a beam raise once carried to the objective. Basic fireground functions and responsibilities must be accomplished, and when we take a look at some past fireground injuries and fatalities, we should ask ourselves, would proper ladder placement have made a difference?

Remember, “They’re not just ladders!” Rather, they are tools vital to civilian and firefighter safety as much as our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the apparatus that brought us there!

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