Apparatus Architect: Ground Ladders: Saving Our Own

During the past decade, there has been an increased emphasis on firefighter health and safety. This is probably most evident with the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation’s 16 Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs). Having a cross-section of subject-matter experts from across the country working together to reduce the number of injuries and line-of-duty deaths in the fire service has been one of the most impactful projects to date. LSI 16 states, “Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.” Further, personnel assigned at the scene of any incident must operate with a level of situational awareness to ensure their own safety and that of other members working at the scene.

Ground ladder usage

One of the most overlooked pieces of equipment that is carried on virtually every piece of fire apparatus is portable ground ladders. Since the days of horse-drawn city service trucks, departments have relied upon wooden and aluminum ground ladders to access upper levels of buildings at structural fires. Early images often depicted firefighters performing a dramatic rescue of civilians over ground ladders, which reinforced the importance of the proper ladder placement on the fireground. With the advent of hydraulically powered aerial ladders manufactured by Peter Pirsch and American LaFrance in the late-1930s, fireground tactics were greatly enhanced.

In later years, with the development of tower ladder apparatus, the ability to have personnel operate within a platform enabled multiple rescues to be performed on different floors of the building with greater safety—and much faster than manually raising ground ladders to multiple windows. As staffing levels decreased, the number of personnel required to deploy and raise ground ladders diminished, with the result being fewer ladders thrown at the scene.

Another significant impact was the reduction of ground ladders required to be carried on aerial devices by the NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. At one time the standard required a minimum ground ladder complement totaling 228 feet. Over the years this has been reduced to 85 feet for a quint apparatus and 115 feet for any other aerial device. In major city departments that operated traditional ladder company apparatus, it is not uncommon for these vehicles to be outfitted with ground ladder complements exceeding 220 feet of portable ladders.

With the increased popularity of quint apparatus, the ability to carry adequate ground ladder complements is diminished as the body compartment space needed to accommodate the water tank and hosebed impacts the ground ladder storage area. For example, a two-section 35-foot ladder requires approximately 20 feet of horizontal space within the compartment body while the nested length of a three-section ladder is 15 feet, 8 inches. The banking thickness of the three-section 35-foot ladder is 8¼ inches compared to just under six inches for the two-section ladder. As most apparatus bodies are between 96 to 100 inches wide, the internal space within the aerial torque box is generally limited, which impacts the ground ladder banking on any apparatus. When combined with the added weight of the three-section ladder, there is a preference for two-section extension ladders when space permits.

Single-axle quint apparatus are particularly vulnerable to requiring any extension ladder greater than 24 feet long to be a three-section ladder. The weight of these ladders ultimately impacts the deployment of these ladders on the fireground, with the overall vehicle ladder complement often having only two extension ladders of any type.

Now let’s consider this scenario: At 11 p.m., a fire is reported in a 2½-story, wood-frame detached house. Upon arrival, the engine company pulls past the structure to observe three sides of the building with moderate smoke showing from the C/D corner. The crew advances an attack line into the building as the ladder company initiates the primary search. The outside crew on the ladder raises its one 35-foot ladder to the roof on the A side when a mayday is called with personnel trapped on a second-floor rear bedroom. The ladder company outside team reacts promptly by throwing the remaining 24-foot extension ladder at the rear of the building. They are then met with a challenge: Due to the topography, the drop off in the rear yard renders the 24-foot ladder useless and short of the window objective.

Does this fireground scenario sound realistic? Could it happen in your department or one where your units might be assigned? The unfortunate truth is that many of today’s aerial devices do not carry sufficient ground ladders to provide a secondary means of egress to all sides of the everyday house fire. The popularity of quint apparatus where the ground ladder complement, including a sufficient number of extension ladders, has suffered due to the space required to provide a water tank and hosebed storage.

Action items

When developing running assignments, consideration should be given to having ladder company units with a sufficient quantity of straight, roof and extension ladders to safely protect the various types of buildings within your response area. A well-designed aerial device, regardless of the vehicle configuration, should carry a minimum of four extension ladders ranging in size from 24 to 35–40 feet in length. Longer ladders may be required where you have multiple-story structures with limited or no apparatus access to the rear of the building. An old fire service axiom applies here: “You can stretch a hoseline, but you cannot stretch a ladder.”

Apparatus positioning can be critical to operational safety on the fireground, as ladder company units must have unfettered access to the front of the building to permit effective use of the aerial device and deployment of ground ladders. While some may consider the deployment of ground ladders only for a rescue of civilians, throwing ground ladders to all sides and all elevations of the structure is for our safety, to ensure a secondary means of egress. Unfortunately, at too many incidents the lack of proper staffing along with a limited complement of ground ladders increases the risk to all personnel operating within the building.

Final thoughts

Hopefully your department operates a truck company with an adequate number of portable ground ladders that is well in excess of the NFPA 1901 minimum requirement. Training sessions and pre-incident planning of noted target hazards can provide opportunities to determine where building setbacks, obstructions and geography would require significant ground ladder resources. If it is determined that the available ladder complements are inadequate, then additional units must be dispatched on the initial assignment to provide this equipment.

Firefighter safety should be integrated into every aspect of our daily duties, including station housekeeping, training and apparatus maintenance. While operating at the scene of any structure fire, apparatus positioning and ground ladder placement should become routine to enhance the safety for our personnel. Anything less should be considered as unacceptable.