By Shawn Donovan
Of all our fireground priorities, the proper placement and use of ladders may be the most misunderstood. Ladder use on the fireground runs from laddering every window to nary a one being thrown. Ladders can be our biggest asset and also our biggest liability when it comes to meeting our fireground goals. This article examines the reasons for laddering and how ladders fit into fireground priorities based on the personnel available and type of fire.
Regardless of the fire attack method (offensive, defensive, or transitional), when we ladder a fire building, we should be thinking about both access and egress. Laddering with the sole purpose of preparing for a Mayday that may never happen severely limits the usefulness of one of our most important fireground tools. This may also lead to not having a ladder in the right place at the right time because of the rush to get ladders up without thinking about how they will affect the overall operation. The objective is to align our intended goals with the actual fireground results.
View Ladders as Integral Part of Tasks
Laddering is very personnel dependent. Some advocate “painting the building with aluminum” as a first-due responsibility, but if doing this is at the expense of not getting water on the seat of a fire or handicapping the primary search, we have failed our mission. Leaving a member outside only to throw ladders means the search will be one member short and take that much longer. If the only goal of your ladder tactics is for egress, put them up after the primary search has begun in earnest. The initial arriving companies cannot waste time putting up ladders for the sole purpose of decoration. Painting the building is a good plan to start with, but emptying the ladder beds in record time should not be the goal.
We need to treat ladders as a part of other fireground tasks, not as a separate task. Lines over ladders is an example of using ladders as a part of a fireground tactics. The goal is not to throw the ladder but to get water on the seat of a fire, and a ladder is just a step in that operation. The biggest hurdle for this evolution is that members may not be familiar with basic ladder work. Focusing on basic skills--throwing, climbing (maybe with multiple firefighters on the ladder), and working on smoothing out the transitions between the ladder and the building--will decrease the apprehension involved in advancing a line up a ladder.
Throwing ladders with no intention of using them should be considered a fireground crime. Move on from just throwing ladders during drills. Throw them, and then climb them. Get a feel for the climbing angles and get used to having multiple members climbing at the same time.
Most firefighters pride themselves on their aggressive fire attack practices. But if you focus only on the front and rear doors as the routes for mounting the fire attack, you are seriously limiting your options. Advancing attack lines up a ladder in a multistory building is a simple tactic that can prevent congested stairways caused by running multiple lines in one door and can also save engine companies from stretching hundreds of extra feet of hose. An uninvolved room on a fire floor can be used to mount an attack. Even if water is already on the fire, a backup line can be advanced into a closed room on the same floor and then advanced to the seat of the fire from there.
(1) Photos by author.
Ground ladders can also be used inside a building. One thing we frequently hear during classes is that when a department finds a compromised stairway when trying to chase a fire into an upper floor, it turns the entire operation into a defensive fire. Burned-out stairs can easily be overcome by placing a ladder over the unsafe steps as long as the landings are structurally sound enough to support the ladder. Remember, the stairs are made out of lighter material than the landings. Straight and pencil ladders work great for replacing stairs. If concerns arise about the ladder slipping, use a roof ladder and deploy the hooks on the upper landing to reduce the chance of its sliding across the floor. The idea that you need to abandon your operations t because a stairway is structurally unsafe focuses on too small of a part the bigger picture. You are trying to put out the fire and may need to access the upper floor. The whole building is going to be structurally unsafe if you don’t put out the fire in a timely manner. Don’t let a compromised stairway slow your operation.
When using a roof ladder, whether replacing stairs or on a roof, walk on the rungs. Use the ladder. The goal of placing the ladder is to distribute the weight of the firefighter over a bigger area or on the ends of the ladder. If members are still stepping on the roof (or stair treads) and are catching only part of their heels on the rung, they are defeating the purpose of the ladder’s being there. The ladder should be carrying all, not some, of the load of the firefighters.
For some reason, robotically throwing ladders has become a first-due responsibility. Very few departments are arriving with enough personnel to justify throwing ladders for the sole purpose of getting them off the apparatus. Have a plan. Have priorities. Start with possible victim locations and then move to routes the inside crews probably will take. If your department does not allow its members to work above the fire floor, why are you forced to ladder the third floor of a first-floor kitchen fire?
Shawn Donovan has been a member of the Boston (MA) Fire Department for 16 years and is a lieutenant on Ladder 4. Previous assignments include engines, trucks, and a heavy rescue. He has assisted with four recruit programs (more than 200 students) for the Boston Fire Department. He has taught multiple H.O.T. classes.