Back To Basics: Portable Ladders

One of the most underutilized and readily available tools we have on the fireground is the portable ladder. There are many uses for the portable ladder, including: using them to access the floor above the fire; to perform our search; to cover a fire-weakened floor or stairway to gain access to other areas of the building and to exit the structure if we are cut off by fire--which is one of the main reasons we put them up on all sides of the building.

We can also use portable ladders to bridge two buildings for access or egress; to scale fences; to vent windows; as a barrier to prevent entry into dangerous areas; for rescue on an ice covered pond or lake; to support an overhead rolldown gate or garage door, and used in conjunction with a drop down fire escape for access and aid with egress of civilians.

In extreme emergencies, a portable ladder can be used in a tower ladder basket to gain access to floors above reach while secured properly in the basket. The portable ladder can also be used at taxpayer fires to mark the firewalls or vent storefront windows from safety of the ladders length. The ladder can also be used to force entry into inward opening wood doors.

There are several types of portable ladders. We have Extension, which can be two or three sections with a halyard; Roof with hooks at one end; Straight; Folding, also known as Attic or Scissor, and A-Frame, which can be used as an Extension, or A-frame. Each of these ladders has a specific job.

Extension Ladders are good because they can be used to reach more than one floor and you can adjust the height. The 24-foot extension is a good fireground tool because it is light enough to be carried by one person and can reach the second and third floors and a good way of remembering this is between the 2 and 4 in 24-foot is 3 which equals the third floor. This can also work for the 35-foot extension that can reach the second, third and fourth floors. With its bedded length of 20 feet, it also makes a good ladder to for the roof of a one-story taxpayer. The 35-foot extension is very cumbersome and requires at least two to three firefighters to place it.

The roof and straight ladders are good ladders if you know your area and where you can use them. The 16-foot will usually reach the second floor nicely and the 20 foot will give you too steep of a climbing angle. But if you have private dwellings with a porch roof or single story taxpayers the 20-foot ladder works well in reaching the roof. The roof ladder is a good ladder to use when venting a peaked roof but care must be taken not to step on the ladder hanging over the edge of the roof, which can cause the ladder to dislodge from the roof.

Another ladder that works well on the fireground is the Folding, Scissor or Attic Ladder which can be used to access the first floor or a rear porch roof, scale a fence, access an attic, vent windows, push down ceilings, and access a roof bulkhead to vent a skylight, access the roof from the aerial or tower ladder on a building with a high parapet. This ladder is commonly mounted in the fly section of an aerial ladder due to it's many uses and portability.

And last but not least, the A-frame Ladder. This can be used to access the first floor of a structure and on service calls as an A-frame ladder to access a ballast in a light fixture or ceiling area.

Positioning of ground ladders is another important, yet underutilized, tactic. We should have at least one portable ladder on each side of the building. We have different positions for the ladder depending on how we are going to use it.

If we are using a ladder for entry or egress we want the top rung to be at or slightly below the window sill level so we can get in and out easily and freely. We also want to make a door out of the window by removing the whole window and sash.

If we are using the ladder to access a roof, we want to have at least two rungs above the roof or parapet for easy mounting and dismounting and so we can find it quickly in an emergency. If we are using it to free up a crowded fire escape, we should place it to the opposite side of the drop ladder, one to two rungs above the railing on the building wall or if placed on the fire escape railing itself one rung slightly above the railing.

When placing a portable ladder, we try to get it at a comfortable climbing angle that is 65 to 75 degrees. An easy way to achieve this angle is to place the ladder away from the building one-quarter of the total length of the ladder. (For example, a 16-foot ladder would be placed four feet from the building.) Or place your toes against the ladder butt and while standing straight, reach out and grab the rung that is naturally in front of you, so if you can grab the rung and your back is straight the proper climbing angle has been achieved.

We must also remember that if we are using aluminum ladders, that they can conduct electricity on aluminum siding and they can also conduct heat very rapidly.

Try not to place a ladder over a window, that, when vented would create an auto exposure or trap a member operating above. Also remember that ice can buildup on portable ladders from weather conditions and fire operations, so use caution climbing and try to keep your feet to the beam side of the rung to avoid slipping.

Remember that like any other tool, ladders require maintenance. Check the ladders for cleanliness and if need be, wash with soap and water. Check for nicks and burrs and inspect the heat sensors found on the inside of the beams. Make sure the fly section operates smoothly and does not need to be lubricated. Check for any loose nuts, bolts or rivets. Check for bent or loose rungs, cracked welds or discoloration from heat. Also check the Halyard for any fraying or twisting.

With roof ladders check roof hooks and make sure they operate well and are clean and oiled. We should visually inspect these ladders at least once a week and after each use. If we take care of this important tool we will operate a lot more efficiently and safely on the fireground.