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Ground Ladder Basics for Effective Operations

A ladder that is too long or too short will often force us to work off an angle that can be unsafe and bigger ladders will often require more manpower to place and raise them.

Ladders are one of the most basic and important tools that we utilize on the fireground. As with all basic equipment, tools and techniques, training should take place on a continual basis to ensure that skills are sharp and efficient. Not only should this apply to "truckies", but all firefighters that will work on the fireground, with high importance stressed for fire companies that may function as a Rapid Intervention Team.

Ladder selection is often times confusing for a firefighter. A ladder that is too long or too short will often force us to work off an angle that can be unsafe and bigger ladders will often require more manpower to place and raise them. In recruit school we are taught that ladders are supposed to be ideally placed at a working angle of 75 degrees with the base of the ladder in a position that is away from the building one-quarter the distance of the height that the ladder is raised.

We all know from practical experience that this is not the case when we are operating on the fireground. Our better judgment is what will guide us to correctly select and position the ladder in a hurry. To make a decision on which ladder is best to take, a quick "down and dirty" method that has been passed along is that the number of the floor that the ladder needs to go to must be the number times ten on the ladder as a minimum. Example: if a ladder is to go to a third floor window, a ladder of more than 30 feet will be needed - the selection of the ladder will then be dependent on what size ladders are available on your apparatus.

Important to remember is that the ladder must also be placed at an angle to work off of which will also diminish it's reach. Normally the best choice of standard sizes carried in this example would be the 35-foot extension ladder. This method may not provide for the most ideal climbing or working angle but it will help us choose a ladder that will work in a "pinch". Important points to remember when selecting ground ladders are that it can be assumed as a general rule that each floor within a residential structure can be estimated to be 10 feet in height with windows being an additional three to four feet from the floor and commercial structures will have 12 feet or more between floors with windows four feet or more from the floor. Again these are just generalizations; some residential structures are now being built with cathedral/vaulted ceilings that may be as high as 18 feet or more. The best bet is to learn the buildings in your community and have a "mental preplan" prior to being called at 3 a.m. for an actual incident where quick decisions may mean the difference.

Once the ladder is selected, it will also need to be placed properly so that it can be used in the correct manner. There are many thoughts and opinions out there regarding ladder placement and they are all probably applicable depending upon the situation in which the ladder is being used. What is paramount however is that it is realized that the tip of the ladder be placed at or just below the window sill when it will be used for rescue purposes. In this position it is easier for interior teams to place victims onto the ladder for the exterior rescuer and it helps keep firefighters and victims low in the window where they will be below heat and smoke.

This same point needs to be stressed for Rapid Intervention Teams that may place ladders proactively on the fireground to serve as egress points for interior crews. An incorrectly placed ladder can prevent a firefighter that may have to "bail" in a hurry from being able to exit due to the profile created by their self contained breathing apparatus or heat and fire conditions. Ladders placed at window sills for egress should also be placed at an angle that will allow firefighters to exit in a controllable manner.

A ladder that is placed to the roof of a structure should be raised at least four to five rungs above the roof line to allow firefighters operating on the roof the ability to see the ladder and provide a safe place to observe and test roof conditions prior to going onto the roof.

A proactive action that can be taken by rapid intervention companies is to place ladders at windows and balconies in the case that firefighters operating on the interior need an immediate means of egress. Additional ladders may also be raised to the roof to establish multiple egress points for roof crews. As a general rule, it is taught that if a ladder has a halyard, two or more firefighters will be needed to raise it.

Again, we know that this "perfect world" scenario does not always exist on the fireground. With the limited staffing that is common, it may become necessary for a single firefighter to raise a ladder by themselves. This task is not really a big deal when the side of the building is accessible and the firefighter can use it to heel the ladder as they raise it. This becomes difficult though when landscaping or obstructions such as overhangs on balconies are present. The following is a very safe technique that can be utilized for this task.

  1. Utilizing a one firefighter carry such as the low shoulder method, the firefighter removes the ladder from the apparatus and brings it to the position where it is needed. Before placing the ladder, the firefighter must make certain that the area overhead is clear of obstructions such as power lines. (see photos 7, and 8)
  2. The firefighter will place their outside foot to the outside of the ladder beams and place the shoulder of the same side to the inside of the ladder forming a "V' for the ladder to rest into. Grasping the halyard will further stabilize the ladder. (see photos 9, 10 and 11.)
  3. The firefighter is then able to begin raising the ladder to the height that is required. Once at that point, the ladder can be laid into the building by the firefighter leaning inward towards the building and tying off the halyard. The ladder will become "top heavy" as the fly section is raised but will remain controllable as long as it remains between the firefighters shoulder and foot and they keep hold on the halyard. If at anytime the firefighter feels as if they are losing control of the ladder they can simply allow the ladder to fall into the building. (see photo 12)

With the proper training and review on ladder techniques, firefighters will be able to operate efficiently and confidently on the fireground.


Jeffrey Pindelski is a 16 year plus student of the fire service and currently a Battalion Chief with the Downers Grove Fire Department in Illinois. He previously served for 12 years as a Firefighter and Lieutenant on the Truck and Heavy Rescue Company. Jeff is a staff instructor at the College of Du Page and also instructs courses at the Downers Grove Fire Academy. He has been involved with the design of several training programs dedicated to firefighter safety and survival and is the coauthor of the text R.I.C.O., Rapid Intervention Company Operations.

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