Aerial Ladder and Tower Ladder Placement and Operations

Michael Wilbur discusses the training and education needed to understand serial and elevating platform apparatus in the first installment of this new series.


Aerial and elevating platform apparatus of all kinds represent some of the most expensive pieces of equipment that we operate in the fire service. Yet, at the same time, they tend to be the most under-utilized and misunderstood pieces of equipment in our firefighting arsenal. Training and...


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It is recommended that manufacturers consult line firefighters and officers about product design and user friendliness. For example, look at the pedestal shown in photo 8. Note the three short control handles or levers with only a few inches of space in between each lever. This layout may be great if you work in Phoenix, but if you are in Minnesota in January, when the temperature is 30 degrees below zero, you have two choices: expose your hands to frostbite or glove up and hope you have enough control over the controls to avoid high-voltage power lines or any other hazard that may exist on the fireground. These controls were certainly not designed for or by an aerial apparatus operator. Aerial operators and manufacturers must work together to continue to make aerial apparatus safer and more user friendly so that we can properly protect the people we serve.

0404aerial5.jpg
Courtesy Mike Wilbur
Photo 5. The pre-1991 light-duty aerial ladder was not designed to be used in a horizontal position. Note the tremendous bow in the ladder. This ladder is in danger of a catastrophic failure.

Once you respond to a fire, where you position the aerial ladder could make or break the whole operation. A difference in just a few feet could make the difference between proper positioning or asking the question, "Why did you even bring the apparatus to the scene of this fire?? Where the first-in engine company positions itself could determine the ladder company'?s ability to perform its life-saving function.

Some firehouses I have visited make it clear how little the members understand the operation of their aerial apparatus, especially when you see it parked behind two or three other vehicles. By the time the aerial device shows up, it is blocked out by three police cars, two EMS vehicles, the fire chief's car, two engines, the rescue truck and perhaps even the private cars of volunteer firefighters. Sound familiar? At this point in the operation, you now realize that the aerial apparatus would need a 500-foot stick to reach the fire building.

0404aerial6.jpg
Courtesy Mike Wilbur
Photo 6. The medium-duty ladder was meant be operated at the horizontal and even at a negative degree of elevation off the side of the truck.

Probably the worst invention on an engine, from a truckie's point of view, was the crosslay, speedlay, Mattydale or whatever your department calls these pre-connected lines. Engine operators have an uncanny ability to align these hose loads dead even with the front door. Police cars, EMS vehicles and even fire chiefs' cars tend to block aerial apparatus from proper positioning. First-arriving chiefs should pull onto the sidewalk. Police cars and EMS vehicles should not be in the block at all. The aerial apparatus must have full, unobstructed access to the front of the fire building. Engine apparatus must stay out of the way.

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Courtesy Mike Wilbur
Photo 7. With positive tip load improvements come some operational impediments. Note the deployment of the outriggers on the heavy-duty aerial ladder in this common suburban/urban setting. The street is completely blocked off.

I have had the good fortune to travel to firehouses all over the country and I have yet to find an engine company that could not stretch 1,000 feet of hose. Yet, at best, American aerial ladders are 110 feet. We can stretch hose, we cannot stretch ladders. I went to chauffeur's school over 20 years ago and remember being constantly reminded not to block the aerial apparatus, yet it still appears that we have not learned our lesson. If you have a 100-foot stick and you are blocked out 150 feet from your objective, you should be asking yourself, why did the fire department buy this apparatus and why did I bring it to this fire?

The aerial apparatus needs to be one of the first-responding apparatus. Depending on your department's procedures, the aerial apparatus should be the first or second apparatus to arrive on the fire ground for proper placement. Generally if an engine company arrives first it should pull past the fire building (see photo 9).

0404aerial8.jpg
Courtesy Mike Wilbur
Photo 8. There is only a few inches of space between the three short levers.

One of the first lessons that I learned from an old timer when I first started to drive, over three decades ago, was that the positioning of the first-in apparatus will make or break the whole operation. With poor positioning, Murphy's Law sets in and the operation is doomed to failure before you ever get off the apparatus. However, good apparatus positioning can be the first step to fireground success.


Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served for the past five years on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He has consulted on a variety of apparatus-related issues throughout the country. For further information access his website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.