The Apparatus Architect – Part 14: Designing Ladder Company Apparatus

Tom Shand and Michael Wilbur begin a discussion on the design and use of aerial ladder units, apparatus that can represent one of the largest financial investments that a fire department can make.


With this installment in "The Apparatus Architect" series we begin our discussion on the design and use of aerial ladder units. These types of apparatus can represent one of the largest financial investments that a fire department can make, and here the adage "An educated consumer is our best...


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All of these design and safety enhancements made the newer aerial ladder devices superior to their pre-1991 counterparts; however, the trade off was additional weight and size of the ladder sections that would require heavier chassis and tandem axles to carry the loads. The size of this new generation of aerial device has created driving problems as well as placement problems. Another trade off was the introduction of safety devices that actually made some aerial devices much harder to place and operate in a timely fashion. Some departments that operated smaller aerial units found that they were unable to purchase a replacement aerial ladder truck that would fit into older stations or had difficulty in maneuvering around in their first-due areas.

The layout and design of your department's ladder truck will have a significant impact on how you will be able to operate the apparatus on the fireground (or not) and how effective your overall truck company operations will be. The fire protection needs of your community may be very different from your neighbor's and chances are your department may have different standard operating guidelines (SOGs) on how to deploy your available resources. The FDNY and the Los Angeles City fire departments operate some of the largest fleets of ladder company apparatus in the United States. Let's briefly compare how they equip and deploy their ladder company resources.

The FDNY operates 143 ladder companies broken down by type as follows:

  • 100-foot rear mounts - 67
  • 75-foot tower ladders - 48
  • 95-foot tower ladders - 14
  • 100-foot tractor-drawn aerial ladders - 12

Staffing is an officer and five firefighters, with most structural assignments receiving two trucks, generally one aerial and one tower ladder. The apparatus has been specifically designed to operate in the New York City environment with special consideration to front-end safety and equipment layout. Trucks are equipped with seven ground ladders totaling 131 feet and a normal complement of hand and power tools.

FDNY employs a variety of aerial devices to meet its needs and it is not unusual to observe both aerial and tower ladder apparatus operating at fires, each with distinctive duties to support the interior operations of the ladder companies. Having an aerial ladder and a tower ladder responding initially is a big advantage to the fireground and the fire ground commander. This allows for implementation of a variety of strategies and tactics on the fireground and fireground flexibility, which is very desirable. While each fire department will have different structural conditions and staffing levels, basic principles of riding and tool assignments, together with a well-equipped ladder company apparatus will go a long way to improving your fireground performance.

At the other end of the country, the Los Angeles City Fire Department operates 49 ladder trucks as a part of a combination task force deployment of apparatus. All units are 100-foot tractor-drawn units each staffed by an officer and three or four personnel. These tractor-drawn apparatus provide excellent turning and positioning capabilities and carry 12 ground ladders totaling 264 feet. Because of the type of structures and points of access the LAFD places a heavy emphasis on ground ladder storage and placement.

Note that in both cases, the FDNY and LAFD carry an extensive arrangement of tools and equipment on their ladder companies. The length and total number of ground ladders greatly exceed the NFPA minimum compliment of 115 feet on a ladder truck.

Fire apparatus are a lot like toolboxes - the more varied and the more tools in the toolbox, the better able firefighters are going to be able to accomplish tasks in a safe and efficient manner. Properly designed aerial ladder trucks should carry an assortment of ground ladders that are appropriate for your community and first-due response area. Do not get caught up in allowing the manufacturer to build a new apparatus with an inadequate number of ground ladders for your department using the statement that "it meets the NFPA 1901 Standard." The NFPA standard establishes a very minimum performance level for apparatus and this may or may not meet the needs of your department. Only through a careful analysis of your departments needs can you then determine what type of aerial ladder apparatus will work for you.

In the next installment of "The Apparatus Architect" we will begin the process of reviewing your district to insure that your next aerial purchase will be the best one for your department and your community.