End Of An Era

Paul Hashagen explains how modern technology necessitated the invention and eventual demise of scaling ladders.


On July 11, 1996, a message was sent to all the New York City firehouses that would bring to a close a chapter in firefighting history. FDNY Department Order Number 73 stated: 2.3 Scaling Ladders The Department has evaluated the necessity for maintaining Scaling Ladders as a part of...


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On July 11, 1996, a message was sent to all the New York City firehouses that would bring to a close a chapter in firefighting history.

FDNY Department Order Number 73 stated:

2.3 Scaling Ladders

The Department has evaluated the necessity for maintaining Scaling Ladders as a part of our inventory of firefighting tools and equipment. Based on that evaluation we have determined that scaling ladders will no longer be used by this Department.

6_97_ladder.jpg
Author's Collection
Fireman John Binns of FDNY Ladder Company 3 uses a scaling ladder to make a rescue after a fire broke out at the St. George Flats apartment house on the night of April 7, 1884.

The origins of scaling ladders in the FDNY can be traced to a snowy night and a building that burned on Park Row, near City Hall. Flames swept through the World Building on Jan. 31, 1882, and despite many spectacular rescues, the lives of 12 people were lost. Many of those who died could not be reached by the wooden extension ladders carried on fire apparatus. (The FDNY would not purchase aerial ladders until 1886. The apparatus was distrusted since one of the city's most beloved chiefs, William Nash, was killed during an aerial demonstration in 1875.)

As a direct result of this blaze, the department began to reassess its tactics and equipment. Fire Commissioner Henry Purroy made the following resolution, which was adopted:

Whereas: there have recently been constructed in this city a great number of large flats and business houses, reaching in many cases to a height exceeding one hundred feet; and whereas the extreme height to which it is possible to stretch and manage extension ladders have been probably reached, and does not exceed seventy feet, thus making futile the best efforts of this Department toward rescuing the occupants of the upper stories of the buildings above mentioned whenever such occupants are cut off from escape from below; therefore be it.

Resolved, That the Chief of Department be and is hereby instructed (keeping in view the increased height of the buildings mentioned) to report to this Board in writing his views in regard to what improvement in the appliances and complements of the Department what changes in regard to the erection and construction of fire-escapes, and what regulation as to the construction and maintenance of fire-proof shutters are necessary, together with any suggestions in regard to the better protection of life and property he may deem advisable.

Chief of Department Eli Bates worked diligently on the problem and brought in Foreman Chris Hoell of the St. Louis Fire Department, who had recently patented a new type of ladder known as the Hoell Life Saving Appliance. The ladder was approximately eight feet long and had one center beam with rungs that extended outward from the middle and an L-shaped hook at the top.

Hoell demonstrated his ladder and the New Yorkers were impressed. Bates went immediately to the fire commissioner and among the things the chief requested was that each hook and ladder truck be equipped with scaling ladders and that the firemen in those companies should be trained in their use.

The ladders were purchased and placed first on key companies, and then eventually on all ladder trucks. Hoell stayed on to teach their use in the department's School of Instruction as the ladders made their way out into the field. The new equipment was in place. The firemen were trained, and eager to put their new skills too work. It would be just a matter of time before their expertise would be called upon.

First Scaling Ladder Rescue

The St. George Flats, an apartment house located at 223 and 225 East 17th St., was advertised by its owners as being "absolutely fire proof." The handsome structure, actually made up of two buildings, was seven stories in the front and eight in the rear. The building's front was blue stone, with Nova Scotia stone trimmings and terra cotta ornamental panels. Polished marble columns flanked the front entrance. A passenger elevator ran up the center of the building, and two dumbwaiters served each side of the structure in the rear. It was an appropriate home for many prominent and well-to-do families.

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