Aerial Ladder and Tower Ladder Placement and Operations

April 1, 2004
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 education are the keys to reversing this trend. It is in that spirit that this article, the first in a series on this subject, is published for your review.
Courtesy Mike Wilbur Photo 1. A pre-1991 aerial ladder with a 200-pound vertical tip load. In 1991, the NFPA 1901 Standard was revised and upgraded, which caused manufacturers to change the designing of aerial ladders.

The strength of an aerial ladder and where it can operate on the fireground (i.e., horizontal or vertical or both) depend on many factors - the type of material, its strength, and the way the structure was designed and assembled (riveted, bolted or welded). That, plus the weight of the unit and the jack spread, will ultimately determine the tip load of the aerial ladder you purchase.

Aerial ladders have tip loads at zero degrees that range from no load (most pre-1991 aerial apparatus) all the way up to 1,000 pounds. Until 1991, most aerial ladders built to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 Standard were rated at zero tip load, unsupported at zero degrees. Aerial ladders built after 1991 were designed to have a minimum rating of 250 pounds at the tip from any angle between zero degrees and maximum angle at full extension.

Courtesy Mike Wilbur Photo 2. A modern apparatus reflects the post-1991 changes. The apparatus tip load is 250 pounds on this 100-foot rear-mount aerial ladder. Note the tandem axle chassis and the different stabilizers that helped improve apparatus stability and safety.

Photo 1 shows a pre-1991 aerial ladder with a 200- pound vertical tip load. In 1991, NFPA 1901 was revised and upgraded, which caused manufacturers to change their aerial ladder designs (see photos 2, 3 and 4).

The pre-1991 light-duty aerial ladder shown in photo 5 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. The medium-duty ladder pictured in photo 6 was meant to be operated at the horizontal and even at a negative degree of elevation off the side of the truck.

Courtesy Mike Wilbur Photo 3. A medium-duty aerial ladder with a 500-pound tip load. Note the addition of another set of outriggers that appear before the tandem axles.

With the positive tip load improvements, however, come some operational impediments. In photo 7, note the deployment of the outriggers on the heavy-duty aerial ladder at a common suburban/urban scenario and the way that the street is completely blocked off. While manufacturers have dramatically improved ladder load capacities, stability and safety, we now need more area just to maneuver the apparatus and to deploy the outriggers and jacks.

Having conducted many aerial and tower ladder placement and operations classes lately, I have seen first hand how some aerial apparatus need to be set up on a flat, wide street on a sunny day before all the interlocks, micro-switches and safeties can be satisfied to get power to the turntable. This is great for firefighter safety, but if you are the civilian waiting to be rescued, you may have to jump as the operation becomes too time consuming and arduous to satisfy the safeties in a timely fashion.

Courtesy Mike Wilbur Photo 4. An aerial ladder with a 1,000-pound tip load. Note that the outriggers span the body, compared to the apparatus with the 500-pound tip load in photo 3.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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

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