The Apparatus Architect

Dec. 29, 2009
Part 43 At the scene of a fire in a three-story, wood-frame dwelling, the engine company is making a push into the attic to cut off the fire extension into this area. For some unknown reason, the attack line goes limp and the engine crew is without water. Due to the high heat, the firefighters back down to the second-floor stairwell where they attempt to regroup, radio to the engine chauffeur to call for water and prepare to make another push into the cockloft area.

Part 43

At the scene of a fire in a three-story, wood-frame dwelling, the engine company is making a push into the attic to cut off the fire extension into this area. For some unknown reason, the attack line goes limp and the engine crew is without water. Due to the high heat, the firefighters back down to the second-floor stairwell where they attempt to regroup, radio to the engine chauffeur to call for water and prepare to make another push into the cockloft area.

Over their portable radio, they hear numerous radio transmissions about the loss of water from a supply line and realize that they are now cut off from the first floor due to heavy fire below them that is now advancing up the stairwell. The engine officer radios to the truck officer that the crew is now trapped on the second-floor stairwell and needs a portable ladder positioned on side B to escape from the advancing fire. The members of the outside truck crew, who were throwing ladders to the third floor on side C, rapidly deploy a 24-foot extension ladder from their apparatus and assist the engine crew through the window to a safe position outside.

What happened here? A set of circumstances that can and will occur at just about any working fire where portable ground ladders are used to not only provide a means of escape for trapped occupants, but most importantly and more often for our own personnel. There have been many friendly station kitchen table debates over who is more important on the fireground; the engine company or the truck. What is certain is that there is probably no more important tool at the scene of a working fire than a properly positioned aerial or portable ground ladder that could be used by firefighters to permit their rapid and safe egress from a structure when conditions deteriorate and things go wrong.

Ground ladders have been carried on fire apparatus since the horse-drawn era and over the years their use has become a lost art in most fire departments. While the deployment and positioning of ground ladders at various types of structures requires constant training and the development of basic fireground standard operating procedures (SOPs), in many cases, we find that the responding truck companies do not even carry an appropriate array of portable ladders to adequately cover all four sides of residential structure. There are several reasons for this.

In many departments, staffing levels on ladder companies is minimal and upon arrival at the fireground, there are simply insufficient personnel to simultaneously conduct a primary search, outside ventilation, control utilities, and position a sufficient number of ground ladders and the aerial device to cover all four sides of the structure. If your department's running assignments do not consistently provide for a minimum of 20 personnel on the first alarm, chances are there are important fireground task that are not getting done, leaving our personnel at risk.

If your department does not operate a ladder company or the unit is not staffed, then it is imperative that the responding units carry a sufficient number of portable ladders to cover the buildings in your response area. This may require having the engine company equipped with several extension ladders or having a special service unit outfitted with a complement of ground ladders, including 28- and 35-foot extension ladders and several roof ladders of different lengths, to supplement the ground ladder capability of the department.

Since 1914, when the first edition of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 Standard on Fire Apparatus was published, this document has guided fire departments on the minimum design requirements for new units. Remember here that the standard is a minimum standard and that your department should be looking to exceed this benchmark.

Going back into history, fewer than 40 years ago, the minimum requirement for ground ladders on aerial devices was a total of 228 feet. Over the years, the minimum standard complement for ground ladders has been reduced to the current level of 115 feet on aerial devices and 85 feet for quint apparatus. Additionally, NFPA 1901 states that the 115-foot complement should include one folding ladder, two roof ladders and three extension ladders. In many cases, fire apparatus manufacturers have designed standard aerial ladder bodies around this requirement with some options to increase the number of ladders carried inside of the body or mounted on the aerial device itself.

Quint-style aerial devices are further complicated in that the packaging of the fire pump, water tank, hosebed and ground ladder storage are all competing for the same space and weight considerations in the overall design of the unit. For this reason, fewer options are available for increasing the ground ladder complement on these devices without sacrificing compartment space or water tank capacity. On single-axle quint units, there is a tendency to overload these devices as there is a practical limit to the amount of apparatus components together with the NFPA equipment allowance of 2,500 pounds that can safely be carried on a single axle. It is not uncommon for a well-equipped ladder company to carry equipment that will total more than the 2,500-pound minimum payload. It is incumbent for the fire department to provide an equipment inventory with weights to prospective bidders so that an appropriate allowance can be made for the required fixed equipment, portable tools and other components on the finished vehicle. The Fire Apparatus Manufactures Association (FAMA) website can be a valuable help in this endeavor ( as well as individual tool and equipment vendors.

Beyond the minimum ground ladder complement as outlined in NFPA 1901, any department that operates a ladder company should have a good idea as to what ground ladders are needed to properly serve its area. One way to accomplish this is to visit the residential and commercial buildings in the first-due area and, with the building owners' permission, place ground ladders at various points on each building to determine what type and length of ladder will be needed to properly cover all sides and elevations on the building. You may find, for example, that a 28-foot or 30-foot extension ladder will work just fine at one point, saving that 35-foot extension ladder to go to the roof or balcony of a structure where the aerial ladder cannot be positioned to reach that objective.

After you have completed several of these scenarios, you can determine how many wall, roof and extension ladders will be required on the fireground to cover all of the building exposures. Once you total up the required footage of ladders required, you may find that the 85-foot or 115-foot minimum standards will not meet your needs. Not to worry! You now have the information required when you sit down with an apparatus builder's representative to determine how to best outfit your new aerial device with the complement of ground ladders that will protect your personnel and provide sufficient ground ladder deployment at the incident scene.

As a practical example, several months ago, a fire department in upstate New York held a multi-unit drill at an apartment complex in its first-due area. The host company operated a single-axle quint as the first-due unit, followed by several engines and one rear-mount tower from a neighboring company. The units entered the complex as they would during an alarm, with the rear-mount quint arriving on the scene and establishing a water supply by laying a large-diameter hoseline (LDH) and positioning the aerial to reach the roof.

At this point, several problems ensued, including having the supply line catch under the wheels of a privately owned vehicle (POV) in the parking lot and damaging the rear of the apparatus tailboard. The design of the supply line hosebed on the quint was such that the hose passed under the turntable through a chute. When the apparatus turned the corner, the hose coupling became hung up, causing the hose to drag behind the apparatus.

After initially positioning the quint in the crowded parking area, there was limited room to spot the apparatus. After deploying the outriggers and raising the 75-foot aerial, it became apparent that there was insufficient horizontal reach to make the roof or any of the upper-story balconies on the building. Several lessons were learned:

  1. It was difficult for the quint apparatus to lay a supply line around several corners without having problems with vehicles and other obstacles. In addition, positioning the unit for use of the aerial ladder offers trade-offs with positioning the unit to operate as an engine company and would ultimately block access for the first-due ladder company.
  2. The 75-foot aerial device, while sufficient for single-family dwellings and other structures where the unit can be positioned within 25 to 30 feet from the curb line, was inadequate for buildings with greater setbacks and green space around the property.
  3. While the quint carried 115 feet of ground ladders, this was inadequate to cover all four sides and elevations of the structure.

As a result of this training exercise, the fire department changed the running order for its apparatus and assigned an engine as the first-due unit and had the mutual aid ladder company respond on the initial alarm as the first-due ladder apparatus. This rear-mounted, 100-foot aerial tower carried additional ground ladders and had sufficient horizontal reach to provide adequate scrub area on the building. (Scrub area is defined as that area of the building that can be touched by the basket of a tower ladder or the tip of an aerial device.) Also, you must determine the operational footprint of the apparatus; i.e., how much real estate is going to be needed to properly position and set up the apparatus.

The next installment of "The Apparatus Architect" will discuss the various types of aerial devices and how ground ladder banking can impact the overall design of the apparatus. We will also highlight several fire departments and their ground ladder capabilities on their apparatus.

TOM SHAND, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and works with Michael Wilbur at Emergency Vehicle Response, consulting on a variety of fire apparatus and fire department master-planning issues. 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 on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access his website at

MINIMUM STAFFING FOR A 2½-STORY WOOD-FRAME HOMEWater supply 1 firefighter Pump operator 1 firefighter Three handlines 9 firefighters Forcible entry/search 2 firefighters Ventilation 2 firefighters Command sides 1 and 3 2 firefighters Rapid intervention team 3 firefighters Bare minimum staffing 20 firefighters

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