Aerial fire trucks: How to better understand them

Robert Avsec

How well do you and your firefighters know your aerial apparatus? It's not just an operational proficiency question, but a fiscal policy and marketing question.

Can you and your people explain in plain English why the community has or needs a piece of aerial apparatus?

The cost for an aerial apparatus — ladder, elevating platform, ladder platform, etc. — ranges from $750,000 to over $1 million depending upon type and model.

Such a price tag gets local government officials and their constituents questioning such an expense despite the benefit to the community. This can be especially true in suburban communities where few, if any, tall buildings exist.

Whether the discussion regards a first-time purchase or a replacement, the first question those outside the fire service ask is typically: Why is it needed when there are no tall buildings or high-rises?

And the follow up question is, How often is it being used? For non-fire service folks — especially those paying the bills — these seem like reasonable questions.

There's never been a higher degree of scrutiny for fire department operations than there is today. Forget watchdog journalists; everyone with a smartphone and an Instagram or Twitter account is a journalist.

So it's extremely important that every member of your fire department understands the general public's perspective and limited knowledge of fire service operations.

They may think that the only use for aerial apparatus is to get to the roof of tall buildings. They may think that because the apparatus may only reach the seventh story, they are not functional for high-rise buildings. They may think that the relatively few fires in larger structures do not justify the expense.

Operational proficiency
If two or three engine companies arrive before the truck company and block it from the building, it's usefulness in the operation is very limited. As the old saying goes, "You can stretch another section of hose, but you can't stretch the ladder."

The driver/operator for the aerial apparatus, however, can have all the room in the world for its proper tactical placement, but if they don't know what their aerial device can or can't do — and how to make the can happen safely, effectively and efficiently — the outcome can be just as poor. And isn't it just the way of the world that there's always somebody there to catch that moment on video?

Developing operational proficiency with their aerial apparatus for as many potential situations provides real benefits to the department — here are three of them.

  • Increase the potential for successful tactical outcomes.
  • Reduce the risk to the organization's public perception and reputation.
  • Develop knowledge for department leaders to use to educate public officials and community stakeholders and answer those two big questions.

When working with crews to develop operational proficiency with aerial placement, discuss vertical and horizontal reach. Most people outside the fire service — and even some within the ranks — think we only need aerial apparatus to reach tall buildings.

The truth is we find ourselves in many situations where we need horizontal reach due to having to spot apparatus in parking lots or offsets around commercial buildings.

Reaching the limits
Ask your crew which is the longest on your aerial ladder: the vertical or horizontal reach? Many will answer that they're the same, but they may be wrong.

It used to be that vertical reach was longest because the distance from the ground to the turntable is used as part of the overall length. The same rig could have a 100-foot vertical and a 93-foot horizontal reach.

Today's aerial apparatus technology, however, is making that difference obsolete, with some manufacturers producing aerial devices with less than 5 feet of difference between vertical and horizontal reach.

When talking about horizontal reach, address the scrub area, that is, the area on a building that can be reached with the ladder tip or platform. Spot too far away, and the scrub area will be reduced. Position too close, and your aerial will hit the building before you get full extension.

Positioning the aerial correctly maximizes its effective scrub area. This becomes very important when attempting to reach victims in many different windows.

Practice ideas
The best way to become proficient as an aerial driver/operator is by spotting it at different buildings in the response area and using the elevating device to see how much effective horizontal reach it has.

The downside is that it causes a lot of disruption around the building unless practice is limited to when the building is closed.

Homer Robertson, former deputy fire chief at the Fort Worth (Texas) Fire Department, suggests measuring a length of rope the exact distance of the rig's horizontal reach and knotting it at the point where the outriggers are fully extended and deployed.

The crew can practice positioning the rig in difficult areas like apartment complexes or shopping malls. They can check the ladder's reach without deploying it by using the rope.

Operators can also practice ladder operations in an open space using a weighted helium balloon on a 10- to 20-foot line to simulate roof or balcony operations. The operators practice by maneuvering the bottom of the bucket or stick onto the top of the balloon. This cuts the risk of banging the stick or bucket into walls or off roofs.

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