Throwing ladders: Why, when and where

Ground ladders are a critical, yet often overlooked tool on the fireground

A first alarm assignment arrives to a three-story house with smoke showing from the rear. It's the middle of the night and the house is full of smoke.

The engine crew stretches the line to the front and is searching for fire on the first floor. The next-in unit makes the stairs and searches for occupants.

Conditions quickly change and the upstairs team needs to make a quick exit. The hall is untenable and the crew heads for windows. They enter a bedroom, shut the door behind them and look for windows.

They quickly search the room and find no victims, but they do get to the window. The glass is cleared and the sash broken out. They are now on the rear of the home and it is a two-story drop.

They find that there are no ladders and conditions in the room are beginning to deteriorate.

Overlooked tool
Ground ladders are one of the most underrated and overlooked tools. They are on just about every apparatus, but seem to be forgotten on many fires.

There are multiple reasons why they are not deployed quickly and efficiently ranging from lack of personnel on the fireground to where they are located on the apparatus. However, it is imperative to make raising ground ladders a regular event on every incident where there are multiple stories.

Today's apparatus are taller and packed full of stuff, and the ladders have gone from being above the wheel wells of the apparatus to being in a compartment or on a rack on top of the hose bed. Either way, they are more difficult to get to.

It is important to be aware of how the apparatus is positioned. The driver must allow space on the side for lowering of and access to the ladder rack. The incoming units need to allow enough space between the apparatus and the one in front so that the ladders can be removed from a rear-access compartment and deployed.

Plan early for ladders
When pulling up to the scene, expect to deploy ladders. This means that along with putting the apparatus in pump, lower the ladder rack as soon as possible.

This will allow easy and fast access to ladders and may serve as a reminder to deploy them. There are some challenges like getting into compartments and those need to be considered. However, by the time the driver gets the apparatus in pump, assist flaking the line out and gets the crew water, access to those compartments will be limited and the rack can be lowered.

So, who throws the ladders? That depends on what is going on and available resources. Here are some suggestions, but follow your agencies guidelines and policies.

I like the third unit in throwing ladders to the upper stories of buildings where firefighters are operating. Typically the first company is fire attack, the second is back up and search and the third is venting.

Depending on conditions and circumstances, these rolls can change and are dynamic based on immediate needs and conditions. 

In some instances, the Rapid Intervention Team will soften up the building. Part of the team's staging can include throwing ladders to upper stories on buildings. This may eliminate the need for RIT to be deployed and also gets additional eyes looking at windows for signs of possible victims.

Where to place ladders
There are many opinions on how and where to place ladders. Most textbooks say to place the ladder at an approximate 75-degree angle. They also recommend placing it below the sill for rescue, up wind and to the side for ventilation, and yet another position for hose stream application.

The problem is that while performing ventilation or hose stream applications, someone is seen in the room or a firefighter needs to get in or get out, we have to move the ladder. That takes time.

I would argue that all of the tasks can be accomplished with the ladder at or below the sill. Wearing full PPE and using safe ladder techniques, we should be able to clear a window with it below the sill.

Throwing water in a window off of a ladder should be done in limited situations; at that point in the operation, nobody should be inside.

Giving the ladder a little shallower angle allows firefighters who bailout an angle that will distribute their weight more horizontally. It also makes removing victims a little easier for the same reasons. Take caution to not make the angle too shallow and cause the butt to kick out.

Once these ladders are thrown, monitor the conditions and listen to interior crews. If reports and conditions dictate that the ladders need to move, coordinate that move with interior crews to get the ladders where they will be needed.

If resources are available, throw additional ladders. Crews that are staging, or the RIT can do this at the discretion of the incident commander. When throwing ladders, keep these four tips in mind.

  • Consider overhead obstructions and projections when raising any ladder.
  • Don't place the ladder over a window or opening that has involved fire in it.
  • Be aware of the ground surface hazards such as ice, rain, snow, shrubs or other obstacles
  • Bringing the right length ladder.

The last item may sound simplistic, but I know two firefighters who jumped from a three-story house because the ladder raised that was too short. It didn't help at all.

Everyone has their own techniques and you need to follow your department's guidelines. Just don't neglect to throw ground ladders. They can be as important as any other fireground tool and just might save a life.

Until next month, train like you work, and stay low.

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