Boston’s Ladder Culture

Why does Boston throw so many ladders?


Mainly because it’s better to have them and not need them.

If you ask around Boston Fire you will get 4 common answers.  Most likely after they ask you why a firefighter would even ask a question like that.

1. Why not?

2. It’s a good practice

3. We have to.

4. The Engines can be more aggressive because they know ladders will be in place.


The number one answer was no surprise to me.  But I’ll mix 1 & 2 as essentially the same thing.  Why not throw a lot of ladders? It’s good practice.  Throwing ladders at a fire that is under control gives the real world practice that cannot be duplicated on the training ground.  If the fire is not under control there is no Manpower lost bringing a ladder to the building when the crew is already walking up .  The worst outcome would be the ladder gets laid on the ground near the front of the building so the company can go right in to work.  That ladder will be placed as needed later or put away after the fire.  If the building has sustained a good amount of damage, and you have the manpower, there is no reason to leave the portable ladders on the truck.   You can tell good companies from “not-so-good” companies in the actions they take in the support role. Why does the last engine in bring a big line to front door?  If you need it, it’s there and if you don’t need it, it’s good for the practice.  The companies that show up empty handed or say “we’ll grab it if we need it” don’t do as well as the “we do it every time” companies when it’s time to perform.  In Boston the same thing applies to Truck companies.  If a truck consistently shows up without a ladder they are hard pressed to grab one and throw it when needed, granted they will get it done.  One of the main truck company rules is “If you cannot get your aerial into operation you bring a ladder and put it to the building, your company will have a ladder to the building”.

The 3rd answer “We have to” is not as obvious if you have never been to Boston.  The layout of Boston does not lend itself to having aerials wherever you want them.  The roads in Boston are essentially paved cow paths that meander around terrain features and public grazing areas like Boston Common.  Just like many old cities, Boston’s housing stock  averages 100+ years old, and they were built as close to each other as possible.  The result of that are vast neighborhoods where there are only narrow walkways to access tiny backyards.  These houses have large back porches stacked on top of each other for tenants to hang laundry out and enjoy some fresh air.   Just inside the porch on one side or the other is the rear egress, so when the wooden porches would light up, one means of egress would be taken with it.  Another part of this is that no firefighter wants to be in a building with only one way out, throwing many ladders became a necessity.

Many areas of Boston are made of reclaimed land; hills were scraped down and used to fill in low laying sections of the city. This is not unique to Boston and is very common in other parts of the USA.  The first floor in the front is street level and the back is an additional 1-2 floors down.  This was done so the fill they had would go further by not having to bring all the elevation up, just the street level.  That in itself does not make a difference, but Boston decided that more units would be better than having alleyways or access to the rear of the buildings.  So getting to the rear became a real chore for firefighters. I recall an old timer telling me “We would grab the 40’, go 2 doors down and walk through that unit to get to the rear”.  The idea being the fire may be in the exposure unit but hopefully not extended into the 2nd unit down and it would be quicker to walk through someone’s house than trying to found a way around the buildings.

The average street in Boston usually only allows for 2 aerials to make it to the building, many times, less than that.  Not many sections of the city have the electrical utilities underground, there are not many driveways or garages causing vehicles to block corners and congest the street, these are just a couple of things that make successfully placing an aerial difficult in any city but a particular nuisance in the North East because of the narrow roadways.  When more than 2 aerials can be put into operation, the scene looks like an aerial party with every aerial on scene attempting to get their stick to the roof. Even then you will still find extensive ground ladders to the building.


As for the final answer “Engines can be more aggressive knowing ladders will be placed”, this contributor is on the fence.  I’m not a gambler.  How would an Incident Commander explain to someone’s family if a firefighter got hurt because a ladder was not in place in time?  How do you explain we USUALLY have ladders up pretty quickly, but THIS time we didn’t?  I’m not against this mentality, and know people who have benefited from and firmly believe in it.  A friend was on the first due truck searching the 3rd floor of what turned into a 4 alarm, 3 building fire when things started to look bad.  The stairway started to look like a less attractive option so his boss said “let’s move to the front windows, there should be a ground ladder up by now”, and there was.  So yes, Boston can be more aggressive knowing the ground ladders are on the way and the engine companies can be bold because they know the trucks will be also.

For Incident commanders in Boston throwing ladders is not an option, getting water and getting ladders to the building go hand in hand.  Many times at fires in Bostonyou will see a guy rolling a ladder from one window to the next or watch someone else move a ladder from the side of a building to the rear.  Do you know why they could do that?  Because the ladders were already there.  You cannot redeploy something that is still on the truck.  Running down the street to get a ladder that you desperately need now only adds time and potential delays.

I enjoy looking at pictures that were taken at fires and asking questions about what I see.  Not Monday morning quarterbacking, learning from what others did.  Sometimes you will see a roof ladder in a window or to the second floor porch at a very low angle.  Why?  One guy threw it while the rest of his crew was running the line, or it was the only ladder available on the nearest truck.  It may not be perfect but it is a usable and redeployable ladder.

If that is not enough to strengthen the case for excessive ladder use, let’s consider a few other things.  The best RIT crew is the one you never need. Boston’s RIT SOP calls for proactive RIT crews to ladder for secondary egress. How better to get quickly familiar with a building than to walk around and place ladders based on the conditions found in case you or a company inside needs them.  With the big push on flashover awareness how can a department say they are aware and concerned about firefighter’s safety and in the same breath say there are too many ladders to the building?

Construction styles have changed just like construction materials.  It is now not uncommon to find Philly style apartments in Boston (Middle floor of a 3 story shared between 1st and 3rd floor units) where this never used to be the case.  Even recently there was an upper floor fire and the only way to get to the seat of the fire was from an exterior staircase in the rear, a staircase that burned out.  Some homes and buildings just have confusing layouts and odd stairway patterns that cause longer hose lays and further travel distance for egress if needed.  Why not throw more ladders?  If a stairway gives out during a fire you cannot just give up that egress, it’s easy to find and firefighters will be attracted to it, you have to get a ladder in there to prevent firefighters from falling and getting injured.  The closer the ladders are to the point of need the quicker they can be put into use and the potential for injury will be lessened.

I’ve heard people complain about excessive laddering and the drawbacks,  get over it.  The only drawback I can put any stock into is the fear of firefighters getting hurt deploying ladders that will not be used.  If injury is a valid concern on your job then maybe you need to do more training, whether it is physical or ladder operations.

During the Boston Fire Academy recruits will climb over 2,000 stories on ladders, all ladders combined; roof ladders, 24, 35, 40, 50 and aerials.  They will each have to throw the ladders dozens of times and also have to prove to themselves the biggest ladder they can personally deploy on their own.  The recruits will also deploy Pompier ladders individually and as a group in the form of chain Pomps.  With a start like that there is no question about the importance Boston puts on laddering a building.  Recruits that start the fire academy afraid of heights still have a healthy respect for heights after but have no reservations about working from a ladder.

So the bottom line is the same as for everything else on the fire ground; call for the equipment, put it in place, if you don’t need it you can put it away.

I’d rather have it and not need it.

Photos courtesy of The Legendary Billy Noonan

Photos courtesy of Stephen Walsh




  • Tom says:

    Absolutely agree with this. Another thing though, in regards to Engine work, heard a lot of people say why so many big line, when smaller is easier. Another thing Boston does well is the use of big lines, faster containment and extinguishment.

  • That’s a ton of ladders! I think it has to do with the topography of the city as well. Some of the west coast cities are a lot flatter so you don’t have to throw ladders anywhere near as often.

  • Mike Scotto says:

    I agree completely. Remember, we always must find a 2nd means of egress from the inside or the roof of a building anyway. How much safer is it if it’s our own ladders? Keep up the good work brothers.

  • Jerry Hughes says:

    Big fire, big building, big ladders, big water = BIG RESULTS!

  • Tom Gruber says:

    The question is not why Boston throws so many ladders, it’s why (most of) the rest of us don’t do it that way? Great article!

  • Capt. Nick says:

    I agree, mostly. However, you must agree there is a limit…right? Should every ladder on scene be placed? Should every window be laddered and 2 or three to every roof? If you answered, “no” to those questions then you understand that there exists a functional limit. Now let’s talk what that should be. Some of the pics accompanying this article are utterly ridiculous. By the thought process used to justify their actions you should be placing every handling in service as well. Pretty foolish idea, huh? Balls to the wall is very rarely the best way to do work. This is no exception…

    • anchorpoint1 says:

      Thanks for your comment. To answer your questions (rhetorical or not) I do not believe every ladder should be thrown. I do however believe that every truck that cannot put the aerial into service should bring and/or throw a ground ladder. This may be because I was indoctrinated into this culture and the department uses SOP’s to reinforce it, or it could be because it makes sense for trucks to do truck work. The Holy Grail of laddering a building would be 1 per side per floor, I think that is excessive and personally consider a building properly laddered with 1 per floor. Do we need trucks running back and forth throwing more ladders? Maybe.
      As for running every hand line, I have the same belief as with the ladders; I don’t think we need to run every line but every engine should run a line. It makes sense for engines to find a way to put water on a fire. Do we need to have engines running back and running a second line? Maybe.
      This is not a “balls to the walls” mentality. This is a deliberate laddering process that came from many hard learn lessons and lives and property lost. Somewhere in Boston Fire’s history someone took a stand and said we can do better, we will do better the Boston Fire laddering culture was born on that day and has been the standard for laddering ever since.
      Anyone who can predict the course of fire ground operations to the point that they know how many ladders are going to be used and where would make a considerable amount of money on the guest speaking circuit. We don’t know what course the operation will take so we as professionals need to prepare for the worst and make the scene as safe as we can.
      Which picture was ridiculous, and what is the problem? How can they be better in your opinion?
      Stay safe

    • Mike Ferraro says:

      I don't think 2 or even 3 ladders to the roof is excessive at all.  Wouldn't you want more than one way off the roof if and when you need it?  Just this week four other guys and myself made a hasty exit from the roof of a five story structure.  We all climbed down the same aeriel because the one I climbed up on was about to become involved in fire. I would have definitely preferred to have another aeriel handy.

  • Jim O'Neill says:

    Being a former Bostonian and retired C.O.D here in FL I take pride in the way Boston ladders their buildings. Years ago I “sparked” (buffed) at the busiest Ladder Co. in the city at the time, Ladder 4. If first due the stick went to the roof and the FF’s started search & rescue. If second due and we couldn’t get the stick up we usually carried a 35′ to the building and threw it to the front of the building. Then it was to work ventilating. Subsequent trucks would follow suit. One of the greatest ladder jobs in Boston was accomplished at the old Sherry-Biltmore Hotel fire. Google it. Once a truckie, always a truckie!!!!!!

  • StillGotLotstoLearn says:

    One could only say with certainty that the laddering was excessive if one had complete knowledge of the scene and its conditions… we rarely have that kind of knowledge until after the fact. (At least) two of the photos in question show buildings with compromised interior stairwells, thus welcoming the alternative form of egress… Monday morning quarterbacking should be left to the, um, well, Monday morning quarterbacks.

  • Joe Capobianco says:

    As a career Boston Truckie I have this to offer,the practice of “ladder early and often” is a sound and tested evolution. Many of the points presented in the article will be bantered about and are excellent topics for discussion. My 2 cents are that the laddering one per floor per side may be ok, unless you are operating in a remote part of that floor and the unexpected happens,be it floor collapse or rapid deterioration of fire conditions which may require a mass bailout. I don’t want to be waiting on line for my turn to get out. If the resources are available I would want every window to have a ladder in place and as stated,having it when needed is a lot better the alternative. Sorry but there is nothing ridiculous about overkill of a practice that may prevent exactly that. Happy Holidays and stay safe.

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