Laddering with Purpose Part 3: Engine Support

We have identified a problem (ladders left on the apparatus) and an initial solution in the first chapter. In the second chapter we talked about some initial considerations for primary laddering and covered some of the basics tactics. In this final portion we will discuss how proactive, aggressive laddering opens the door for aggressive engine companies and how ladder companies can make fireground operations safer and more efficient.

Boston Fire 1940's Lines over ladder. Billy Noonan collection

Boston Fire 1940’s Lines over ladder. Billy Noonan collection

Some departments have not yet realized the full potential of aggressiveness through ladders. Laddering a building should not be secondary to fire attack; it should be considered part of fire attack. With that in mind, engine companies should have to keep up with the truck companies. The engines should not have to wait for truck work to be accomplished (Forced entry, laddering etc.…) for them to do their job. As an engine company waits, the fire and the risk to the members grows. If your department is short on trucks the engine companies need to fill in that role to accomplish those tasks. When I was an engine company officer my crew knew to throw the ground ladders as soon as lines were charged and water was coming into the pump, because having secondary egress is vitally important. Crews inside a fire building need to be confident egress routes are being covered. When proper laddering becomes consistent engine crews become more effective because they know the ladder support will be there for them if needed.

One of the most basic and underrated fire attack methods is attacking a fire by advancing attack lines over a ladder. Lines over ladders has been marginalized in favor of what are perceived as “simpler” and “safer” tactics. There is absolutely nothing “safe” about running all attack lines through the same door and up the same stairway. All that is accomplished is a stairway cluttered with attack lines that makes ingress and egress more dangerous and any RIT operations through that path more time consuming. If collapse, falling glass or anything else happens near that one path the lines are run, they will all be lost. There is no more direct route to the seat of fire on a non-standpiped building than over a ground ladder. Granted this method has its limitations such as elevation. But running lines 3-4 stories up a stairway isn’t most efficient use of limited resources.

With the renewed discussion on attacking a fire from the exterior in an attempt to reset it or to buy time for crews advancing to the inside, why aren’t ground ladders being brought up in the discussion? The discussion always involves references to the military softening a target before advancing on it. This metaphor is flawed. The military would never allow an enemy to regroup. Attacking a fire in an effort to cool it quickly then taking so long to position a line inside that the fire rebuilds is waste of time and effort. If softening the target is the only goal then this tactic is fine. But if extinguishment is the goal DO NOT allow the fire time to rebuild. Why not keep flowing water as a ground ladder is placed then continue the attack via ground ladder? That would be a much closer comparison to military tactics.

The military comparison does not fully capture our profession’s relationship with fire. Hunting is a better comparison because the prey doesn’t know you are after it, and we can study it’s behavior. Realistically though fire is not a living thing, so a science comparison seems more appropriate. Fire is predictable and given a certain set of conditions it should behave a certain way. Our experience with building types, weather, and contents etc…. all allow us to react based on what we know. We know what equipment we need to wear and to what extent it will protect us. Fire doesn’t know we are there, it doesn’t have any ill will towards us and it will continue in a predictable manner with or without us. It is a chemical process. We just need to intervene appropriately.

Back to Lines over ladders. Lines over ladders provide direct access to a room of fire, in doing so it allows for shorter hose lays and less overall effort. Whether attacking a fire from a ladder placed in a window of a room of fire or using a ladder to enter an uninvolved adjoining room to mount an attack, crews can be in a safer position to make that attack than if they were trying to advance down a superheated hallway. When defensive operations become necessary on a building with an odd configuration or limited access, lines over ladders may be required. The attack lines can be tied off to the ladder to lessen firefighter fatigue and make the evolution safer by minimizing the weight the crews have to deal with.

Engine 22 runs a 2.5" line over a 50' Bangor ladder thrown by Tower Ladder 10 Photo credit Boston Fire PIO

Engine 22 runs a 2.5″ line over a 50′ Bangor ladder thrown by Tower Ladder 10 Photo credit Boston Fire PIO

Advancing attack lines over an aerial device should be avoided. It renders the aerial useless for its many other uses such as rescue, access and egress. Elevated master streams are a different evolution and if those tactics are decided upon all the other uses for the aerial will most likely not be needed during that time. But to tie up an aerial for advancing a line is a waste of equipment. If an aerial is the only option and an attack will not be mounted from the device, then use it only as access and run the line down the side of the building instead of up the ladder.

The aerial should be thrown at every reported structure fire. Every reported structure fire. I understand the issues that have been raised such as “What if we raise it and find out its needed in a different location”, “We don’t put members on roofs”, “We will raise it if it’s needed”. All of these concerns point to the same underlying issues; a lack of knowledge & training on the capabilities of the apparatus and the lack of importance placed on knowing all the conditions of the building. We must use the aerial as often as possible. We cannot hope for our operators to get better with the equipment by not using it. In fact, that is the one way to guarantee operators will never become proficient.

We raise the aerial at every structure fire call for the real world practice. Throwing the aerial on the apron or to the training building is fine and develops the fine motor control needed to run the equipment smoothly. But it does very little for judging proper apparatus spotting. Operators will find that sweet spot where they can spot the truck every time. They may make it look good, but can they find that same sweet spot on any given day, at any given building with any given obstructions? The answer is no. Real life experience and overall high quality performance comes from real world application. We have to train for real life scenarios and to do that we must train IN real life as often as possible.

Ladder 4 using every bit of 110' to reach a roof across the block. KR Photo

Ladder 4 using every bit of 110′ to reach a roof across the block. KR Photo

You need that aerial. If you didn’t why did your department purchase it? You should be using it as much as possible. The aerial is most likely one of the most expensive pieces of apparatus on your department. Police cars can block traffic, use the aerial for its intended purpose at fire calls. Practice finding a way to get it into service, you may be surprised at what you start learning.

Multiple aerials to the roof provide multiple routes of Egress and a safe, clear path of travel. BFD PIO pic

Multiple aerials to the roof provide multiple routes of Egress and a safe, clear path of travel. BFD PIO pic

Every call for a structure fire in my city the truck companies that respond try to get their aerials, or towers, to the roof and then send a member up to investigate conditions. The report from the roof is not heard very often, but when it is the information is extremely valuable. When dealing with row houses and some of our older neighborhoods a member on the roof may have be in the best position to get a good look at the conditions in the rear or the extent of involvement. The members on the roof can also report on roof finish materials and any construction features that may be relevant to the firefighting operation. Every member operating in the building is operating under the same roof and command should be notified if there are any reasons why the firefighters should not be under it. Investigating the roof is a huge responsibility and needs to be performed, the information gained could affect the course of operations. Knowing the roof composition will also help decide if vertical ventilation is an option and what type of equipment and personnel are needed.

I remember a fire that came in early one morning. Companies were off and investigating with nothing showing long before my company arrived. The response was downgraded because there was only a slight odor on the first floor where the report came from. Members of the first arriving truck company went to the roof of the four story ordinary construction building and reported “a small amount of fire through the roof, near the rear”. As companies entered and made their way up there was no smoke or fire to be found. But as firefighters started pulling ceilings the reason became clear, there were four layers of ceilings that prevented the fire and the smoke from banking down. If we hadn’t sent members to the roof there would have been substantially more damage and the outcome could have been very different.

When you go through the academy, you are taught basic skills (hand lines, ladders, ventilation) and then shown how those skills work together for the extinguishment of the fire. That same methodology should apply once you graduate. You weren’t taught those things ‘just because’; you were taught those things because they are all a necessary, combined part of extinguishing structural fires.

Stay safe, and get the ladders to the building.


  • Cody Paquin says:

    I was wondering if I would be able to use some of the material in all 3 articles for a Ground ladder class I am putting on for my Department.

    • anchorpoint1 says:

      Of course you can, we only ask that you give credit as appropriate. Thank you and let us know if we can help you with anything.

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