Laddering With Purpose

What is it that prevents fire departments from throwing ground ladders or aerials? Why do ground ladders remain on the apparatus and aerials remain in their beds at fire calls? Why are RIT teams allowed to stand around like yard gnomes, not being proactive? And on that same vein if 2 in 2 out is your thing how can we justify the “2 out” members standing the front yard contributing nothing to the overall operation?

This needs to be fixed. This is our own Lt. Shawn Donovon’s 3 part great series about laddering with a purpose in one post.

Part 1: The Problem and a Good Start
Part 2: The Reasons to Ladder
Part 3: Engine Support

So what is the problem exactly? At issue is the age old problem of bringing life saving equipment to a fire scene and not using it. We could compare this to not running additional lines when you have the manpower available because both evolutions go hand in hand. Every department has ground ladders, not every department has aerials. But to have ground ladders on the apparatus and basically allow them rot is a disgrace. And I say rot only after many discussions on that very subject. Let’s do better for our crews and the occupants. Why are you carrying them?

Are ladders needed at every fire? I would say yes. But a more important question than that is do you know how to use ladders at every fire? That is where the disconnect seems to be. That is the root problem with mandating laddering through S.O.P. whether its to an outside vent or another similar position. They get stuck going through the motions to accomplish the orders but not the thought process that went into those orders. Throwing random ladders and laddering to accomplish a task or a tactical goal are two very different things. But getting the ladders to the building is a very good start.

First due truck removed aerial from roof after venting. Lines over ladders. Billy Noonan photo

First due truck removed aerial from roof after venting. Lines over ladders. Billy Noonan photo

There are a variety of methods that can be employed to increase laddering. Some departments have attempted to remedy poor laddering practices with SOP/SOG’s. Some of these do a good job of laying out the general goals of laddering. These SOG’s remove some of the confusion that can be involved when a renewed emphasis on laddering is implemented. Issues such as whose responsibility it is, the minimum standards and the time when the task should be accomplished should be covered if that’s the route your department decides to go. These SOP’s accomplish one of the most difficult and time consuming part of laddering; getting the ladders off the apparatus and to the building.
That in itself is a win. Ladders are at the building and available for use. If a ladder needs to be redeployed it’s not a problem as long as that ladder is on the scene. The time saved versus having to make a special trip back to the apparatus to retrieve a ladder can mean the difference between life and death.
One of the issues with this is the “Check the Box” mentality that it breeds. The idea that is born from firefighters not appreciating the importance of the function they are providing. The desire to get the job or ‘the nonsense my chain of command wants’ accomplished so they can go inside. I don’t have a problem with the core of that reasoning because hopefully at its heart it is focused on the search for occupants.

PG/Kentland laddering each floor. From Kentland VFD Page

PG/Kentland laddering each floor. From Kentland VFD Page

Remember WHY we are laddering. I don’t mean those existential generalizations “life safety,” “Risk Vs Reward,”etc.
I mean Egress for the companies working on the fire floor and floors above.
Throwing ladders in support of engine company operations like lines over ladders or a platform from which to attack a fire.
Using the aerial to send a member or crew to the roof to monitor conditions and report changes or (GASP!) to ventilate.
We as a fire service need to move on from this “Check the box” laddering that seems to have taken the place of non-laddering in the fire service. But it is a great step in the right direction and I’ll take it.
In the next part we will look a little closer at the reasons to ladder and ways to accomplish them.

Bringing ladders to a fire building is the first step in remedying the problem. The next, and probably more difficult, step is to place them where they will most likely be used.
I’m not going to waste your time talking about rescue, RIT and all the cool shiny things that go along with it, that has been beaten to death. Discussions about using ladders for rescue and RIT are plenty and extremely comprehensive. I’m going to talk about a basic plan for prioritizing ladder placement. The day to day operations that seem to fall through the cracks but are actually some of the most important.
“Paint the building in aluminum” is a classic line, but the process should be more intelligent than that. Again, I don’t have a problem with eventually getting every ladder to the building, and then looking for more places to ladder. But initial companies on the scene of a fire need to start by focusing on prioritizing ladder locations until more help arrives.

Ladders as a shortcut and to reduce congestion in the stairways. 50' ladders aren't thrown randomly. Audubon Circle, November 2, 2014. 4 Alarms on Box 232 Billy Noonan Photo

Ladders as a shortcut and to reduce congestion in the stairways. 50′ ladders aren’t thrown randomly. Audubon Circle, November 2, 2014. 4 Alarms on Box 232 Billy Noonan Photo

Barring immediate life safety concerns, laddering priorities should be:
1. Ladder like you search
2. Fix access/egress restrictions
3. Ladder where the fire will spread.

Ladder like you Search
Getting 1 ladder per side per floor is a great start and in some departments, the ultimate goal. But is that what we really need? Do we need ladders on the floors below the fire? Probably not, but we may if we are using them as a shortcut or as a replacement for interior stairs, probably not going to be a priority for initial companies. So lets start at the fire floor. Can we start our ladder operations the way we start our primary search? If we change “Laddering” to “Primary Laddering” for initial companies would that change their focus? I hate to invent a new term but maybe it will help. If we consider the first few ladders to the building a primary laddering where would we start? Probably the same place we would start our search, at or near the fire.
Laddering a window with fire venting out it is not a smart use of our equipment unless we are using the ladder as a platform to make a fire attack. I’ll get into lines over ladders in the 3rd part of the series.

Fix Access/egress restrictions: Consider where the interior crews are and where they will go if in trouble. The crews should be making their way towards the seat of the fire. If a window has fire blowing out the chance of our crews using that window for egress are slim. But, if they have to back out or make a hasty retreat where will they go? The next room over or back the way they came most likely. In my city hallways running front to back are extremely common, so we could ladder the opposite end of the building, down the hall from the fire and have the most likely secondary egress route covered. But if a floor plan is broken up, confusing, or the situation so dire crews are likely to duck into the first room they come to and shut the door if they can. So ladder the windows beside the ones that have fire showing, that’s where the crews may go. If fire isn’t showing from a window or room near the seat of the fire, ladder it.

Every attic window is laddered. Roof ladder deployed. Billy Noonan Photo

Every attic window is laddered. Roof ladder deployed. Billy Noonan Photo

Ladder Where The Fire Will Spread
If the other priorities are met we can start to work on getting ahead of the fire. Just like laddering the attic at a basement fire in a balloon frame we need to anticipate where the fire will spread and ladder ahead of it. As crews arrive and join the fire attack we need to increase the routes of egress access. This is when we will ladder the floor above and start working our way around the building. Initial crews on scene will start searching on the floor above the fire, if crews are there without the protection of a line we need to make it as safe as possible. We cannot change the way the crews are operating, but we can increase the likelihood of getting them a ladder in case things go wrong. We also need to ladder for fire attack. Long lays and restricted engine company access need to also be addressed. More complex operations like ladders over ladders for roof work or set backs take time and should be addressed before they are needed.

Throwing ladders at a building without a plan is better than leaving them on the apparatus, but we can do better. Reasons to ladder include Rescue, Egress, Hero Support (Engine company) and Ventilation. Good aggressive truck work allows for good aggressive engine work. They skills go hand in hand. Remember every ladder you throw, no matter the initial purpose, becomes an egress route. In the third part we will talk about lines over ladders, and the importance of the report from the roof at every fire call. Until then remember the best thing an arriving truck company can do is carry ladders to a building. While taking that first walk to the building bring a ground ladder along with your hand tools. Even if that ladder is thrown to a side without any real purpose that ladder is available for use in a RIT or bailout situation and will save time having to make a trip to the apparatus to retrieve it.

Let’s 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.


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