Access & Egress

“Throw ladders until you run out of them or window”
Has this battle cry helped or hurt the fire service?
Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe we, the fire service, need to throw more ladders at fire scenes. But I think we need a better focus. I believe we are coming to a point in the fire service where departments are choosing simple sounding, generalized tactics over the actual training of their members. Firefighters do not get to decide any part of their operations based on conditions because the have to check all the boxes required by their chain of command.
Boston FD is frequently looked to for the standard in laddering a fire building. But sometimes there are very few ground ladders pulled at a structure fire. Why is that? Because honestly, throwing large numbers of ground ladders isn’t the best use of time at every structure fire.
Yes, I know it’s blasphemy to say, but let’s look at why.
What ARE the reasons ground ladders should be throw thrown? Mostly it comes down to access and egress, creating ways to get in and out. More specifically ground ladders are thrown for:
Rescues; Saving people from imminent danger
Removals; Saving people who are inconvenienced and may become in danger
Advancing lines; Taking a short cut to an upper floor
Ventilation; From or with the ladder
RIT; Support and prevent the need for RIT operations
Egress; increases the routes for firefighters to leave
Other; Non fire and/or using a ladder when another tool would work just as well
We can expand this list and get more detailed but that’s not the purpose of this article. In fact I’m going to go the other way and condense it; Access and Egress
Access; providing ways for Fire Fighters to get into places above and below grade.
Egress; providing ways for firefighters and civilians to leave places above and below grade

Would 1 ladder to the front porch and one in the back cover the egress for the entire 2nd floor?

Keep access and egress in mind while laddering a building. But also keep in mind our overall goals. When your company arrives on a fire scene what are the major overriding goals? Saving lives, Stabilizing the incident and then protecting property. Our ultimate and most pressing issue is always saving lives, so search should be our #1 goal. We need to perform this goal as quickly and efficiently as possible.

If we arrive and dedicate one person to a 360 (my department does not) and another to outside vent (ground ladder, again my department does not) how many are left to initiate a search? Not many departments have the manpower required to dedicate a member to “Empty the truck” but they do it anyway. I’m not saying the role isn’t vital, but where do we draw the line? Are we putting up ladders for use or are they decoration? Sometimes I hear “Paint the building with aluminum” which I find appropriate because the ladders that are thrown are about as useful as paint; only for decoration. There is a growing disconnect between throwing ladders and USING them, and that’s where my focus is. Ladders are tools to help us with our operations, not benchmarks of their own
A question we should be asking is what is NOT getting done while a member is laddering until they run out of windows. Search? Forced entry? Advancing lines?

Compare it to an engine company that pulls every line and doesn’t fill a single one. Or how about the engine that pulls every foot of line off for a short stretch (sorry preconnect world)? Ladder companies are frequently given a pass in the effective/efficient use of equipment and manpower category and the reason is always a generic “safety”. We see too many redundant ladders and they are a waste of time, equipment and manpower. How safe can we make a building that is currently being destroyed by fire? We need to simplify our laddering requirements. If we ladder near the fire and then near likely escape routes are we accomplishing the same goal? If we are supposed to throw ladders to every side of the building but actually only get ladders to two rooms in, that’s ridiculous. But it’s happening, frequently. Part of the problem is not having a better picture of our goals or the needs of the fire ground.

The attic may be occupied, ladder the opposite end (B side) that’s where crews and occupants are more likely to want to leave.

The only way we can guarantee every possible exit is covered is to ladder every window and the roof. Some departments set this as their laddering goal and members are stuck throwing ladders to floors that firefighters aren’t even allowed to work on. I cannot think of a department where covering every window is always achievable. So right off the bat we know this theory doesn’t work, but its still being attempted. So the goal must not be as important as the procedure, AKA going through the motions of decorating with ladders. Like mandating a roof ladder every time members are on the roof, and they never touch it once it’s there, going through the motions. I’ve heard firefighters tell me about how they went defensive at a building fire because the interior stairs burned out, but they didn’t even think of using all the ladders they threw to the outside to mount an attack on the fire, or replace the interior stairs with a ladder. Their department is too bogged down with a “Must throw ladders” mentality that does very little for fire ground safety.

How many ladders for this house? Other than the roof, the A/B corner maybe B/C corner? We could take an attack line up to the 2nd floor that way.

Like many skills in the Fire Service, laddering has become so highlighted as important life safety that the actual purpose for those ladders is getting lost in the action of throwing them. Elevated in importance so much that junior members are afraid to ask why and experienced members are hard pressed to answer that why. Every ladder we throw needs to have a purpose, and that purpose should be decided before it comes off the truck.
When firefighters talk about throwing every ladder off the rig two theories come up 1. Start with the straight ladders and save the extension ladders in case they are needed in another part of the building. And 2. Throw the extension ladders 1st because they are more flexible for redeployment. I do not understand blindly throwing ladders so neither one really makes sense to me. But I am closer to understanding the 2nd theory because it is closer to the way we operate. Bring ladders that can cover as much of the building as possible, throw them where they are or may be needed.
The mindless throwing of ladders is second nature to many departments, and yes it can serve a purpose. But is it really an efficient use of our time? While we are thinking about that, does your department throw ladders to floors above a fire even if command won’t allow members to operate up there or a floor below fire with NO signs of smoke or fire?
Let’s be more mindful of our ladder operations making our goal Access and Egress. Manpower dedicated to “painting the building” could be more effectively used to reach other more realistic goals; saving lives and property.
The images are just examples, I mean in no way to make any claims on how the departments involved should or should not operate. Shawn


  • Todd says:

    Nice read! The Todd

  • Bobby Halton says:

    Shawn, thanks for a good look at ladder basics. Well done, Bobby Halton

  • Glen B says:

    This article takes a good perspective especially in today’s climate with minimal manpower. The editor of the article needs more focus as the grammar makes it annoying to read…..

  • Dave says:

    I am sure what Glen really found annoying was that he actually had to read the article to be able to comment on it versus just reading the headline.

    Nice work Shawn. Keep up the effort and watch out for falling babies.

  • Richard N. Gross says:

    Great article. You can never be in the business of saving lives without leaning something new .

  • John Foley says:

    Here in New York, they have a “Bailout Rule” (law, actually) that mandates that firefighters either wear the cumbersome “bailout bag” and harness, or, paint the building with ladders, if the Department opts out of issuing the “bailout bags” to it’s membership. So, some of this unnecessary laddering may be the result of a very short-sighted law, rather than an overzealous ladder crew.

  • Fernando Encarnación says:

    Couldn’t agree more, thanks for the article. Frenando Encarnación. Keep Up the Good Work!!!

  • Jake Nadeau says:

    Good read! Make our time on the fire ground as efficient/effective as possible. Instead of trying to look good for the camera.

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