Selecting & Using Ground Ladders

Issue 12 and Volume 8.

Ground ladders are an important tool on the fireground, raised to rescue civilians and for the safety of our crews. Even with a truck company on the scene of a structure fire, there’s no guarantee that the aerial ladder will be able to reach the building. Access may be blocked by trees, power lines, police vehicles or an improperly placed engine company, but roofs still need to be opened, and people still need to be rescued. This is why regular training with ground ladders is necessary to keep up our speed and accuracy.

Choosing the Correct Ladder
What do we know about our ladders? What size do we have on our truck or the truck responding from the next town? Which ladders should we throw to which windows, and where are they carried? What if we need a second ladder of the same size but don’t have one? What’s the bedded length of the extension ladders, and why is that important?

First of all, if ladders come off the rear of the truck, knowing their bedded lengths will tell us how much room we will need to remove them. Additional responding companies shouldn’t get any closer to the rear of our truck. More importantly, if we know the vertical length of a ladder before it is extended, it will help us know which ladders can be used as a backup, if our first choice is not available. The rungs, spaced 14 inches apart, is a constant, but the number of rungs will vary depending on the size of the ladder. Knowing how many rungs a ladder has before it’s extended will give us a base to start from and then we can figure out which ladders will fit where.

Scenario #1
To get everyone on the same page, we’ll say that our truck company carries two extension ladders: a two-section 28′ ladder and a two-section 35′ ladder. Our truck also has three roof ladders: a 14′, a 16′ and a 20′. Our truck arrives on the scene of a fire in a two-story residential structure and we want to get a ladder to the second floor for egress. Which ladder should we throw? An old rule of thumb says that the first digit of the ladder should equal the floor that we’re trying to reach. As the officer, you choose the 28′ ladder. The team starts to raise the ladder and one of your firefighters asks, “How many rungs, lieutenant?” You start thinking, “Let’s see, at the proper 75-degree angle, it needs to go under the sill for egress, so ….” In the background, you hear the rapid clicks of the dogs as the ladder is being extended. Finally, you say, “That’s good, stop!” The ladder is set into the window, but it’s extended too high. They pull it out, lower it a few rungs and try again.

Has this ever happen to you? Overextending a ladder at a fire can be just as unprofessional as underestimating its reach. I’ve made mistakes at fires that I don’t wish to repeat, so I try to learn from them and then share the information with others. This helps everyone to be more proficient with one of our basic tools.

So we raised our 28′ ladder to a second-floor window in the front of the building, but now we need another ladder to a second-floor window on the ‘B’ side. Which ladder should we choose? We know the 28′ had 14 rungs before it was extended. In order to make the sill, we had to raise it three rungs, for a total of 17. Our 20′ roof ladder also has 17 rungs and will serve our need if it’s not being used for roof ventilation. If it’s not available, we can throw our 35′ extension ladder, which also counts 17 rungs before being extended. (See Photos #1 and 2.) Now I’m not saying that all second-floor windows take 17 rungs to reach the sill because building construction will vary. This is where taking time to read the building can also become very important.

Scenario #2
In Photo #3, both structures appear to be the same size. However, the building on the left shows the basement windows to be taller than normal because of a garden apartment. Another clue would be the front porches, where the building on the left has 11 steps while the one on the right only has five steps. This raises the height of the first floor an additional three to four feet. Seeing this, we know the 20′ ladder will be about three rungs short of the second floor, so the building on the left would need the 28′ ladder. Once again, starting with 14 rungs before being extended, we need to raise it six rungs, for a total of 20, to reach the second floor sill.

Suppose we need to remove a victim from this window. We may want to raise a second ladder alongside the 28′ and have another firefighter go up to assist with the rescue. If we throw the 35′ and raise it three rungs, both ladders will be at an equal height. To make the removal a little easier, we may want to adjust the ladders from their 75-degree angle to an angle of about 60 or 65 degrees. If we kick out the heel of both ladders, we would then need to equally adjust their lengths by extending them one or two rungs.

Scenario #3
In structures with no basement, the first-floor unit will be at ground level, making the 20′ ladder too tall for a second-floor window. In this situation, a 16′ roof ladder would be ideal. Additionally, if we place the open roof hooks over the window sill, it eliminates the need for someone to heel the ladder. However, if the 16′ is being used to vent the roof, we can still throw the 28′ and not extend it. Both ladders are the same height, counting 14 rungs. (See Photo #4.)

In order to make the third floor on the same structure, we extended the 28′ an additional 10 rungs. (See Photo #5.) Ten rungs to the next floor may be a good rule to start with, but it won’t be a constant. Training on multiple structures in the area we respond to, helps us become more familiar with choosing the correct ladder.

Scenario #4
In this last example, the building has a garden apartment, and in order to make the second floor, our 35′ ladder has to be extended by two rungs, for a total of 19. (See Photo #6.) Using the same ladder to make the third floor on this building, we extended it nine more rungs for a total of 28. As I stated earlier, building construction does vary. When it comes to how many rungs it will take to get to the next floor, 10 rungs is a good rule of thumb, but nothing is cut in stone. (See Photo #7.)

Other Notes
The higher the raise, the more difficult it is to judge when the tips of the fly section have reached their target. At night or through smoke, it will help to have a reference point. If we have an idea of how many rungs we need to raise the ladder, but can’t see the tip of the fly, can we count the clicks of the dogs, as the ladder is extended, and reach the same goal?

Get Out & Train!
In order to become more familiar with our tools, we need to train with them. Taking the ladders off the truck and raising them will help our proficiency in their operation. They’re not made out of glass, so they can take some abuse. If buildings aren’t available to you, hang targets at various locations and heights on your training tower and practice laddering them. Training helps to develop the speed and accuracy that our job demands. We need to know which ladder to throw to a specific window, as well as how many different ladders we can throw to the same window. This is important because it’s part of having a backup plan, so continue to train regularly. Some day it will pay off, especially when we have to rescue one of our own members.