Choosing the Right Ground Ladder

Issue 10 and Volume 13.

The fire in this building required most of the ground ladders available. Windows and lower roofs were laddered from the ground, and upper windows were laddered from lower roofs. Aerials were used to ladder upper floors and the roof. (author photo)

One of the most challenging situations that any fire company can face is arriving on the scene of a working fire and finding one or more victims trapped in imminent peril. It doesn’t happen often; for many firefighters, it may only happen once in a career—or perhaps never. Emotions will be over the top, and there may be a lot of yelling and screaming going on. When a victim is hanging out of a window or, perhaps worse, was hanging out of the window but has fallen back into the fire room, it becomes very personal. That victim is alive and needs you to perform at your absolute best to be able to save his life. Going to a few dozen fire alarms will not prepare you to be ready when all hell breaks loose.          

The working fire is in an apartment building with fire showing at numerous windows on the first floor and heavy smoke showing at several windows on the second floor. The fire is spreading fast, and you are faced with several victims hanging out of windows on the second and third floors. They are all desperate to be rescued, and you have arrived with a total crew of four firefighters, including you. This is your turn to shine, hopefully.          

So, who do you rescue first, and which ladder should you use? Fire is impinging on the second-floor balconies with just smoke showing at the eaves and one or two third-floor windows. There is a full complement of ladders on your engine or ladder company, but there are only four of you. Your actions immediately on arrival can mean the difference between life and death for a number of the residents you are responsible for protecting. How will you decide which ladders to take so you can quickly and effectively make the rescues? Do you even remember what size ground ladders you carry? How quickly can you access the ground ladder, move it into position, and set it for the rescue?

Take a Simple Approach

As you try to absorb all of this, something flashes through your mind about a2 + b2 = c2 to calculate the size of the ladder needed. Ugh, math with letters, how fast can you do that calculation? At the same time, you remember something about 1/4 (or was it 1/3?) related to how far to place a ground ladder from the building. At this point, every second counts, and you have little time to dwell on these thoughts. You know the 35-foot extension ladder (if you carry one on your apparatus) will likely reach all the trapped occupants, but it may take three of your four firefighters to properly raise it under these conditions and move it from window to window, balcony to balcony, while people are trying to jump onto it. This leaves one of your crew to either throw a short ladder or try to keep the panicked people calm with fire and smoke licking at their backs while the three of you wrestle the big ladder into place. All the while, the victims and bystanders are screaming at the top of their lungs at you to help.          

If you are throwing ground ladders regularly, whether in training or at incidents, the ladder selection could come instinctively. However, if you are not doing this so regularly, perhaps a simpler approach could help. Instead of trying to figure out complicated formulas, think about this now, before the incident happens. Fire department ladders commonly carried on apparatus can be 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, and 35 feet. When faced with having to select the right ladder, a basic rule of thumb that can help is to choose a ladder with the first number of the length that corresponds to the floor you need to reach or the roof immediately above that floor. For example, choose a 14-foot ladder to reach the first floor (or the roof of a single-story building), a 24-foot ladder to reach the second floor (or the roof of a two-story building), and a 35-foot ladder to reach the third floor (or the roof of a three-story building). Remember that to rescue a victim out of a window or over a balcony railing, the ladder only needs to reach the sill of the window or railing of the balcony.       


To reach the second floor or roof on this house, a much different ladder length will be needed on side A vs. side B. (author photo)


For other tasks, such as operating a hoseline into a window, place the ladder tip over the top of the window. To forcibly ventilate the window, raise a ladder to the side (preferably the upwind side) and slightly higher than the window you need to work on. To accomplish these tasks, the ladder size may need to be slightly longer than one chosen for a rescue operation.

Careful Considerations

In many cases, homes or apartment buildings may be built on slopes, with the second floor on side A becoming the third floor on side C. You may think the 24-foot ladder will reach the top floor when looking at the front of the building, but it won’t reach when you place it in the rear of the building. In some locales, what looks like one floor on side A is up three floors on side C. You must know your district to be best prepared for what you might face when you are in the rescue situation.            

Another consideration involves the length of extension ladders when bedded. Engine companies with shorter wheelbases provide many advantages to operation, including maneuverability in tight places and narrow city streets. However, they will also be limited in the length of ladders they carry, unless they purchase three-section ladders (24- and 28-foot ladders are available with three flies as well as ladders even shorter). Quint apparatus typically have limited space for carrying ground ladders compared to standard ladder companies and often carry a single 35-foot ladder with the remaining complement being 28 feet or shorter. Apparatus with longer wheelbases may carry extension ladders (and roof ladders) of longer lengths, but if only longer ladders are available; they may not easily access lower floor windows or balconies.   


Even on the same side of a building, you may need different size ladders to reach an upper floor because of slope, walls,
and balcony railings. (author photo)

The 28-foot extension ladder is an excellent choice for a first-out ladder if your area does not have many three- to four-story buildings and you have limited staffing. If your apparatus can carry a two-section 28-foot ladder, it can be as much as 40 pounds lighter than a three-section 35-foot ladder, making it much easier to handle with two firefighters. The 28-foot ladder will usually reach second-floor windows and the roofs of most two-story buildings, and it can be used for rescue purposes from third-floor windows of buildings that don’t have unusual floor heights.        

There are many four-story hotel, condo, and apartment buildings being constructed across North America and elsewhere. Do you carry the right ground ladders to reach the fourth-floor windows or roofs of these buildings? If you do, when was the last time your firefighters took the ladder off the apparatus and practiced with it? Do you have the staffing to raise this ladder at fires? Longer ladders can come in quite handy in the courtyards of apartment buildings inaccessible to aerials; they may be your only hope of performing a successful rescue. Make sure that you are ready to do it.            

The only way you’ll know for sure which ladders will work at which buildings in your district is by spending some time preplanning your area and determining heights of various windows and roofs. Take the time to compare what you find with what you are carrying, and remember that roofs with long dimensions from peak to eaves will require roof ladders longer than the standard 12- to 14-foot-long ladders.



It is best to study buildings prior to responding to them to understand the challenges they can present for laddering them. (author photo)


Where to Store Ladders

Not only do you need to know which ladder is the right one, but you must also consider how to store the ground ladders on your apparatus so that you can quickly deploy them when needed. When you need to perform second- or third-floor rescues, your crew must be able to get the extension ladder off the truck quickly. Most standard pumper specifications store the roof ladder on the outboard side and the extension ladder on the inboard side, which will delay you when you need to make multiple balcony rescues. How often do you see a roof ladder lying against the tire of the engine where the crew left it after they removed it to get the extension ladder off the apparatus? It may even be suffering heat exposure if you have a low-level horizontal exhaust pipe. Solution: Arrange the ladders on your apparatus so the extension ladder comes off first unless your company prefers the roof ladder on the outside to quickly throw to a one-story porch roof or use to quickly break out a second-floor window.     

Also consider your district layout, your alarm assignments, and fireground apparatus positioning when determining where to place ladders on your apparatus. The two primary mounting locations for ground ladders are on the side of the vehicle (removal from the side) or in the rear (removal by sliding the ladders out of the back of the truck). Many are now on an overhead rack that you need to manually or electrically/mechanically drop to a level where firefighters can remove the ladders for use. Remember: If you have several narrow streets with apparatus stacking up closely on the fireground, you may not be able to access your ladders if they’re stowed in the rear. Positioning the apparatus on a slight angle on the fireground may or may not make it a bit easier to remove these ladders, but practice this during training exercises.

Ground Ladder Specs

Many departments go by basic National Fire Protection Association or Insurance Services Office requirements when specifying ground ladders for new apparatus and may not think much about ground ladder selection. As with any major purchase, take some time to think about your district and the use of ground ladders in various situations. Look at the ladders you carry now and what you have readily available from mutual-aid companies. Then study which sizes of ladders are available from various manufacturers. Determine their weight and their length when stowed and when in use, and be sure your firefighters will be able to quickly deploy them to the buildings in your coverage area. Think about why you’re putting these ladders on the apparatus. Figure out which ones you’d likely use first or most often, and make sure they are the ladders your firefighters can remove first from the apparatus.

Primary Tool

In many places, departments are relying more and more on aerial apparatus to access upper floors or roofs of buildings. Quints have become more popular but, because of building and property layouts, aerials will not access many buildings; good ground ladder operations are a must. Ground ladders are one of the primary tools of firefighting, and firefighters must be very proficient in their operation. When you need them, you need them fast. Firefighters must be able to quickly select the right ladder for the job and deploy that ladder quickly from the apparatus. They must be intimately familiar with what size/type ladders are where on the apparatus and be able to rapidly place and raise each ladder for maximum effectiveness. Simple rules of thumb can help, but repetitive practice and preplanning will make the operation run as smoothly as possible. Decisions must be made quickly. The lives of the citizens in your district may depend on it tonight. Will you be ready?


 Greg Jakubowski, a fire protection engineer and certified safety professional, started his fire service career in 1978. He is a Pennsylvania state fire instructor and a former chief of the Lingohocken (PA) Fire Company. Jakubowski is also a member of the IAFC and a principal in Fire Planning Associates, a company dedicated to helping fire departments, municipalities, and businesses with preemergency planning.