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Aerial operations: Best practices for top-of-the-ladder-pipe firefighters

Plan ahead and think proactively for safe, effective use of multiple aerial devices


If you have aerial devices in your department, use them! Aerial devices are the most underutilized pieces of equipment in the fire service for many departments.

Photo/Chris DelBello

Not long ago, I wrote an article regarding ladder pipe operations. I stressed that placing a firefighter at the tip to control the stream was necessary for safer and more effective operations.

I would like to now take an opportunity to reiterate that the person in the basket or at the tip of the ladder pipe is the person on the fireground who has the best view of what’s going on beyond the horizon of the eaves of the roof or parapet wall. Nobody standing in Alpha Division or on the turntable should be making tactical decisions without input from those with a bird’s-eye view. After all, one of the most embarrassing (and frustrating) moments on a fireground is when a chief officer tells the aerial operator where to direct the stream despite having no real idea of what’s really going on all around the building.

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If you have aerial devices in your department, use them! Aerial devices are the most underutilized pieces of equipment in the fire service for many departments.

Photos/Chris DelBello

Embarrassing tactics on display

I see it almost every day on the news or social media: aerial devices being used for strictly defensive operations, which is a waste of taxpayer money. Many professionals who train and know better see it as a sign of poor training, bad tactics and a complete lack of understanding of exactly what can be accomplished with aerial devices.
I have no doubt you have seen it, too – an aerial device extended the entire 100 feet into the sky sprinkling water down onto a raging fire. This tactic is not limited to warehouse fires; I have seen it on your typical two-story residential fires as well. It is entirely ineffective.

Then there’s dated “let’s get a single aerial device up in the air and that should be enough” theory, which makes it frustrating when there are several aerials sitting idle because of poor planning. Equally frustrating is when poorly staged engine companies block multiple aerial devices from positioning to the greater advantage of overall fireground control. Unless you only have one aerial device in your entire fleet and no mutual-aid departments with aerials, get your minds out of that dusty old box, and start making room for multiple aerial devices and plans for how to use them most effectively.

Planning for aerial ops

First things first: Plan how you will use your aerial and how you will train your members to use the device most effectively. If you have aerials in your department, a large part of your planning should include training – a lot of training.
Training should focus on building construction, building collapse, fire dynamics, flow paths, placement and operation of the aerial, and limitations of the aerial device. These are key points of understanding for company officers who will find themselves in charge of an aerial device.

Standard operating guidelines or procedures (SOGs/SOPs) should also factor into training. The first page should read: “All incoming engines stage out of the way.” That means they shouldn’t even stage on the same block, with the exception of the attack engine, of course. This will allow for multiple aerial devices to position in the most advantageous location possible, which is in front of the building or close to it.

Think about it: If you have three-, four- or even five-story single-family residential structures in your first-due, do you think a single aerial device is optimal? The answer is no, regardless of how awesome you might think your crew is. One device can be in only one location at a time. So again, let’s plan ahead for multiple aerial devices.

A key point: These aerial devices are not only used for extinguishment purposes. They are used for access, rescue, ventilation and precautionary measures for firefighters operating out of the reach of ground ladders.

Let’s plan to always have someone in the bucket or on the tip of the ladder operating the fire streams from there. I am shocked at how many departments believe it is the turntable operator’s job to control the tower even with members inside the bucket. This is ridiculous.

I am even more disappointed when I see ladder pipes flowing without a firefighter on the tip to control exactly where the stream should go. Free-flowing a ladder pipe is dangerous and inefficient. Most ladder pipes have all the controls for the nozzle, including a shut-off valve, at the tip of the ladder.


Aerial apparatus placement can be tricky at times. Operators should be comfortable in tight spaces. When space and spotting are at a premium, getting tight can make all the difference between getting to your intended target. Narrow residential streets and parked cars can make this even more difficult. Get comfortable spotting close to other apparatus. A foot either direction on the street can make or break your game plan at the end of the aerial device.

Photos/Chris DelBello

Aerial ops on the offensive

We need to be more aggressive!
Let’s get away from the mindset that our aerial devices are strictly for defensive operations. Let’s also work to change our tendency to begin the aerial operation too late in the event to make a difference. Implement aerial operations early!

Let’s also get away from stretching our ladders to their fullest extent, and let’s get to putting some real water on the fire early in the event. We want to punch that fire in the throat, not sprinkle it with hope. We need to bring our devices lower; in many cases, that means we need to bring our devices below the roof line.

We should be using our aerial devices well before fire breaches a hole in the roof’s exterior. Having an understanding of building construction, fireground dynamics and proper ladder placement makes this the obvious strategy. The first construction feature almost every fire department needs to understand is that roofs were designed to shed water. That means flowing a stream onto an intact roof is futile, even if there is a small hole burning through the roof’s exterior.

Instead, attack from below the roofline. Get the aerial in a position to attack void spaces above the ceiling through windows and eaves, through the gable ends or by cutting a hole in the exterior wall to allow access into the cockloft or void spaces above the ceiling. Position the aerial device to make a direct hit on the intended target.

Nozzle selection

Nozzle selection today is entirely a personal preference. There are fog nozzles on the market that flow the same gpm as the smoothbore nozzles or at least the maximum design flow for the particular aerial device.
When choosing a nozzle, consider the goal of minimizing damage when protecting or cooling exposures. I have seen extensive damage result using a smoothbore directed onto an uninvolved exposure for “protective measures” only. Some fog nozzles will give you the maximum designed gpm for your aerial as well as other options.

With a ladder pipe, think about all you need to be able to do with a single nozzle. With a platform, you can have both a smoothbore and a fog if your device fits those specifications.


When using an aerial for attic fires, do not attempt to extinguish from the rooftop. Attack from underneath. Use the penetrating power of the stream to access the attic space and put the water where it needs to be. Also, accessing the gable ends is another safe tactic that gives the aerial device the most range of motion when applying water. A firefighter on the tip can make the gable opening as big as they feel necessary, and they can place the stream exactly where they want it when they want it. Depending on the nozzle type, they can also adjust the pattern when they see that it is necessary. Always put a firefighter on the tip when flowing water. Let them control the flow, stream shape and location of the stream. This is the person with the best vantage point. Note: If your aerial device does not allow for the nozzle to be pointed up, a simple solution is to add a 45-degree elbow to your nozzle package, allowing a wider range of motion.

Photos/Chris DelBello

Speaking of specs

When working with the manufacturer of your future aerial device, there are many things to take into consideration – too many to list here. However, the most critical is the nozzle’s range of motion on your platform and ladder pipe.
The ability to maintain a slim profile near the tip on your ladder pipe or the ability to remove the waterway or any lights altogether could also prove critical in gaining access or performing a rescue. The last fly section of a ladder pipe should have no hard-mounted obstructions that would interfere with gaining access to the roof or window. The only things I want to see when trying to access a window or roof are the handrails and rungs of the ladder. Lights should be capable of folding into the truss framework so they are entirely out of the way. If your ladder placement is not optimal, the additional 6 to 8 inches that lights extend from the tip are only a hindrance to access.

On a tower, insist that your nozzle is designed to flow at 90 degrees when pointed down and as close to 90 degrees as possible when pointed up. Make sure your bucket design and additions do not interfere with the nozzle’s ability to flow where needed.


Aerial devices make for a more stable and versatile working platform than a ground ladder, can be relocated with absolutely no physical effort, and its use yields significant returns with the training opportunity.

Photos/Chris DelBello

Regarding a ladder pipe, spec a nozzle that will allow for something close to a 90-degree upward nozzle angle. This allows the nozzle to be more effective when the ladder itself is positioned at lower angles. It will allow you to penetrate the ceiling into the attic or cockloft space.

And, finally, when speccing your aerial device, do not forget ease of access for removal and storage of the ground ladders. Firefighters find it very annoying when they have to stretch to retrieve a heavier ground ladder. Keeping our ground ladders within easy reach will speed up operations and hopefully prevent back injuries that could be sustained while manipulating a heavier ladder in an awkward position.

Again, the list of specs are hundreds of pages long. These are simply the ones I find most overlooked or underappreciated by committees, or because a true committee doesn’t exist.

Back to basics

We have covered the basics here. For some, this is nothing more than the obvious. However, for most, this is a new mindset. Remember: Better planning and more in-depth training with your aerial device and fireground dynamics will lead to a more successful outcome on the fireground.
Be proactive. Be aggressive. Think outside of that old box that so many seem to have been stuck in for far too long.

Train to stay safe.

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.