Reducing the risk of aerial incidents

Mishaps with aerials may be rare but are often serious; here's how to reduce those risks

As a former hose jockey, I believe that engine companies are the backbone of the fire service, yet I have profound respect and admiration for truckies. And a significant component that differentiates a truckie from a hose jockey is the aerial apparatus.

Many departments operate engines made by different manufacturers. But for the most part, they are all pretty much the same: chassis, pump, hose and equipment. 

Contrast that similarity with the diversity that exists in many departments that operate different types of aerial devices: ladders, telescoping platforms, ladder platforms and articulating platforms, as well as apparatus produced by different manufacturers. This dissimilarity presents a significant learning curve for new operators and a continuing-education challenge for incumbent operators.

Accident risks

Untoward incidents involving aerial apparatus, such as ladder failures or overturned rigs, are fortunately an uncommon occurrence. But such events can have a catastrophic impact on a department's ability to deliver services and on its reputation.

Since departments have fewer aerial devices than engines, the loss of an aerial apparatus represents a significant loss of a valuable resource. At the same time, the collapse of a ladder or overturning of a piece of aerial apparatus is very newsworthy, news that doesn't necessarily cast the department and its personnel in the most positive light.

The most common unintended consequences in the operation of aerial apparatus are:

  • Personnel falling from the ladder or platform.
  • Mechanical failure of the ladder or platform.
  • Aerial apparatus overturning during operations.
  • Ladder or platform striking a structure during operations.

Understanding fault

Edward Deming is considered by many to be the father of the Total Quality Management movement, first in Japan and later in the United States. Deming maintained that when a quality issue was identified, in about only 15 percent of the cases were an employee's actions entirely to blame. 

Instead, he said that roughly 85 percent of the time the real issues fell under five causes: selecting the right people for the job; selecting the right equipment for the job; providing the proper policies and procedures to do the job; properly training people to do the job; and providing the proper supervision to the people doing the job.

Deming referred to this as his 85/15 Rule.

Five fixes

Look back at the four bulleted items for the most common unintended consequences in the operation of aerial apparatus. Here's how some of those unintended consequences might be eliminated through application of Deming's 85/15 Rule. 

1. Select the right people for the job. Choose firefighters who have demonstrated a capability to learn, and who actively pursue additional knowledge, skills and abilities for assignment to a ladder or truck company.

Mastering the body of knowledge needed to be a good aerial apparatus operator is a significant challenge for the newbie, and maintaining that mastery is equally challenging to the grizzled veteran. Look for those life-long learners.

2. Select the right equipment for the job. The aerial apparatus that a department selects should match the community and the service expectations of the department. 

Consider factors such as the streets and roads it must travel and areas where it will be expected to operate, such as office parks and apartment complexes. Proper vehicle and outrigger placement are critical for safe aerial apparatus operations, so begin with the end in mind when selecting the right apparatus.

3. Create good policies and standard operating guidelines. Don't forget the owner's manual that was provided by the manufacturer.

That document should be the primary reference source when creating policy and SOGs and a copy should be readily available to every operator at their duty station. Ensure that those governing documents are street tested so that firefighters and officers have confidence in doing things by the book.

Many larger departments, including the San Francisco Fire Department, have created Aerial Apparatus Operator Manuals (The Truckies' Bible), which brings policy, procedure and training together in one place for every member. Those SOGs should include, but are not limited to:

  • Stabilizer set up procedures
  • Turntable procedures
  • Basket and aerial operation procedures
  • Load limits
  • Training requirements
  • Unit staffing
  • Raising and stowing the aerial ladder
  • Aerial master stream operations
  • Aerial rescue operations

4. Properly train personnel to become and stay proficient in operating the aerial apparatus to which they are assigned. Proper training should always include demonstrated mastery of a skill or operation, not just for the operator, but for the entire crew. 

In the words of noted risk-reduction expert, Gordon Graham, putting an aerial device into the air, especially under emergency conditions, is a high-risk, low-frequency event.

Continual drilling — hands-on practical application of previously learned skills — is fundamental for any aerial apparatus operator and their crew if they are to be safe, effective and efficient in their operations.

5. Provide good supervision. Every company officer is a de facto safety officer during their tour of duty.

It is incumbent that they are knowledgeable and skilled in the operations that their personnel are responsible for conducting; keeping an eye on the big picture from the time the device is placed in service until it has been lowered and secured; and unyielding in their enforcement of aerial operations SOGs and general safety practices.

Whether a truckie or a hose jockey, when there's a problem with an aerial unit, everyone's job — and possibly life — changes. Planning, training and execution will keep everyone on the fireground doing what they are supposed to do.

This article, which originally published on September 6, 2012, has been updated.

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