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Roof ladders: Use and care

As with any fireground tool, knowing how to use and care for roof ladders is key to safe and effective operations


Should firefighters have a roof ladder any time they are working on a roof? I learned a long time ago there is no "always" when it comes to tactics.

Another thing that I've learned is that when an officer and her firefighters are skilled and practiced in any tactical function, such as ladder work, their default mode is usually "do it" versus "not do it." This fits nicely with my notion that lazy firefighters tend to be unsafe firefighters. Avoid those firefighters, as they will get you hurt.

Always base execution of any tactical function on the following:

  • What are the conditions in the work area and potential hazards?
  • How does the required skill, conditions and level of complexity of the task compare to the crew's knowledge, skills and experience?
  • What are the egress options if conditions change or our efforts are not successful?

When used properly, roof ladders are a key safety tool for any roof operation. The ladder serves to disperse a firefighter's weight load over more square footage of the roof's surface. All roofs are not built the same and some are in poor condition well before the fire.

They provide a stable platform from which to work on steep, slippery or weak roofs. Keep in mind that pitched/sloped roofs are always steeper than they look from the ground.

They also provide an area of refuge when conditions change. It is not if the conditions change, but when. Remember opening the roof will draw the smoke, heat, fire out of the hole creating a changed condition to the work area.

No guarantee
A roof ladder provides no guarantee, however, that we will not slip, trip or fall through the roof. We still must pay attention to the fire conditions, construction features, and overall integrity of the roof.

Borrowing a page from our wildland firefighting brothers and sisters, any roof operation should have a lookout who's sole function is to monitor the fire conditions in the work area, the affects of the added weight — firefighters and equipment — to the roof, and sound the alarm when the unexpected happens.

Finally, do we need two ladders to the roof? I think having two ladders on the roof should be a standard practice because it provides you with a secondary means of egress.

Roof ladder construction
Ladder manufacturers produce roof ladders using three different materials: aluminum, fiberglass and wood  — yes, wooden ladders are still being manufactured.

Roof ladders are available in lengths ranging from 10 to 30 feet and are produced in both solid-beam and truss-beam construction. The typical roof ladder comes equipped with ¾-inch hooks standard, or heavy-duty 7/8-inch hooks can be specified, usually for an additional fee.

The typical roof ladder is the single-end (hooks on one end) model that is familiar to most firefighters. Double-end (hooks on both ends) roof ladders are now available and are designed for firefighters so that no matter which end of the ladder is on top, there are hooks available.

Ladder maintenance
Ladder maintenance can be separated into two procedures. The first, repair maintenance, should be performed any time the visual inspection discloses any defect. Repair maintenance procedure must be performed prior to using the ladder.

Second, the preventive maintenance procedure reduces the likelihood of ladder damage and injuries. All ladders, regardless of the manufacturer or material of construction, require both procedures to ensure a safe ladder.

Anytime a problem is seen, remove the ladder from service until such repairs can be completed. The manufacturer can supply the necessary parts. Should you have any questions concerning the condition of a ladder, please contact the manufacturer immediately for guidance.

General maintenance should begin by cleaning the ladder with soap and water, taking care to flush the inside of the rungs to remove debris, road salt, etc. Aluminum ladders can be cleaned with a fine steel wool pad; fiberglass and wood ladders can be cleaned with a rag or sponge. Use caution near the labels so as not to remove the outer label coating.

Once the ladder is clean, perform a visual inspection to log any possible defects. After the defects are repaired, you can protect the ladder by applying a mild liquid car wax to the side rails. On extension ladders, apply paraffin wax or candle wax to the friction (slide) areas to lubricate the contact areas. Additionally, apply the wax to accessible lock parts.

Test time
Under normal conditions, the inspection, washing, and waxing should be done twice a year. In a hostile environment, complete these steps more frequently as required.

Testing is the word that everyone loves to hate. You have a plan in force to test your personal protection gear and test your unit's brakes, right? Your life depends upon these items working properly when the need is greatest. Are ladders any different?

No, ladders are not different. That's why the National Fire Protection Association requires that ground ladders be tested annually. NFPA also requires that you test ladders any time the ladders are damaged or exposed to high temperatures. 

Become familiar with the current testing requirements and complete the tests. Periodic testing of your ladders may save a life — perhaps your own.

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