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How to keep ground ladders in top shape

Proper care and maintenance also includes how the ladders are stored and used

Since the beginning of organized firefighting ground ladders have been one of our most fundamental and necessary tools on the fire ground. Remember the “truckies” mnemonic LOVERS (Ladders, Overhaul, Ventilation, Entry, Rescue and Salvage)?

There’s a good reason that it starts with ladders: if we can’t reach the victim or the fire, how can we fix the problem? Good laddering practices, however, are not strictly the domain of the truck company in today’s world. Every firefighter should know the why, what, when, and how of ladder practices, especially when it comes to care and maintenance.

A great place to start is with NFPA 1932, Standard on Use, Maintenance, and Service Testing of Fire Department Ground Ladders. The standard provides a good road map for an effective and efficient system for the care and maintenance of your department’s ground ladder inventory.

It’s also a great outline for a best practice in use by many departments: the development of a Ladder Maintenance Manual based upon the requirements of NFPA 1932. Such a resource provides every firefighter — from the newest rookie to the seasoned veteran — with the knowledge and tools to ensure that your ladders are ready, willing, and able to do the job.

Another excellent resource comes from the ladder manufacturers themselves. Major manufacturers, including the Aluminum Ladder Company and the Duo Safety Ladder Corporation, have developed their own manuals for the care, maintenance and testing. Look closely at NFPA 1932 and you’ll see it stated repeatedly, "…in accordance with the ladder manufacturer’s recommendations.”

Cleanliness and use
Ladder care with how we store ladders on our apparatus. Ensure that the storage hardware is appropriate for the ladder and that the mounting hardware is in good repair. One of the primary threats for physical damage to a ladder is that of vibration it’s exposed to riding up and down the road on fire apparatus day in and day out.

Road dirt and grit and chemicals such as those used to deice roadways in winter pose a significant secondary threat. When allowed to remain on ladders for long periods of time, these agents of destruction are working 24/7 to break down the structural integrity of a ladder’s components.

Curiously, we wash our vehicles more frequently during such inclement weather — in the interest of getting such corrosives off the truck before they cause damage — but don’t take exposed ladders off and give them a similar cleaning unless it’s the day of the week designated for cleaning and inspecting ground ladders.

Care for ladders extends to how we remove them from apparatus, use them on the fireground, and return them to their rightful place following use. Ground ladders have gotten significantly larger and heavier in recently years, and fire trucks keep getting taller, thus placing many ground ladders far above the optimal anatomical position for reaching up and bringing down a ladder for all but the tallest firefighters. (I’ve been a “stately” five foot four inches most of my life, and this has been a pet peeve for many years.)

Many departments are now specifying their apparatus with powered ladder racks for lowering and raising ladders from the apparatus, and this is a good thing. For many departments, on the other hand, manual operations are still the order of the day and many are doing it with fewer firefighters.

Combine these factors and you have an increased potential for dropping and damaging the ladder as well as an increased risk of injury to personnel.

Should the ladder’s fly section face into the building or away from the building? Surely, this is one of the more vexing questions in the fire service and the subject of frequent debate among instructors, truckies and hose jockeys alike.

The correct answer in all cases is, of course, "…in accordance with the ladder manufacturer’s recommendations.”

Maintenance tips
Good care for ground ladders during operations and training sessions requires that firefighters always follow proper procedures for raising and lower the ladders. This is where good fire ground supervision comes into play. We can all be guilty of taking shortcuts, particularly when taking up after a long and arduous operation.

General maintenance for all ground ladders includes a thorough washing with soap and water, then drying all components with a cloth, including the insides of the beams. Drying with a cloth, as opposed to air-drying, serves two functions: the ladder gets drier quicker and it requires the firefighter to physically touch the entire ladder.

The former gets the ladder back on the apparatus sooner and the latter enables a tactile inspection, which can reveal minor damage like a splintered rung on a wooden ladder or physical wear on an aluminum ladder. That inspection should include the following for all ladders, regardless of their type or construction:

  • Heat sensor labels present and undamaged
  • Rungs for damage or signs of wear
  • Rungs for tightness
  • Bolts and rivets for tightness
  • Welds for cracks, apparent defects
  • Beams and rungs for any issues

Specific inspection points for extension ladders should include looking for damage or wear and ensuring proper operation of moving parts for the pawl assemblies, halyard, halyard cable, pulleys, ladder guides and staypole toggles.

For roof ladders, be sure that the roof-hook assemblies operate with ease. Also check that the assembly is rust-free, the hooks are not deformed, and the parts are firmly attached.

For those wooden-construction ladders still in service, check for chaffed or scraped finish, and marred, worn, cracked or splintered parts. Also look for dark streaks in the wood or darkened varnish; this can indicate that water has penetrated the varnish and compromised the wood’s integrity. Be sure to look for rounded or smooth shoes and other water damage.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.