Ladder safety: Know the equipment and techniques

Understanding the right way to use ladders is key to the safety of truck crews and others fighting the fire

The fire service has a tendency to consider truck work as belonging solely to those members and departments that have aerial devices. The reality, of course, is that truck work belongs to every department.

Truck work is also something we truly need to practice and understand for the safety of those doing the work and the safety of others on the fireground.

There's plenty of good-natured kidding to be found between nozzle jockeys and the shepherds on the roof. Truth be told a strong fire fight requires both activities; a great stop requires outstanding efforts by each. Staffing and training, like much of what we do plays a key role in success.

Over the next several articles we'll scratch the surface of what makes the truck tick and examine its safety ramifications. We'll look at the key operational objectives outlined in the acronym LOVERS-U

  • L-laddering
  • O-overhaul
  • V-ventilation
  • E-entry
  • R-rescue
  • S-salvage
  • U-utility control


Whether or not you have one of those big rigs with a huge ladder on the top, LOVERS-U needs to be a part of your strategic, tactical and task playbook.

Even if you don't have an aerial, your engines likely have a NFPA 1901-compliment of ground ladders. And if your department sends nothing but engines, truck work still has to be done.

Ladder placement
The quickest way to tell if truck work is a part of your training is if ground ladders are thrown at your fireground. Proactive and strategic placement of ladders early on in the event indicates a well-disciplined truck operation.

We know this because ladder placement requires knowing where the fire is, what the engine company is being directed to do, and where the fire is going next. In other words, it requires a big-picture view.

Ladders, both ground and aerial, are a key tool in our arsenal. Building codes mandate exits and their sizes and locations. In multi-story buildings we often need to bring our own entryway to the upper floors. Fire, smoke and the engine company can use up stairwells and entryways fairly quick; laddering the building for access and egress quickly increases safety for interior teams.

When was the last time you took your ground ladders off your rigs? How often do they get removed and inspected, cleaned and prepared for use. Are the halyards in good condition? Do the dogs lock and unlock easily? Just like all other tools, is it ready to be placed into service?

Not sure how to perform some of these checks? Good news, it's the year 2012 and there's an Internet. Better news, your reading this article — you know how to use the Internet.

Unless your building your own ladders, I'd bet that the company that makes your fire service ladder has material online about how to clean and maintain your ground ladders. They also likely have some additional material on using them properly.

Often aerial access is limited and ground ladders are the fastest mode of getting to victims or an appropriate ventilation port.

Ground ladder size up
Practicing safe and efficient ladder deployment from all your rigs is paramount. Standard practice is for the firefighter at the heel/butt to lead the evolution, leading the part that will be on the ground in first for placement.

Practice with ground ladders also helps personnel develop an eye for ground ladder size up. Knowing the effective reach of ladders in your compliment will help you choose the right ladder for ventilation, entry, attack or rescue. Personnel also will get a feel for how much ladder they can handle.

A well-used rule is that the preferred number of personnel to move a ladder is based on the number in the "10 spot" in the length of a ladder. For example the 16-foot straight ladder has a one in the 10 spot, so one person should be able to move the ladder. A 24-foot ladder has a two in the 10 spot, so two people to move the ladder. 

Many fire departments may not have additional staff and need to move ladders with fewer people. This makes size up and ladder selection all the more important.

Clearing obstacles
Overcoming obstacles that you know about is much easier to plan for before you choose your ladder. Minimal staffing makes getting around obstacles (fences, above ground pools, tree limbs and narrow alleys) even more important to practice. 

Of course the biggest obstacle to be aware of is power lines. Remember, electricity can "jump" from the power lines to the ladder your holding in an attempt to reach ground.

The telephone, television and other lines in the air near your ladder may be energized by a fallen power line — so all lines can be dangerous and should be treated as such.

The angle of ground ladders depends on what they are being used for. Again, a good understanding of truck work and purpose will help personnel know how the ladder should be placed.

Will firefighters be standing on the ladder to work with tools? If so, then 75-degree angle is best so the firefighter is well balanced. But if the ladder is there for life safety, then a lower angle will assist in rapid egress from the building or supporting victim removal.

Recognizing the various purposes of ground ladders and the impediments you can and will face, allows your department to develop some realistic training and drills. Make sure your members understand why they are doing what you drill, making them students of the overall game.

Understanding the "why" of our tasks allows us to choose the right tools (ladder) and use it properly (placement, angle) for the task ahead, even at 2 in the morning.


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