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Hey, engine company, don’t forget the ladders

Engine crews must be prepared to deploy ground ladders correctly, timely and aggressively for rescue


While the engine company’s primary function is fire attack, the crew must be prepared to deploy ground ladders correctly, timely and aggressively for rescue.

Photo/Trevor Frodge

As an engine officer, my responsibility is to ensure that my company is competent in all facets of engine company operations. The engine company is the backbone of the fire service and, as such, must be versatile and adept at stretching and operating hoselines for fire control. Whether that be preconnected handlines, dead-loads, bundle packs, extended stretches or master stream operations, all of us must be experts at getting water to the seat of the fire in order to preserve life and property.

There are multiple excellent courses being taught across the country on hose movement and flowing, and the resurgence of engine company education has been a much-needed refresher for the fire service. However, we must be cautious not to overlook that other really big important tool on the fire engine – the ground ladders.

Every fire engine, per NFPA, must carry a minimum complement of ground ladders – a 24-foot extension ladder, a 14-foot straight ladder and often a 10-foot folding ladder. The purpose of ground ladders is obvious; they allow us to access elevated spaces for rescue or for fire control. The ladders are there, but when was the last time you deployed a ground ladder while maneuvering hoselines and stretching on buildings?

Some questions to consider when planning ladder training on the engine:

  • How are the ladders on the engine stored?
  • What ladders do I use on a typical residential house fire to reach a window?
  • How fast can I deploy my complement of ground ladders and place them into service?

Ladder storage

Knowing how your ladders are stored is a critical, albeit common sense, piece of knowledge for your engine company. Because each community will specify their apparatus for their community hazards, ladder locations can vary from apparatus to apparatus. Are your ladders stored low and on the side with manual release handles? Are your ladders stored in a chute that runs through the apparatus body? Are your ladders found on electronic ladder rack that must swing down from the top of the apparatus to the side?

Also important is knowing if the ladder is stored on its bed or on its beam. On my apparatus, the ladders are stored on their bed in a chute that runs through the center of the body. That is definitely not an ideal setup, but it was a necessary tradeoff in order to have full-depth compartments on both sides of our apparatus to house our rescue equipment. If you have less-than-ideal storage, it is vital to train on how to quickly deploy ladders.

Ladders stored on their beam are much faster to deploy. A firefighter can simply remove the ladder from the side of the apparatus, and they are already in a position to carry the ladder. If the ladder is stored in a chute on its beam, the process is similar. The ladder must slide out of the chute for the firefighter to grab and carry to the scene.

Ladder carries also matter here. Depending on how high on the apparatus the ladder is stored, plus the height of the firefighter, you may want to train on high shoulder carries and throws. This approach makes sense when the ladder is already at shoulder height; it’s easier to manage via shoulder carry than removing the ladder to the ground, then picking it back up. If a firefighter cannot perform a high shoulder throw for some reason, then a low carry could be better for them. In any case, every firefighter must know how they will carry ladders, as well as the preferred approach as a crew. This will help minimize confusion and ultimately save time on the fireground.

Which ladder to pull

Firefighters on the engine are often great at estimating the amount of hose needed to make the fire room, or how much hose is necessary on a commercial building. But how good are they at knowing the height of an extension ladder to a window for rescue?

Recently my department did some live-burn training that involved placing a ladder for vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS). Crew performances were varied: Some excelled, and some did not perform as well – typical for any fire department. After the training, we discussed how high a ladder must extend, and many of our newer firefighters simply did not know.

One way to find out is to use some simple math. Most windows are about 3 feet off of the ground, and most residential homes have 8-9-foot ceilings. Knowing this, we know that a window on the second floor sits 3 feet above the floor, so 9+3 = 12 feet. The bedded length of a 24-foot ladder is 14 feet. Once we account for the ladder angle and placement, we know that if we extend up 2-3 “clicks” of the ladder, we will be at the correct positioning. This only works if the house is on grade and there are no terrain issues, like hills or ditches. If you are fortunate enough to have one, a 16-foot straight ladder will hit most second-floor windows at the proper angle with no issue.

Ladder positioning also matters. The tips of the ladder must sit below the windowsill for rescue. As engine firefighters, we are probably deploying this ladder for a VEIS opportunity to make a rescue, so that is how we should place our ladder. If the ladder tips are even an inch inside the window space, it will narrow the profile for firefighters, given our body composition with turnout gear and SCBA, to enter that room to search. Furthermore, if we find a victim and go to remove them via ground ladder, they will absolutely get caught on those tips in the window. This will require a greater lift and force in order to maneuver a victim above and over the ladder tips and onto the ladder for rescue. So, make it a habit to place the ladder tips below the windowsill so the victim will transition smoothly from the window to the ladder and down for EMS care.

Ladder deployment speed

How fast you can deploy ladders is the key metric when lives are at stake. As we know staffing varies on engine companies around the country, a great drill that works for any department is the single person ladder throw. Wearing full PPE, deploy the 24-foot extension ladder to a window for rescue for time. After that, mask up for time. You can run that drill for each of your members. The great thing about this drill: It can constantly be improved upon.

A short YouTube search of firefighter ladder fails will invariably reveal ground ladder mishaps, miscues or just downright ineptitude on firefighters. No firefighter wants to be caught by the social media world of judgment. The easiest way to avoid mistakes is simply to train. When lives are on the line and people are trapped, we fall back on the excuse that ground ladders are a solely a ladder company function. Every engine company at some point will be first due to a fire, and they must prepare to go for rescue on arrival if conditions warrant those tactics. So throw ladders, know how long it takes to deploy, and how fast you can mask up. A good benchmark in my organization is 90 seconds from rig to on air. That includes removing the ladders, carrying them approximately 50 feet, placing the ladder and then masking up.

Ladders: No longer forgotten

Ground ladders can sometimes be a forgotten tool on the engine company, especially if you run with dedicated truck companies to place ladders. While the engine company’s primary function is fire attack, the crew must be prepared to deploy ground ladders correctly, timely and aggressively for rescue. With limited staffing, the company must also consider that it may be a single firefighter having to perform those tasks, especially if the officer is completing a 360, stretching a line or performing other fireground factors. As such, knowing there’s a chance that the engine will need to perform a VEIS, we must train to get it right every time. Time your people, train hard, and watch your firefighters flourish. It’s what the public deserves.

Trevor Frodge is the bureau chief of training for the West Chester Fire Department in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. He is a nationally registered paramedic, fire and EMS instructor, and fire inspector. Frodge is a member of the Butler County Technical Rescue Team, as well as a Hazardous Materials Specialist for Ohio Task Force 1.