Head-First Ladder Bailouts

In researching head-first ladder bailouts, I found some controversy in the discussion about the dangers of training the procedures. The more videos I uncover in the fire industry, the more head-first ladder bailouts I discover.

In the past five years, we've averaged 112 firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Out of these, about 25 percent were attributed to being trapped or caught in some fashion on the fireground. It should be critical to us as firefighters, officers and instructors to spend some time familiarizing ourselves with escape procedures.

In a previous article, I outlined how the PPE of today allows us to go deeper into buildings for longer periods of times, exposing us more frequently to the most extreme of conditions. It stands to reason that we must therefore find more rapid alternatives for escape. The old follow-the–line-out is great, but if you study specific cases such as the FDNY Black Sunday fire, you will find rapid exit is the only option in most cases to spare your life.

The following videos show real life situations where firefighters were trapped by rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Footage from a firefighter window bailout in Baltimore:


Footage of fire from the Moyers Corners Fire Department located in Clay, New York, and a firefighter bailout: 


Firefighter escapes a burning building through a third-story window at a Peabody apartment, climbing head-first down a ladder: 


Fire scene and subsequent window bailout by firefighter:

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As seen in these videos, we may be placed in situations where a head-first exit onto a ladder is the only option. Smaller windows, higher sills and personal equipment all are contributing factors to complicated exits from windows. The head-first exit gives us the smallest profile on exit, but note: I am taking this approach with the assumption that the majority of departments are not equipped with personal escape systems.

Past training-related issues have put a dark cloud over head-first exit techniques. Firefighters have been injured in training, and in one case the result was fatal. As a consequence, many officers are now not willing to take the risk. All the reasons for the particular injuries are not well published, but I can guarantee if the proper safety ropes and guides are used during the training bailouts you can make your chance for injury extremely low.

Make sure you use rated safety line and a rated safety harness assembly on the firefighter. The rated safety rope should be belayed in order to prevent accidental slips and loss of grips. Inspect all ropes and harnesses in use prior to training, and ensure the ladder is in a fixed stable position at all times during operations.

Things to consider during fireground operations include:
• Be proactive
• Communicate and listen; know where crews are operating and adjust accordingly
• Exterior teams should position ladders on upper floor windows to provide alternate exit for interior companies in the event of an emergency
• Have a crew or member available to heel ladders or reposition ladders in the event the firefighter is in a window over from the ladder.

Ladder placement basics:
• Place ladder at an angle less then 75 degrees. This prevents sliding too quick, or missing the ladder completely, and allows more control
• Place the tip just below window sill. If rails are above the sill, it forces the firefighter inside to rise further into dangerous heat levels, and reduces the overall exit area.

I also recommend reading the article, 'Emergency Egress on the Fireground: The Emergency Bail,' on the actual technique of the "Hook and Go," and the "Extended Reach," by Jeffrey Pindelski.

For me, the proof is in the videos. Without training in head-first ladder bailouts, the firefighters you've seen in these clips may not have been with us today. So train, and train with pre-inspected rated safety ropes and harnesses.

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