By Raul A. Angulo
One of the signs I knew it was time to retire was my inability to confidently balance myself on a pitched roof. As a truck captain, my job was to supervise the rooftop ventilation operation.
I tried to be the first or second firefighter up on the roof with the thermal imaging camera to identify the best place to cut the ventilation hole, then I got out of the way so my crew could make the roof cuts. Nevertheless, I still found myself burying my pickhead ax into the roof decking just so I could have something to hold onto because I didn’t want to fall. On one of my last fires where we ended up on the roof in the middle of the night, not only did I bury my pickhead ax into the roof, but I also used my bailout hook and rope, found another anchor point, and used my rope as a tether so I had a second point of contact to hold onto. I realized after 37 years on the job that I was no longer a Billy goat. When you’re more concerned about falling off the roof than opening it, it’s probably time to get off the truck.
According to Don Abbott’s Project Mayday, the number-one reason firefighters call a Mayday is from falling into a basement. Number two is falling through a roof. Most Maydays occur around the 20-minute mark of the incident. In fact, at the time of this writing in my own department, a Seattle firefighter fell through a roof into the attic space after the vertical ventilation evolution. The engine crew managed to get a hoseline into the burning attic and knocked down the fire just seconds before the firefighter fell through the roof. He was very lucky and fortunately sustained only minor injuries. The incident happened in the first 20 minutes of the house fire.
These statistics have prompted numerous inventors, many of whom are active firefighters, to look for solutions to these problems. Lieutenants Bill McCarthy and Derron Suchodolski are career firefighters with the Saginaw (MI) Fire Department. They invented the Roof Operations Safety (R.O.S.) Platform and formed the company Practical Fire Equipment, LLC.
Toe Boards, Roof Jacks, and Walk Boards
The only people I know who are more comfortable working on roofs than truckies are construction roofers. On high-pitched roofs, roofers often construct a toe board—a long strip of lumber, usually an eight-foot, two- by four-inch board, that is nailed into the decking or into the shingles, creating a narrow footing for the workers on steep roofs. The problem with toe boards is that they create holes in the decking. The workers rarely, if ever, go back and fill the holes, so it’s considered an unprofessional sloppy shortcut within the industry.
Roof jacks are steel “L-type” brackets that hook onto the ridge rafter, or are fastened to the nails of the roof decking or shingles that accommodate a two- by four-inch or two- by six-inch plank, creating a walk board that provides a wider surface for footing and evenly displaces the weight of the workers, making for a safer work environment.
Toe boards and roof jacks have been around for years. It took creative minds like McCarthy’s and Suchodolski’s to transfer this roofer’s trick of the trade to the fire service. When it comes to developing tools to solve the problems firefighters encounter, the best common-sense solutions often come from firefighters themselves!
The R.O.S. Platform
The R.O.S. is a working platform that attaches to any National Fire Protection Association 1931, Standard for Manufacturer’s Design of Fire Department Ground Ladders, aluminum roof ladder. The R.O.S. Platform is made of ¼-inch aluminum diamond plate and measures 48 inches long, 11 inches wide, and five inches thick. It nestles inline inside the roof ladder between the rungs and the beams. The panel notches within the unit hook onto the rungs of the roof ladder. There’s a spring-loaded handle that locks the R.O.S. in place so it can be carried or stowed securely within the roof ladder. Since the edges do not go beyond the beams, the R.O.S. can be stowed in the ladder compartment or on the side ladder bracket of the apparatus, wherever the roof ladder is stowed. The R.O.S. Platform weighs 15 pounds (6.8 kg), so it will add an extra 15 pounds to the weight of the roof ladder when it’s carried or hoisted. The platform is also rated to support 750 pounds (340 kg) of firefighter and equipment.
When the hooks of the ladder are set over the roof ridge beam and the roof ladder is secure, the R.O.S. Platform can be released from the ladder rungs by squeezing the spring-loaded handle and a forceful shove of the palm. The R.O.S. is turned perpendicular to the roof ladder and reattached to the rungs and the beams anywhere along the ladder. The spring-loaded lock will clip it securely into the working position. In addition to the width of the roof ladder, you get an extra 30 inches of working platform. The five-inch edge gives you a much more secure foothold, and you can feel the difference because it reduces the angle and stress placed on your ankles while working on steep-pitched roofs.
The platform provides multiple points of contact for roof operations, and because it is designed to span at least one roof truss, it helps distribute the weight of firefighters and their equipment more equally. The R.O.S. Platform, in essence, gives you more ladder to work from by safely allowing you to extend your reach and footing when making cuts, louvering, or punching ceilings.
When cutting, louvering, or punching ceilings from a roof ladder, you’re typically leaning over to the right or the left with one foot on the roof decking. Your center of gravity is split between the roof and the ladder for balance. You’re often reaching with the chainsaw or the rubbish hook at an awkward angle. With the R.O.S. Platform, that extra reach allows you to shift your center of gravity closer to the vent hole while still maintaining a secure footing with the ladder. This allows you to cut, louver, and punch with more direct force. The sooner you get the job done, the sooner you can get off the roof.
The R.O.S. is not just a step; it’s a working platform that provides a safe and solid place for your foot when you need to leave the safety of the ladder, and its unique design allows for a combination of foothold and kneeling positions, which can give apprehensive crews the confidence they need to perform vertical ventilation and other roof work without the fear of slipping or falling—especially in inclement weather or when the roof is snowy or icy. That’s huge. The universal fit allows the R.O.S. Platform to be attached to either side of the roof ladder, a feature that left-handed firefighters will appreciate.
In the past, and certainly all the times I’ve been on a roof, if we needed secure footing, we either buried the pickhead ax, the spike of the halligan tool, or the spikes of the rubbish hook into the roof decking to create a step for your boot. This is a good technique in a pinch, but it relies on the aim of your partner to bury the tool where you need it, you can’t move your foot once placed, you tie up your tool for a step, and you’re relying on the integrity of the roof decking that is already being attacked by the fire and now by the firefighter making the cuts.
Using the R.O.S. is a much safer evolution because it relies more on the ladder and the platform and less on the roof.
In addition to vertical ventilation evolutions, you can also use the R.O.S. Platform on chimney fires; for dormer window rescues; as a roof-edge marker; and as an equipment shelf for the chainsaws, pike poles, axes, and rubbish hooks. Here’s how it works as a roof marker: Roof ladders come in various lengths; the most common are 12-foot, 16-foot, and 18-foot ladders. Let’s say you have roof operations or you’re training but don’t actually need the R.O.S. Platform to stand on; and let’s say you have more roof ladder than roof. With the longer ladders, you might get two to three rungs that extend beyond the roof at the gutter line. You can place the R.O.S. Platform on the roof ladder just above the gutter line. This serves as a substantial visual and physical warning system for the firefighter to exercise caution because you’re coming to the edge of the roof even though there’s still plenty of ladder.
I wish I would have discovered the R.O.S. Platform before I retired. The Chicago (IL) Fire Department was one of the first major city fire departments to test the R.O.S. Platform on its truck companies. The evaluations were so positive in providing a safer, more efficient way for conducting roof operations that the department decided to outfit every truck in the city with a R.O.S. Platform. For all the different uses and advantages the R.O.S. Platform provides, it does so without the use of any tools. It is a self-contained unit that clips right into the roof ladder.
The R.O.S. Platform sells for $620.00, which includes free shipping; it’s made in the USA. Unfortunately, there is not a model for wooden roof ladders.
RAUL A. ANGULO is a captain (ret.) of Seattle (WA) Fire Department Ladder Co. 6 with more than 37 years of service. He is an international author and instructor and has been teaching at FDIC International since 1996. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.