Aerials, Apparatus, Features, Ladder Company

Cantankerous Wisdom: Louisville’s Roof Ladders

By Bill Adams

Occasionally I’ll take a draft of an article to morning coffee for Raisin Squad members to check out. If the geezers understand it, most normal people should too. Their bickering and busting intimate body parts is a small price to pay for their input, experiences, and sometime meaningless comments. My latest crusade about ground ladders is a result of being indoctrinated as a kid observing ladder work in Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts. My volunteer company strived to emulate them. “Throw ground ladders until you run out or you’re told to stop,” was drilled into our heads as “juniors” in the early 1960s. 

One Raisin criticized my commentaries about carrying multiple roof ladders on pumpers and the benefits of 18-foot and 20-foot roof ladders. “That’s dumb. They’re oversized! That’s why there’s extension ladders.” Fire Engineering’s November 2018 cover photo showed a three-alarmer in a large three-story residential in Louisville, Kentucky, with four so-called oversized roof ladders in use. I brought the magazine to morning coffee. Half the crew agreed it was excellent ladder work. Some questioned why roof ladders were used as wall or straight ladders. One grumpy geezer said, “Why don’t they use wood ladders anymore?” He reminded me of my father at 101 saying if the Good Lord wanted aluminum ladders, he would’ve made aluminum trees. We couldn’t figure out the ladders’ lengths. We counted rungs, made estimates and ended up arguing whether the rungs were 12 inches or 14 inches apart. 

I contacted the Louisville Division of Fire about the ladders. They run 19 engines, eight trucks (ladders), three rescues, and some auxiliary pieces. Terence Delaney, assistant chief of operations genially responded, “The ladders you referenced in the cover photo are a combination of 18-foot and 20-foot. We have basically two different ladder complements on our ladder trucks that include straight/roof ladders. A straight-bed truck, quint, or tower has two extension ladders, typically both 35-foot and two 18-foot straight/roof ladders and two 16-foot straight/roof ladders. Some of the newer apparatus have an 18-foot.

“A tractor-drawn aerial has three extension ladders: one 40-foot and two 35-foot, and one 20-foot, two 18-footers, and two 16-foot straight/roof ladders. Some older units also have a 24-foot or 25-foot straight/roof. The Louisville Fire Department has used these ladders for a long time. We do not have an exact date but have photos dating back in the 1950s. The City of Louisville has a large number of older dwellings in close proximity to each other with large porch roofs extending from the front and/or rear of the dwelling. This creates a unique set of challenges, making the use of straight ladders necessary where the use of extension ladders is extremely difficult or in some cases impossible. As with many other older cities, Louisville has many above-ground power lines, making the use of an aerial ladder challenging if not impossible.” The Raisins all agreed with Chief Delaney’s explanation except for the grumpy one who wouldn’t or couldn’t understand what a straight/roof ladder was. His hearing aid battery was probably low. One computer-literate Raisin came in the next morning proudly announcing that Louisville’s Web site said its career fire department has been around since 1858. He added “They must know what they’re talking about.”

Later I spit out a bunch of 18-foot roof ladder statistics. The 18-footers have a 750-pound duty rating just like all other sizes. I quoted data from the Duo-Safety and Alcolite ladder people. A channel rail 18-footer is 18 feet 2½-inches long, 19 inches wide, and weighs 44 pounds. One aluminum truss 18-footer is 18 feet ½-inch long, 19¾ inches wide, and weighs 57 pounds. Another aluminum truss 18-footer is 18 feet 2 inches long, 19 1/16 inches wide, and weighs 60 pounds. There’s also a fiberglass 18-footer with similar dimensions weighing 56 pounds. The geezers weren’t impressed and really didn’t care.

I kept going, saying folding hooks are available on each end of a roof ladder. “Why? Can’t you tell up from down?” I said it makes life easier. “Life’d be easier if you brought in some doughnuts instead of all that fire truck stuff.” I reiterated that ladder manufacturers will make wider custom widths so three roof ladders could nest together without losing space just like they do with extension and roof ladders. “If they designed the rig right in the first place, you wouldn’t have to worry about that.” There’s even folding roof ladders. “Who cares?” 

I thought NFPA facts and figures might impress them, so I accessed NFPA 1931, Standard for Manufacturer’s Design of Ground Ladders. Sentence 4.1.3.6 says rungs can uniformly be between 12 inches and 14 inches apart. When was the last time a fire truck vendor said you had a choice? The appendix says 14-inch spacing facilitates making leg ladder locks wearing bunkers while 12-inch spacing allows more climbing power. I don’t know what climbing power means. NFPA 1931 says the minimum width between beams must be 16 inches, although manufacturers will custom-make wider widths for an up-charge. When laying out ground ladder storage for a new rig, purchasers should investigate specifying ladders to fit a rig rather than spending big bucks to design a rig to fit the ladders. It might be a lot less expensive.

Sentence 4.3.3.2 caught my attention: “The measured length of a roof ladder shall be permitted to be up to 150 mm (6 inches) shorter than the designated length.” Telling the squad that was a mistake. “What the hell does that mean? Why’s that in there? Can’t they just call it what it really is? That’s stupid.” I had to agree, but the stress was too much. I headed home needing an aspirin and a nap. On the way out the door, I yelled, “Remember when climbing to keep your feet in the middle, hands to the side, and arms out straight.” The last thing I heard is “Bring the doughnuts tomorrow—your social security check should have come.”

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.