Cantankerous Wisdom: Rear Access Ladders

Bill Adams' latest cause célèbre is ensuring safe climbing to the tops of pumpers.

By Bill Adams

My latest cause célèbre is ensuring safe climbing to the tops of pumpers to access rear hose beds and any ancillary equipment stored under, in, or above it. Whatever method is used should make firefighters’ lives easy and less prone to injury. That isn’t always the case, especially for vertically challenged or ready-for-retirement crew members. Permanent or flip-down access steps of various sizes are common methods. I don’t particularly care for any that “just meet” regulatory standards and wouldn’t specify them unless there was no other alternative. At FDIC International 2021, many pumpers had permanently attached access ladders at the rear of the apparatus—an excellent idea.

Not New

Most ladder trucks (platforms, aerials, towers, trucks, or whatever you opt to call them) feature access ladders to get to the turntable or platform. Access ladders became a necessity ever since someone decided to put doors, roofs, and enclosed cabs on ladder trucks. Gone are the days of standing on a seat and stepping up to the turntable of a midship mounted aerial.

Mike Ciampo’s article has some excellent photographs of access ladder construction by six aerial ladder manufacturers: E-One, Ferrara, KME, Sutphen, Seagrave, and Spartan. Most are permanent structures built into the apparatus bodywork with flip-down, fold-down, or pull-out-and-drop-down lower step sections. It’s worth looking at them.


It could be my imagination (somewhat fuzzy these days), but it appears access ladders on ladder trucks are more “robust” than those provided on pumpers. On pumpers, they’re also used to carry up or hand down equipment stored topside such as hard suctions mounted on top of exterior side compartments and equipment kept in coffin compartments. They are often used as a “standing area” when reloading hose. This raises several questions. Why the difference in access ladder construction between pumpers and ladders? In trying to find out why, more questions were raised than answered. We old people can get confused very easily. Are ladder company firefighters bigger, heavier, or fluffier than those assigned to engines? Can—or should—access ladders on pumpers be incorporated into the body work? Most pumpers incorporate “swing-out” ladder designs that pull away from the rig at the bottom. Some appear to be last minute “add-ons”—not a criticism, just an observation!

Confusing Standards?

The National Fire Protection Association NFPA 1901 Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus Section 15.7 Stepping, Standing, and Walking Surfaces addresses access ladders. NFPA 1931 Standard for Manufacturer’s Design of Fire Department Ground Ladders is mentioned for comparison purposes only. How come? Because I don’t understand why—or if—there should be differences in steps, standing surfaces, and rungs between ground and access ladders. NFPA 1901 does not say access ladders should have rungs or steps—unless they’re considered one in the same.  Are they?

NFPA 1901 General Definitions 3.3.3 Access Ladders: “One or more rungs (of any shape) for climbing that have a degree of inclination between 60 and 90 degrees.” The degree of inclination is technospeak for the climbing angle. NFPA 1931 sentence 3.3.1 Angle of Inclination: “The angle incorporated between the beams and a level plane.” Duo-Safety’s and Alcolite’s ground ladder catalogs refer to 75.5 degrees as the recommended climbing angle. NFPA 1931 Figure “Ladder Positioning Label” required on all ground ladders has an illustration showing ground ladders should be positioned at “approximately” 75 degrees. Why in one standard does the NFPA say the climbing angle can be 20% less or 20% more than what’s required in another. Does 20% mean the same thing as approximately?

NFPA 1901 Section 15.7 Stepping, Standing, and Walking Surfaces states that after the first step onto a fire truck, the rest of them can’t be more than 18 inches apart. NFPA Standard 1931 sentence says rung placement on ground ladders “shall be” between 12 inches and 14 inches apart. Why does the NFPA say the rung placement for apparatus access ladders can be 50% greater than what is allowable on ground ladders? Are firefighters who climb access ladders required to have longer legs than those that climb ground ladders? You would think the NFPA would at least recommend rung placement on access ladders be similar to that of ground ladders.

Steps or Rungs?

NFPA 1901 sentence states a “step” shall have a minimum stepping area of 35 square inches and be configured so a 5-inch-diameter disk does not overlap any side when placed on the step. NFPA 1931 sentence says ground ladder rungs can’t be less than 1.25 inches in diameter. I can’t find if NFPA 1901 says access ladders should, shall, or can have rungs or steps.  Maybe the NFPA considers them one in the same.

Don’t forget that NFPA 1901’s definition of an access ladder says rungs can be of “any” shape. If it says a “rung can be any shape,” are those rungs required to meet the same depth requirement of  “steps” that a 5-inch disk can not overlap it?

A fictitious access ladder has 18-inch-wide by 3.5-inch-deep flat steps in lieu of rounded rungs—each with 63 square inches of stepping surface. That exceeds by 80% the minimum 35-inch requirement of a folding step. Does it meet NFPA 1901 requirements? Ask your favorite vendor because I don’t have a clue. Get the answer in writing.


Purchasing specifications for pumper access ladders usually mimics a preferred vendor’s verbiage. They can vary from a couple sentences to more than 200 words. If something isn’t in writing, it does not exist. As an example, NFPA 1901 does not specify a minimum inside width for access ladders. If you don’t specify a width, I hope you like what the manufacturer provides! Another consideration is specifying a rear tailboard that is usable and will protect the ladder if the rig “bumps” into something while backing up.

*Rosenbauer – Vice-President Brian Franz, of Sentinel Emergency Solutions, a Missouri-based Rosenbauer dealer provided the following specification: “ACCESS LADDER – EZ CLIMB – RIGHT REAR: There shall be a swing out and down access ladder supplied and installed on the apparatus, for accessing the top of the apparatus. It shall be of an all-aluminum design and shall incorporate treads six (6”) inches deep and no more than eighteen (18”) inches apart. The ground to the first step dimension, on level ground, shall be no more than twenty-four (24”) inches.

“The access ladder shall have integrated hand holds, to aid in the ascent/descent of the ladder. When in the deployed position the ladder shall have an angle of approximately 75 degrees to facilitate ascending and descending the ladder. The ladder shall be retained in the stowed and deployed position by two (2) gas cylinders and shall not require the use of lathes to hold it in position.”

*Pierce – Vice-president John Alfieri of Churchville Fire Equipment, the western and central New York Pierce dealership, said: “Pierce has always custom designed access ladders for its aerial devices. Rear access ladders became popular on pumpers when the PUC Series eliminated the traditional free-standing pump house almost 15 years ago. Pierce will customize a rear access ladder providing it is within the parameters of NFPA 1901.”

He says he encourages prospective purchasers to be specific in detailing access ladder requirements. Criteria such as the actual width of the inside rail-to-rail climbing area; the materials used in the rung and rail construction; and the distance from the ground to the first step should be specified.

He added purchasers should ensure the ladder placement does not interfere with mandated motor vehicle lighting and NFPA 1901 required warning lights. And, the type of warning indicator in the cab should be specified to indicate when the ladder is not in the stowed position when the parking brake is released.

*Ziamatic manufactures access ladders for multiple apparatus manufacturers – Ryan Glover, Marketing Manager for Ziamatic, said: “Outside of making sure we meet NFPA 1901’s standard, each ladder we ship out is custom for a specific apparatus so each is a bit different. The exact spacing is adjusted for overall ladder height and the number of rungs to be included (rungs are always evenly spaced). We also adjust to fit and function around exterior lighting/mounted equipment/other potential obstructions. And then, of course, we want to meet the personal preferences/requests of that department. So there is a lot of room for customization. Width-wise, the rungs are available in 12, 15, and 18 inches.”


The intent here is to highlight considerations when specifying access ladders. Purchasers ought to consider that “safe and easy” climbing may require more than just meeting a minimum standard.

This Rosenbauer’s access ladder on a rear mount pumper enables firefighters to reach the monitor and the hosebed walkway. All photos via author unless otherwise stated.
The access ladder on this Marion pumper has its lowest step close to the ground. The grab handle on the upper left hose bed side sheet and oversized hand holes in the hose bed dividers facilitates access to the step-off area just above the ladder.
This rig’s ladder shows a decent climbing angle. Extra grab handles on the ladder is a good idea – if you spec them. Note the treadplate wraparounds protecting the rear corners of the body.
Ziamatic provided this photo of a KME with a wide access ladder on each side and just below the hose bed.
Another Ziamatic photo showing a Ferrara with a stowed access ladder that terminates just below the hose bed.
This photo provided by Ziamatic shows a deployed access ladder on a Pierce pumper that terminates above the hose bed with its side beams (aka rails) extending over and mounting to the top of the side exterior compartment.
The arrow on this Spartan rig shows one of the many types of “non-skid” materials available on access ladders.
This Sutphen has an access ladder on the left rear and “wider than normal” access steps on the right rear.  Grab handles “should” be provided to meet NFPA’s required three points of contact when climbing.
Another Pierce pumper showing “curved” grab rails extending over the ladder on each side.
The access ladder on this Spencer rig shows another type of non-slip material that can also be used on the ladder’s beams.

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