Aerial Firefighter Safety: Ladders versus Platforms

When it comes to discussing the benefits of straight ladders versus platforms, the conversation can sometimes resemble a discussion on smooth bores versus fog nozzles. Diehards get entrenched in one camp and remain there until they die.

As in most emotional discussions, there are valid and invalid points on both sides. Neither side is inclined to acknowledge the other’s valid positions. Sounds like politics, doesn’t it?

Aerial fire apparatus suffer from a lack of true identity. Numerous terms are used to describe them, including stick, bucket, tower ladder, ladder tower, water tower, aerial ladder, platform truck, basket truck and the associated brand names.

NFPA 1901 defines aerial fire apparatus as, “A vehicle equipped with an aerial ladder, elevating platform, or water tower that is designed and equipped to support fire fighting and rescue operations by positioning personnel, handling materials, providing continuous egress, or discharging water at positions elevated from the ground.”

For the purposes of this column, we will refer to two types of aerial devices – straight ladders (no platform) and aerial platform ladders, i.e. a “stairway” from the turntable to the platform.

The premise of this column is that the platform aerials are safer for firefighters. Other issues aside, there appears to be consensus that this is true. This is a belief I carried throughout my career, and it was confirmed in a very compelling way in 1998 at an NFPA Technical Committee Meeting on personal protective equipment (PPE).

Cliff Jones, chief of the Tempe (Ariz.) Fire Department, came before the committee to thank the members for their work on producing a strong standard on structural firefighting equipment. His department had recently responded to a huge arson fire in a condo project under construction that resulted in an $11 million loss.

Several buildings were involved upon arrival of the first units. The heat was so intense that smoke was emitting from the sides of buildings across the street. Immediately, a straight ladder was set up to combat the inferno. A firefighter was on the tip with water flowing. Suddenly, one of the buildings collapsed, sending a huge fireball up through the ladder as the firefighter was descending.

The firefighter, thankfully wearing full PPE, including SCBA, was able to get back down the ladder with only minor burns. Chief Jones credited the firefighter’s survival to the PPE, his training and self-discipline. To illustrate the heated environment, the ladder suffered $250,000 damage in 1998 dollars.

Perhaps more important was the apparatus outcome from this significant “close call” event. Following that fire, the Tempe Fire Department and all the other fire departments in the “Valley of the Sun” (the greater Phoenix metro area), started purchasing aerial platforms exclusively. The close call was impetus for them to make a change for an added margin of safety. Since then, aerials purchased throughout the area have been predominantly platform ladders.

The above scenario can generate an interesting discussion. There are departments that absolutely prohibit a firefighter from being on the tip of a straight ladder unless the ladder tip is resting on or against a building. This may stem from the pre-1991 manufactured aerials that did not require the minimum 250-pound tip load. Yet 19 years later, most of these departments still consider this an unsafe position for a firefighter.

On the other hand, there are an infinite number of photos in periodicals and on the Web that that show firefighters operating on the tip of a straight ladder with the ladder in midair.

Straight Ladders

Straight ladders do have advantages. They can be placed in tighter situations because of the narrower width. They typically weigh less and cost less. (If you put down a million bucks for a well-designed/equipped aerial platform ladder, you might as well tell the dealer to “keep the change.”) The footprint of the jacking system is typically smaller on a straight ladder, and a straight ladder is easier to operate and less costly to operate and maintain.

Driving aerial platform ladders can be problematic. Without getting into the pros and cons of rear-mounted aerials versus mid-mounted aerials, it should be noted that rear-mounted straight ladders do not have a platform overhanging the front of the cab. This configuration provides a hindrance to the field of vision for the driver to see overhead traffic signals, signage and other obstacles.

Mid-mounted straight ladders typically do not have as much truck behind the rear axle as a platform does. This has presented problems with rear swing-out when turning, as well as angle of departure issues. Rear swing-out causes the end of the apparatus to swing into the adjoining lane of traffic with occasional bad results for both the apparatus and the other vehicles.

A disclaimer: The E-ONE Bronto and the Rosenbauer T-Rex have rear-mounted articulating platforms that do not have either the front or rear issues of typical aerials. Also, Rosenbauer’s Raptor series features a platform that “tilts” back 90 degrees. When in the stowed position, the platform is directly above (not in front of) the cab and at a height no more than the aerial ladder base and fly sections.

Advocates of straight ladders also maintain that egress for victims is much faster. This is based on two assumptions:

  • There are no firefighters on the ladder blocking egress.
  • The victims are physically able to descend the ladder.

Platform Work Area

Advocates of platforms maintain that the platform provides a work area for the firefighters to assist victims, as they need a second to orient themselves after coming out of a structure before descending down the ladder. We need to keep in mind that we are an increasingly aging society.

From a purely firefighter safety perspective, the benefits of a platform are fairly compelling. It provides a stable work area for above-ground operations, whether they are fireground or non-fireground rescue operations. This is particularly important for long-duration operations.

The platform provides a transport and storage area for tools needed to perform above-ground operations. More tools can be readily accessible and firefighters do not get fatigued by carrying tools up and down the ladder. Repositioning the aerial device with firefighters in a platform is far safer. (Repositioning a straight ladder with a firefighter on the tip is strictly forbidden in some departments.)

Misting Systems

Another consideration is that platforms require a misting system beneath the platform that can be used to protect firefighters from the products of combustion. Breathing air systems and breathing air connections are more “friendly” for platform ladders than straight ladders. From an operational point, the platform is a better device for removal of disabled and unconscious victims. Remember, the victim could be a firefighter.

The 2009 revision of NFPA 1901 allows for the use of European-style ladders in the U.S. This should open the door for designs that offer opportunities never available before. Almost all European aerials have platforms and some offer removable platforms. Is this the best of both worlds?

European aerial designs seem to be more targeted for dense congested urban areas with narrow streets than current U.S. designs. (Don’t look now, but cities are looking for ways to increase the tax base without expanding their boundaries.)

Remember Life Safety Initiative 16 from the Everyone Goes Home program of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation: “Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.”

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a former member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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