Aerial Ladder vs. the Tower


This topic is a storied battle regarding which type of aerial device to purchase. With many battles in the fire service, this one sparks some emotion and bravado as truck company purists usually feel very strongly about the type of rig they ride. The ladder group and the tower group always have their arguments for which one is the best and how they will always outperform the other. So, let’s take a look at this topic concerning which rig is better for your department—even though I am quite sure this article will not settle the debate.

I have been very fortunate in my career to work on both an aerial ladder and a tower ladder. It was always very hard to pick which one was the best one or which one I favored the most because, depending on the call type and the fire type, I would always be thinking, “If I just had the tower here,” or, “Man, I wish we were on the ladder truck.” Let’s look at some thoughts about and advantages of the tower first.

The Tower

The tower is a very interesting piece of apparatus. It has many abilities on the fireground, especially when it comes to actually putting fire out and having a safe secure platform when tasked with making victim rescues. The rig itself usually is very expensive, mainly because of the mass of the aerial device and the support system it takes to safely elevate the aerial and bucket into many positions on incident scenes. This can include reaching the highest elevation to sometimes as much as 7 to 11 degrees below zero and, with most units, the ability to maintain the high tip loads associated with these units in all those positions. Having this ability with a protected basket and area to put firefighters and rescued civilians gives fire departments a valuable tool in their rescue efforts. Recently on the East Coast, there have been many issues with flooding and rapidly moving water. With today’s highly visible fire department actions on social media, we have seen towers used to their maximum abilities on some rescue incidents. These rescues were able to be made with apparatus that are highly capable of these rescues by a very high tip load, the strength of the ladder, a capable jack system to support the weight and stresses, and most importantly a well-trained crew.

Having a tower provides a number of other valuable operational advantages. These units can flow large amounts of water at fire scenes. Depending on the device and the manufacturer, the ability to flow this water in a tactically advantageous position is one of the values of the tower. The sidewalk sweep made famous by the FDNY is probably the most noted ability of towers—flowing high volumes of water from a negative degree and being able to move that water application into different positions by the use of the hydraulic aerial. Some other advantages follow:

  • Elevated master stream.
  • Stable platform for victim removal without needing to have civilians descend the ladder.
  • Ability to ventilate horizontally and vertically from the safety of the bucket.
  • Easy transportation of a lot of equipment to the roof via the basket.
  • Heavy-duty ladder for use in technical rescue applications.
  • Ability to carry victims and firefighters without effort.

One of the things to consider with the tower is the sheer size of the apparatus. Depending on your community, buildings, and streets, this unit takes up a lot of real estate when setting up. Most units have at least one set of jacks that usually have an 18-foot spread, with most rigs having two sets of the jacks. This requires space and a talented operator to properly place the unit in position. The aerial device, because of the tip loads and weight of the basket, requires a heavy-duty ladder made from steel or aluminum. Even if it is the lighter aluminum, it still requires mass to achieve the large tip loads, which means added weight. Ensure the road and street system can handle the weight of the apparatus. This weight also takes its toll on tires and suspension systems. The busier the department, the higher the chance for early wear and replacement of these components. Also consider the height of the unit, depending on the configuration of the tower (i.e., rear mount, midship mount). The bulk and size off the torque box to support the weight and size of the device can have an effect on the number of ground ladders that can be carried and the amount of compartment space that the unit might have. Another factor for this rig is the cost—these units historically cost much more than a regular ladder truck. The cost factor can come into play regardless of whether the department is career or volunteer.

Aerial Ladder

The aerial ladder is normally on a straight stick/rear-mount, tiller truck, or even in a midship-mount configuration. The device itself can have tip loads from 250 to 1,000 pounds. Picking that tip load is entirely up to the individual department and the operational needs of its community. A lower tip load allows the size and mass of the aerial on top of the turntable to be reduced. It also assists in reducing the jack spread and the number of required jacks. The number of jack configurations and total jack spread vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. But, some of these can be 18 feet to as little as 14 feet in total spread. This assists departments in getting these aerials into tight spots on the fireground, one of the many advantages of the aerial ladder. The lower mass of the aerial on some of these units allows the manufacturer to increase the speed of the device when it is removed from the cradle. Quickly setting the jacks coupled with the speedy aerial movement is a big plus for some departments that need to rapidly place the aerials in service for rescues and roof ventilation. The reduced size of the aerial ladder allows for the device to be placed in many operational positions that are tighter and require a lower overall profile than what a tower can accomplish. A lower tip load helps reduce the overall weight and size of the apparatus. This can help the unit in areas that have tight apparatus quarters along with reducing the wear and tear on the tires and suspension frame. The torque box on aerial ladders is smaller than towers and allows the department to fill up the ladder box with a large number of ladders. It also allows the unit to increase some of the compartment space and provides a number of options regarding equipment locations and additional ladder storage.

Using the aerial ladder on the fireground requires a talented operator and firefighters who must work on the skills required to be on this unit. Rescuing victims and removing them down the ladder must be practiced by crew members and is a task that in no way, shape, or form is easy, especially with an unconscious victim. Using the aerial ladder to complete horizontal or vertical ventilation operations must once again be practiced. The stability and work space on the aerial ladder can be very challenging, once again depending on the tip load and rail width on the different sections of the ladder. I am a fan of the ability of aerial ladders to set up in small spaces and the quickness and versatility of the devices. But, as mentioned before, it requires training and more training to be proficient in this device. Watching skilled operators with aerial ladders is truly something to see: how they get in position, swiftly put the aerial in service, manage rescues over the ladder, and transport equipment to complete rooftop ventilation.

The aerial ladder as an elevated stream does not compare to the tower, but it can deliver the water when needed. This is done with a prepiped waterway or ladder pipe operation, which is really not as popular as it once was. Most manufacturers offer the ladder pipe with the ability to pin it to the bed section or at the tip. By keeping it pinned to the bed section, it is out of the way when spotting the ladder to the roof or when making rescues. The decision on which way to deliver the elevated stream with the aerial ladder is an operational decision that must be made by the local department.

This viewpoint is not written to influence any department to get one device or another. In the perfect world, departments would have at least one of each to give fireground commanders a number of choices and options to better mitigate the challenges on our incident scenes. It is written to show some advantages and disadvantages of each of the units. It is up to each department to decide what is important for its response area and building stock. Regardless of the unit your department purchases or operates, it requires training and dedication to be a good operator/driver. These are very expensive and complicated pieces of apparatus—our ability to operate them safely and proficiently is paramount to providing the best service to our citizens.

RICKY RILEY is the president of Traditions Training, LLC. He previously served as the operations chief for Clearwater (FL) Fire & Rescue and as a firefighter for Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue. He also currently serves as the rescue engine captain at the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department. He also is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board.

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