Aerial Ladders and Anthropometry

By Michael Wilbur

Much work has been done recently relating to firefighters and anthropometrics. What is anthropometry? Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “the study and technique of human body measurements for use in anthropological classification and comparison.” The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has taken the lead in the largest and only anthropometric study of firefighters. Much information has been collected from the more than 950 firefighters who have taken part in the study. So far, that information has been and will be used to impact firefighters’ gear, fire apparatus cab design, seating, and seat belts.

Applied to Ladders

As we were discussing this project several years ago, the question was asked about the rung spacing on American portable ladders, aerial ladders, and aerial towers. The industry standard is 14-inch spacing between those rungs. However, much has changed in the firefighting population during my 31-year career. All firefighters have big hearts, but some have smaller lower torsos, in general, and shorter legs, in particular. Encumber the legs of these firefighters in bunker pants, put a 20-pound self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on their backs, and have them carry a ventilation saw up an aerial ladder extended 80 feet at a 70-degree angle with 14-inch rung spacing, and we have an injury waiting to happen.

I remember climbing an aerial ladder with ¾ rubber boots pulled down and having the boots get stuck between the rungs. For our young readers, these boots looked similar to fishing wading boots-bulky to say the least. European ladder trucks have a rung spacing of just over 11 inches, which is probably closer to what that measurement needs to be. However, that may not necessarily be correct either.

Having worked on aerial apparatus for 30 years out of my 31-year career, I know that the 14-inch rung spacing is too much for many firefighters. But I know that if you cut that measurement in half, just as much energy would be expended by firefighters and the chance of injury would be just as great. So in one of many meetings with NIOSH, the question was asked if there was any way we could use this science, this anthropometric study, to determine the correct measurement between the rungs of American firefighting ladders for the current firefighting population. The NIOSH project team assured us that science studies could achieve the correct amount of spacing based on the current firefighting population.

As with any project or study, there was a cost. So, the next challenge was to find funding to achieve the goal. As with the original anthropometric study, we turned to NIOSH, which has a system in place for writing justifications and scientific protocols to compete for funding. We have been notified that the research team has received an award to start the research in 2013. Unfortunately, research takes time, and results may not be available until the fall of 2017. On the positive side, any results will be scientifically proven and absolutely correct. Changes will be coming-make no mistake about that.

MICHAEL WILBUR has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 38 years; he has spent 30 of those years with the Fire Department of New York, where he retired as a lieutenant assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx. Previously, he served on Ladder Company 56 and on the FDNY apparatus purchasing committee. He guided the FDNY chauffeurs school through state certification. He has been published in fire service publications and has served on the IFSTA validation committees for the Apparatus Operator and Aerial Operator manuals and on the U.S. Fire Administration committees on Safe Operation of Fire Tankers and Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative. He is nationally recognized in the areas of emergency vehicle operations, apparatus placement, and apparatus purchasing.

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