Aerial Ladders: Yesterday And Today

Santa Barbara County has specified a tractor drawn option with a midship pump and water tank on the tractor.
Santa Barbara County, Calif., has specified a popular West Coast tractor drawn option that includes a midship pump and water tank on the tractor.
Smeal can pin nozzle and waterways electrically.
Nozzle and waterways that can be pinned at the top or one section down are a popular option. Smeal has taken this one step further by being able to do this electrically. It seems to be a very handy way to position the nozzle without having to climb the ladder. (Smeal Photo)
Sutphen was the first to produce midship-mounted aerial platforms.
Many manufacturers are now producing midship-mounted aerial platforms. Sutphen was the first to do this in the 1960s, and many manufacturers have emulated the design and come up with their own style, including KME.
This midship-mounted aerial platform has almost every option available.
This striking ALF/LTI midship-mounted aerial platform had just about every option available for aerial devices. It was also the most expensive fire truck delivered in North America. (ALF/LTI Photo)
Controls at the tip of an aerial are available from Smeal.
Creeper controls at the tip of an aerial for slow repositioning are available from Smeal and other manufacturers.
Smeal has ergonomic hose load device.
Smeal has a patented ergonomic hose load device that moves the hose bed out the back for easier reloading.
Bolt on ladder tips have become a popular option.
In case of unfortunate mishaps, bolt on ladder tips have become a popular option from several aerial producers.

This month’s topic is aerial ladders. Since I have been around for a few years, I have some interesting memories of my first introduction to aerial ladders.

It was 1951 and my hometown was about to receive its first steel hydraulic aerial ladder (cost about $20,000). Many fire department members gathered at a railroad siding to unload the new American LaFrance 65-foot aerial. A specially built ramp was needed to unload the truck from the end of a railroad car.

It seemed that everyone wanted to be “the one” to drive the new truck out of the boxcar. I’m not sure who ended up having the honor but the rig was extracted without any scratches and was left on display for everyone to admire.

Then, it was off to the firehouse to replace the old LaFrance, chain drive, city service ladder truck (with the 50-foot wooden ground ladder complete with Bangor poles). It was a memorable event for the whole city and especially for a 10-year-old future firefighter.

Aerials In The 1970s

Fast-forward to the early 1970s, and my first visit to the Chicago Fire Department repair shops. Located in an old foundry, it was an ominous structure with engines and trucks in every available space. On the second floor balcony, I was introduced to the aerial ladder repair shop, which was most unusual as they were working on wooden aerial ladder sections. This was some 22 years after my small city had put their steel ladder into service.

Another memory from Chicago was their purchase of a Morita six-section aerial installed on a Hendrickson chassis with a Pierce body. Having climbed all aerial varieties available at the time, I felt obligated to go to the top of this 135-foot monster.

Fortunately, it was equipped with a small cage and a lift cable. The ride up was scary at best, especially when I got to the very narrow sixth section. Looking down, the truck looked like a postage stamp and I was saying a prayer that the Japanese welders knew what they were doing when they put the ladder together.

The next milestone was the 1991 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) changes to 1901, to increase the inspections and strength of aerial ladders. Base rail flattening from the ladder bouncing in the stored position and rusting from the inside out took its toll on the older style ladders. Prior to the new ladder standard, it was not uncommon to hear of aerial ladder failures every month.

Today, many larger fire departments such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York actually keep spare ladder sections in their shops for rapid change-out when one is damaged in service, thus the failure of the “new” aerials has virtually disappeared.

Now that’s progress, and it indicates a giant leap in firefighter safety.

Along the way, the industry lost the following aerial device manufacturers: Maxim, Pirsch (the first aluminum aerial), Pierreville, Thibault, Calavar, HighRanger (on Ward trucks), Boardman (Redi Tower), Fire Spire (Hahn), Steeldraulics, Grumman and the original American LaFrance.

Today, there are 10 manufacturers of aerials. They include Pierce, E-ONE, American LaFrance (LTI-Snorkel), Smeal, Sutphen, Seagrave (and Aerialscope), RK Aerials, KME, Crimson Fire and Snozzle (Crash Rescue).

Two foreign built ladders are also marketed in the US: Metz from Germany, which is owned by Rosenbauer, and Bronto from Finland, which is owned by E-ONE. Both companies have introduced advanced electronics to our marketplace.

Reviewing Manufacturers

In this and future columns, we will look at interesting and pertinent information from each of the 10 domestic aerial manufacturers. They will be in no particular order.

First up is Smeal Fire Apparatus. In 1964, Don Smeal built his first Smeal aerial ladder for his hometown of Snyder, Neb. It was a 42-foot “quint” with a chain-drive extension mechanism. That truck has been restored and has been on display at several recent apparatus shows. In the 70s and early 80s, Smeal produced aerials for Pierce, which helped them gain notoriety and a quality image.

Smeal has introduced a number of innovations for their complete aerial line, with the tallest being a 125-foot unit. It was also the first company to use a Loadminder to indicate the ladder load. Currently, they offer a unique electric positional waterway that can be locked and unlocked from the turntable.

A Smeal First

Another first for Smeal was the Ergonomic Hose Load, which hydraulically moves the hose storage compartment out of the truck for easier repacking. Other features offered from Smeal are galvanized outriggers, top of ladder creeper controls and chrome-plated waterways.

Smeal manufactures all of its aerials in Snyder. They have a marketing arrangement with Ferrara to supply them with the full Smeal aerial line.

Kovatch Mobile Equipment (KME) got its start when John “Sonny” Kovatch returned from the service after WW II. He assembled a series of car dealerships and along the way bought the remnants of fire apparatus builder, Car Mar, in Berwick, Pa. In 1992, this growing organization purchased the assets of Grumman Emergency Product, which included the Grumman Aerial Cat line.

Today the company offers a broad range of sole source manufactured products including Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF), wildland vehicles, pumpers, rescue trucks, industrial foam trucks, tankers, and the largest family of aerial devices in the world. With its factory branches as well as a nationwide representative network, KME has grown rapidly in the last decade.

KME offers 21 different aerial models, all built with 100,000 psi steel for added strength and less weight. Its outriggers have an auto-leveling system that levels the truck to within one degree. It also includes an automatic storing feature.

One special option KME offers is dual laser pointers at the aerial or platform tip to indicate where the ladder or platform is heading. It’s great for spotting the tip of an aerial when on the turntable.

According to the manufacturer, the aerials are designed to withstand a quarter inch of ice and 50 MPH winds. Their aerials can go to minus 12 degrees below grade and elevate to 80 degrees.

A relatively new feature is the Parker IQAN control system that electronically monitors the jack position, the extension, and the aerial loading and angle to keep it within the safe operating parameters. This system also is programmed to self-stow the ladder and provide cab and body avoidance when operating a low levels.

Three generations of the Kovatch family are hard at work building trucks for fire departments across the USA and Canada. Father, “Sonny” Kovatch, is still active in the business, which is now run by his son, John III. John IV is a senior in college and is being groomed for big things at the family-owned company.

Looking at another aerial builder, American LaFrance is the oldest fire apparatus manufacturer in the United States, having started in business in the early 1800s. Two of the LaFrance Hayes aerial ladders were delivered to New York City in 1886. They were constructed of wood and used a spring-loaded raising mechanism.

Departments were slow to accept metal ladders and wood aerials were still being built in 1950s. Boston’s first metal ladder was a LaFrance 125-foot unit purchased in 1941. They purchased their final three wood LaFrance aerials in 1950.

American LaFrance fell on hard times after being purchased by Figge International and eventually closed the Elmira facility, moving what was left to Bluefield, Va. It produced its last ladder in the mid 80s. In June of 1995, Freightliner Corporation purchased the assets, and one year later it moved everything to a new facility in Cleveland, N.C., shared with Freightliner’s chassis factory.

Simultaneously to American LaFrance’s rise and fall, Grove Crane Company started building aerials in Shady Grove, Pa. The company produced a four-section 100-foot ladder and the first aerial platform was delivered to Pine Castle, Fla.

In April 1974, Mahlon Zimmerman, a barn painting contractor from near Lancaster, Pa., recognized the value of the elevating platform/aerial line and with several other investors, purchased the rights to the Grove aerials, setting up production in Ephrata, Pa. The new company was named Ladder Towers Incorporated, LTI for short.

LTI continued to expand and improve the ladders, and at one point had marketing arrangements with FMC, Seagrave and Pierce. They sold the company to Simon Snorkel from Great Britain who continued to operate the company until Freightliner Corporation purchased it in 1998.

That same year, the rights to the Snorkel line as well as several other apparatus manufacturers were brought under the Freightliner umbrella.

In December 2005, Patriarch Partners, LLC, purchased the assets and the rights to the American LaFrance name. The new company is planning a new facility in the Charleston, S.C., area where it can produce the ALF chassis and fire apparatus bodies. LTI ladders and the Snorkel line will continue to be produced in the Ephrata and Lebanon, Pa., factories.

Features of the LTI line are a 500-pound tip load for 100-, 105-, and 110-foot ladders with a 12-foot outrigger spread. Its units are now multiplexed and are being built with higher-strength material to save weight.

In the next couple of months, we’ll cover the history and features of the other aerial device manufacturers.

Editor’s Note: Bob Barraclough is editorial director of Fire Apparatus and has been involved with the fire service for more than 40 years as a firefighter and industry consultant. He is a member of the NFPA 1901 Fire Apparatus Standards committee, an organizer of the annual FDSOA Apparatus Specification Symposium and a long-time member of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association.

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