BY BILL ADAMS
When departments specify a new rig, the ground ladder complement is something they take for granted and seldom evaluate. The purpose, fireground value, and usefulness of ground ladders is not a subject for debate, nor should it be.
Some apparatus purchasing committees (APCs) look at ground ladders as necessary evils rather than as integral tools in supporting fire suppression and effecting life saving in multistory occupancies. This article looks at some basic considerations when addressing how many, what type, and what size ladders could be or should be carried. Hopefully, it makes purchasers mindful of decision-making factors they might have overlooked.
The two recognized criteria for ground ladders are National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, and the Insurance Services Office (ISO) Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS), which establish quantities and types of ground ladders to be carried on various types of apparatus. NFPA 1901 also makes several recommendations regarding sizes. Bear in mind that NFPA 1901 is an unenforceable minimum standard. The FSRS recently mirrored NFPA 1901’s ladder requirements; however, it may be advisable to check your local ISO for its interpretation of the subject. The two standards are what some APCs solely dwell on. That could be a mistake.
John Mittendorf, battalion chief (ret.) from the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department, has lectured about and authored many books and articles on truck company (aka ladder company) operations. In “Ground Ladders” (), he states, “Remember, the initial purchase of ground ladders (which normally coincides with the purchase of new apparatus) will often affect fireground operations (and considerations) 15 to 20 years later.” In nonbusy suburban, rural, and cash-strapped departments, apparatus replacement schedules can be in the 25- to 30-year range. Not anticipating the future is an oversight that should be avoided.
When purchasing pumpers in departments with ladder company service, some APCs fall into the “That’s what we’ve always done” mindset when specifying ground ladders. “We only have to carry an extension ladder and one roof ladder. We’ve always bought 24-foot extension and 14-foot roof ladders. Why change?” There is more to specifying ground ladders than just meeting NFPA 1901’s standards. Consider how well 24-foot and 14-foot ladders have or, more importantly, have not performed. Larger sizes might have proven useful in the past. Conversely, smaller ones such as a 20-foot extension ladder and a 12-foot roof ladder may have sufficed, especially when ladder truck service is available. If the firematic intent in carrying ground ladders on a pumper is to just reach a second-floor window or the roofs of 1½-story and ranch houses, shorter ladders may be appropriate. They are lighter, are easier to deploy, and take up less room on the rig. Seldom evaluated is the frequency ground ladders are actually deployed from a pumper. Why not?
Another consideration is the location and physical space ladders take up on a rig—especially multifunction pumper-rescues and pumper-tankers. If there are justifiable requirements for specific size ladders on a pumper, consider locating them for quick and easy deployment. A basic set of pumper ground ladders can occupy more than 35 cubic feet of space. Exercise caution when interbody ladder storage is custom-built for specific size ladders because upgrading later to larger sizes might not be physically possible or financially feasible.
A common practice on pumpers is to mate a 28-foot extension with a 16-foot roof, a 24-foot extension with a 14-foot roof, and a 20-foot extension with a 12-foot roof ladder. It is probably because the closed lengths of the extensions are close in length to the roof ladders. It’s not a requirement. For example, if there’s room on the rig and you want to carry a 20-foot extension and 14-foot and 18-foot roof ladders, go for it. There are no NFPA police. Consider carrying what you really need.
Complacency in choosing a ladder complement is also applicable to aerial devices (ladder trucks and quints).
LOSS OF FOCUS
Choosing the design or even a specific rig manufactured by a preferred vendor for other than sound firematic reasoning is a questionable practice. But, it happens. When doing so, a rig’s ground ladder complement may be inadvertently compromised. It would be unfortunate if committee members’ personal preferences actually lessen the fireground efficiency of an apparatus. It’s common with ladder trucks and quints. A possible scenario: Smalltown USA’s fire department has for many years operated quints carrying five two-section extension ladders consisting of two 35-footers, a 28-footer, a 24-footer, and a 20-footer. Roof ladders were one 20-footer, two 16-footers, and one 12-footer. Types and sizes were based on many years of actual fireground experience.
Smalltown’s APC became enamored with one manufacturer and its design of a short wheelbase single-axle quint with a short overall length. Because of the size and configuration of the proposed vehicle, the ground ladder complement is limited to a single 35-foot three-section extension, a 24-foot two section extension, a 20-foot two-section extension, and two 16-foot roof ladders. Fervent ladder company members were not happy. Their comments could include: “With our setbacks, narrow driveways, and overhead wires, we can’t use the aerial on many of our large 21⁄2-story houses. We need more than three extension ladders to ladder our townhouses and condominiums. We’ve used that 20-foot roof ladder on quite a few steep sloped roofs. The three-section extension ladder is too heavy for two firefighters. Our SOP says we’re supposed to throw a ladder to the second floor on all four sides of a house. What if we can’t use the aerial? There’s supposed to be a secondary means of egress from the roof. Only one roof ladder can be reached from the ground; the other one’s on the aerial’s fly section.”
How or even if an APC addresses firefighters’ valid concerns is an unknown. Firefighter safety and fireground efficiency should take precedence in choosing a ground ladder complement. What has priority: purchasing a rig capable of carrying ground ladders proven by experience to be necessary, or eliminating ground ladders to fit a desired rig? If buildings and hazards haven’t changed, it may be disingenuous to dangerous to eliminate ground ladders merely to purchase a rig some manufacturer is promoting as “new and innovative.” Purchasers can be overly influenced by the aggressive marketing, advertising, and salesmanship of sometimes overzealous vendors and manufacturers. Remember who has to use the rig.
QUANTITY OR FOOTAGE?
NFPA 1901 does not specify the lengths of ladders to be carried except for initial attack apparatus, which must carry a minimum 12-foot or longer combination or extension ladder. Pumpers must carry one (each) roof ladder, extension ladder, and folding ladder. An aerial apparatus ladder complement is a minimum of 115 feet of ladders including at least two roof ladders, two extension ladders, and the folding ladder. For quints, it is 85 feet, including one (each) roof, extension, and folding ladder. Mobile water supply, special service, and mobile foam apparatus do not have to carry any, although that should be evaluated locally.
NFPA 1901’s appendix recommends that pumpers carry a 35-foot extension if there is no ladder company service. It also says it may be advantageous to standardize on the 35-foot ladder on pumpers. The appendix provides a list of ladders it says can be used as a ground ladder complement for aerial apparatus including a 10-foot folding, a 14-foot combination, a 24-foot extension, a 35-foot extension, and two 16-foot roof ladders. Just because NFPA 1901 says they can be used does not necessarily mean they will be adequate for your response district. Demographics and operating procedures can differ from community to community. Although it is accepted that most departments do what is best for their individual fireground operations, it may be beneficial for end users to step back and reevaluate how they deploy ground ladders when purchasing a new rig.
Purchasers are cautioned to avoid tunnel vision on just meeting NFPA 1901’s minimum standards for the total footage or the quantities and types of ladders or even what is recommended. A ground ladder complement should be firematically functional for the area served. Evaluate past experiences with ground ladders, existing demographics, anticipated future development, as well as present and anticipated staffing. Purchasing committees should exercise caution when addressing changes to avoid being placed in a precarious position with the powers that be of an organization (white coats) as well as the authority having jurisdiction—whoever signs the check. Some higher ups may be content living in the past and believe any change in the status quo is a challenge to their authority.
GROUND LADDER CAPABILITIES
Expanding on Mittendorf’s aforementioned statement, before purchasing, fire departments could consider evaluating ground ladder capabilities and reevaluating their in-house firematic procedures for using them. As example, when an officer orders an engine company to throw a ladder to the second floor, it’s natural for firefighters to think, “Second floor—get the extension ladder.” A 24-foot two-section extension ladder weighs around 70 pounds with a closed length of around 14 feet. A 14-foot roof ladder can weigh less than half and is easier and quicker to deploy by one firefighter.
Will a 14-foot roof ladder reach a second-floor window in your district? Ever try one? “But, but—we might need the roof ladder on the roof.” No problem; carry a second one. It is not illegal to carry more than one roof ladder on a pumper. They don’t take up too much room and are inexpensive. “But, but—a 14-foot ladder isn’t long enough.” No problem; buy a longer one. Even a 20-foot roof ladder weighs less than 50 pounds. Chances are a 20-footer will not fit on a pumper but there might be room for one longer than 14 feet. Available staffing, either career or volunteer, can be a factor in determining the quantity, type, and size ladders used.
At , there is an excellent piece by the North Coventry (CT) Volunteer Fire Department titled, “Aerial Apparatus Needs and Justifications.” It has many photographs depicting structures in their district that show the difficulty in laddering with ground ladders when an aerial device is not available or is not long enough.
There’s a multitude of published and online articles by end users and fire service professionals explaining various ways to carry and deploy ground ladders and their capabilities. Working heights, climbing angles, setbacks from walls, and tricks of the trade are readily available for those choosing to seek them. Some fire departments may not have addressed ground ladder capabilities in many moons. Perhaps another department has found a better way to use ground ladders irrespective of being carried on a ladder truck, pumper, or quint. Duo-Safety and Alco-Lite are the two popular domestic manufacturers of extension, roof, and wall ladders. Contact them for technical data and the particulars of their ladder construction whether it be solid beam, tubular rail or truss aluminum, fiberglass, or wood. Whatever you carry, climb safely!
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.