The Impact of Reach: Are Longer Aerials Always Better?

E-ONE CR137 (137-foot aerial) ladder
An E-ONE CR137 (137-foot aerial) ladder works the setback side of a 10-story building. (Photos courtesy of E-ONE.)
137-foot long E-ONE CR137
A 137-foot long E-ONE CR137 stretches across a wide setback to reach the far point of a multi-roof structure.
KME’s AerialCat 121-foot ladder
KME’s AerialCat 121-foot ladder, which was redesigned and reintroduced last year, has a 500-pound tip load at 0 degrees elevation and a horizontal reach of 111 feet. (Photo courtesy of KME.)

The fire service in the United States traditionally has relied on 75- to 100-foot-long aerial ladders to handle the vast majority of truck company work, whether it be for search and rescue, insertion of attack teams, ventilation, or master stream application.

But, there’s a class of aerial ladders available in the 125- to 135-foot range that has found a specialized following because of versatility in getting to structures that might be just too far out of reach of more traditional-length aerials. Yet, there’s one main question that must be answered by departments before going with a longer aerial: “Is bigger going to be better?”

Joe Hedges, product manager for aerials and chassis for E-ONE, believes most departments see longer aerials as specialty vehicles. He points out that one of the chief reasons departments purchase aerials longer than traditional 100-footers is to reach structures set back from roadways.

“When people talk about buying tall ladders, it’s not all about the vertical reach needed on tall buildings,” Hedges says, “but how invaluable they are for tall structures that are set back 50 or 60 feet from the street. The longer aerials give the fire department the ability to get over obstructions and obstacles to reach those kinds of buildings, where a traditional 100-footer would come up short.”

Hedges notes that E-ONE’s new CR137, a revamped and optimized 137-foot-long aerial based on an earlier 135-foot design, can hit a target that’s 110 feet high and yet be more than 70 feet away to still reach it.

“It’s the combination of height and setbacks that factor into a department’s need for a longer aerial,” Hedges observes. “Some of the suburbs of larger cities are the places where we’re getting the call for these bigger aerials.”

However, that interest doesn’t mean departments are switching over to long aerials on a wholesale basis, he notes.

“We don’t see departments putting five of them in a city,” Hedges says. “Instead, they are using the longer aerials for those specific areas or targets where they may have long setbacks. In those cases, they’ll usually station a longer aerial in that area.”

Another advantage of a longer aerial, Hedges says, is that it can become a multipurpose vehicle, depending on how the ladder is elevated. For instance, the CR137 is rated with a 250-pound tip load at 0 degrees and full extension but can be rated at higher capacities with the ladder retracted somewhat.

“If we raise our ladder to 20 degrees, it becomes a 500-pound, two-man ladder, which increases its usefulness,” he says. “By elevating the ladder differently, you can increase the tip load at a shorter reach, giving the ladder a bigger capacity for rescue work. So, versatility is the key to a longer aerial.”

Additionally, taller aerials don’t necessarily translate into larger trucks, Hedges maintains. E-ONE’s CR137 is a five-section ladder that can retract to less than 45 feet long and maneuvers on a 245-inch wheelbase chassis with a tank and a pump.

Yet, there are drawbacks to longer aerial ladders, Hedges admits.

“A ladder that tall is a pretty long height when fully extended,” he says. “There’s the issue of nerves and the sheer physicality of climbing its length to consider.”

Hedges maintains that the 125-foot and 135-foot classes of aerials are not intended to replace the more common 75- or 100-foot aerial ladders around the country but are offered as products to give departments options when called upon to make long reaches.

“A fire department has to assess its territory to see if it needs a longer aerial and where it might apply its use,” Hedges says. “Each department is going to know the spots where it needs to access a rooftop air-conditioning unit or has to get to a hard-to-reach rooftop quickly.”

Pete Hoherchak, aerial product manager for KME Fire Apparatus, says his company makes an AerialCat 121-foot ladder that has a horizontal reach of 111 feet.

“Fire departments have told us they wanted a product with better horizontal reach, which is why we redeveloped and introduced the AerialCat 121 last year,” Hoherchak says. “It incorporates all the design features in all our aerial ladders—wide and high hand rails, photo-luminescent rungs, and adjustable backlash on the aerial motor, among other things.”

But, the extended reach of the AerialCat 121 is what attracts the most attention from fire departments, Hoherchak maintains.

“We’re able to provide 17 percent more sweep of a building with that ladder, which might be the difference in reaching the next window,” he says. “Those extra four feet may be the difference in reaching a trapped person.”

Hoherchak notes that when the AerialCat 121 was redesigned, the overall length of the vehicle was only increased eight inches, but the gain in reach was four feet. The ladder has a 500-pound tip load at full extension at 0 degrees elevation, he adds.

“The purpose that most fire departments want that extra horizontal reach is for rescue mode for setback buildings,” Hoherchak says. “And they need a heavier tip load built into a ladder’s design to accommodate that rescue capability.”

Cecil Clay, deputy chief of the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department, says his agency had two 1990 E-ONE 135-foot ladders rebuilt and recertified last year to 2010 specifications, completely reconditioning the ladders and mounting them on new bodies and chassis.

Rescue Ladder 30 is stationed in the downtown area, home to some of the largest high-rises west of the Mississippi River, Clay says. Buildings range from 35 to 50 stories and are up to 700 feet tall, along with more modest-height buildings and four-story townhouse complexes. “We needed both reach and elevation in those areas to get past some of the setbacks of lawns in front of the buildings,” Clay observes.

Ladder 1 is stationed in the northwest section of the city, protecting more high-rise office buildings of five to 10 stories as well as garden-style apartments and condos. Oklahoma City covers 621 square miles of city, urban, suburban, and rural structures.

“Those ladders have been good for us, which is why we rebuilt them,” Clay says. “We’ve used the extra 35 feet they give us over the traditional 100-footers a lot of times. We don’t always get optimal rig placement, so we can use that extra vertical reach in those situations.”

Clay notes the E-ONE 135-foot aerials are on the same chassis as the department’s E-ONE 95-foot and 100-foot ladders and platforms, so he doesn’t worry about another section of ladder on the vehicle. The jack spread on the larger aerials is nearly the same as the 100-footers, he adds.

“I wouldn’t want all our ladders to be 135-footers,” Clay observes, “but when you need the length, you really need it.”

Ron Harvey, chief of Monroeville (PA) Volunteer Fire Company No. 5, says his company operates an E-ONE 135-foot ladder and an E-ONE 100-foot tractor drawn aerial. His company is one of five covering the 19½-square mile town of moderate to heavy commercial structures, heavy residential occupancies, and multi-family dwelling units.

“We determined a tiller gave us the most compartment space and purchased one because more than 70 percent of our ladder truck calls were for equipment,” Harvey says. “But, the E-ONE 135-foot aerial gives us the horizontal reach that we need in some situations.”

Harvey notes that many times an engine company doesn’t leave a spot in front of a fire building for the truck company and, in those cases, “our 135-footer has allowed us to get over the engine and to the front of the apartments.”

And with many of the garden-style apartment buildings set well back from the street, Harvey says the E-ONE 135-foot aerial has allowed the fire company to swing up and over the structure and put firefighters on the roof, something his 100-footer might not accomplish.

“I think a lot of fire departments should consider their needs and seriously look at ladders 125 feet or longer,” he says.

Donley Frederickson, national sales manager for Rosenbauer, says his company makes a 125-foot aerial ladder but that most of such products are sold internationally rather than in the United States. “Internationally, we go out to 175 feet long,” Frederickson says, “but the United States isn’t ready for ladders of that length yet.”

Mike Harstad, Rosenbauer’s aerial products manager, says the problem with longer aerials comes down to weight issues. “By adding length, you add more sections to the ladder and more weight,” Harstad says. “Then you get to an 80,000-pound-plus truck, and some states have weight restrictions that can’t deal with that weight. And, also, there’s the greater cost in building the truck, so some of them end up being $1 million or more.”

Frederickson agrees that the advantage to longer aerials lies in their greater reach, but that advantage depends on the aerial’s angle of elevation.

“Going out to the side of the truck, there’s not a lot of difference between our 109-foot aerial and our 125-footer at 0 degrees elevation,” Frederickson says. “Where you see the true advantage is when the ladder is in a vertical position of 70 to 80 degrees.”

Jim Salmi, chief executive officer of Crimson Fire, says the majority of the aerials his firm sells range from 75 feet to 110 feet in vertical height.

Although Salmi agrees that longer aerials are useful in hitting buildings that are set far back from the street, there are other considerations fire departments should take into account.

“Under NFPA standards, with a ladder of 125 feet rated vertical height, you have to lower that ladder at the same length all the way to the ground and lift a minimum of 250 pounds on the last rung,” Salmi says. “From a structural standpoint, you have to build a platform-type structure to do that. So you get a considerably heavier truck with a wider outrigger stance to keep the rig stable.”

Also, with longer rigs, the operator has to be more concerned about getting enough space to get his outriggers fully deployed, Salmi notes, and climbing longer ladders can be very tiring when they’re fully stretched out.

In addition, as a ladder is projected up vertically, there’s more surface area to be affected by wind exposure, and the greater mass of longer ladders means the dynamics of motion require more care in moving them. Special training also might be required for operating longer ladders, Salmi adds.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer who writes for national and regional magazines and newspapers and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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