When the First-Due Ladder Company Is First in

On a busy summer afternoon, you’re dispatched to a single-family residential fire with multiple calls reporting fire coming out of the garage door.

In most cases, this is a “bread-and-butter” fire. Today is different, though. Today you’re the officer of the first-due “ladder”—a 105-foot straight stick quint with a 1,500 gallon-per-minute (gpm) fire pump and 300 gallons of tank water. During the response, you realize the closest engine is delayed because it is on a medical call.

Arriving on scene, you see a two-story single-family structure with an attached garage on the D side. The garage is well involved and threatening to extend into the house. As the first arriving fire officer, you must quickly evaluate your tactics—are you a ladder or are you an engine? Do you perform ladder work, or do you pull a handline and attack the fire? As many departments have decided to equip their ladder trucks with pumps and water, many officers are now faced with the tough decision of whether or not to pull a handline if that ladder arrives first. The decision is not clear-cut and requires careful consideration of the quickly evolving situation.

As progressive officers and firefighters, we are conditioned to go right to work and to put out the fire. We know the best chance for victim survival and preservation of property is to extinguish the fire. The solution may not be that simple, though (photo 1).

1 Ladder 10 arrived first on the scene of a residential fire while Engine 10 was tied up on a medical call. They elected to pull handlines because of time and distance of the next-in engine. (Photos by Rayford Smith.)

1 Ladder 10 arrived first on the scene of a residential fire while Engine 10 was tied up on a medical call. They elected to pull handlines because of time and distance of the next-in engine. (Photos by Rayford Smith.)

In National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, the design of a quint essentially allows us to package an aerial device and an engine into one apparatus. The combination of an aerial ladder, ground ladders, hose, and water can be a major advantage to departments facing limited staffing and budget. The debate here, though, is not about the effectiveness of quints in a fleet or the total quint concept; rather, it revolves around the decisions faced when arriving first on scene as a ladder that has a pump and water. In the context of this question, references to “ladders” in this article assume they have a pump and a small supply of water onboard. While pulling a handline and putting water on the fire might seem like the first choice, let’s consider the alternatives. There are many reasons a ladder arriving first on scene should look to avoid pulling handlines if engines are responding. We will review when and where a ladder should and shouldn’t pull attack handlines.

Ladders Play an Important Role

In most departments, there are clear and direct procedures and operations for ladders (not considering the fire pump and the tank) when they arrive at a fire. They usually include forcible entry, search and rescue, ground ladders, ventilation, utilities control, salvage, and overhaul. While some of these can happen in the latter stages of the incident, there are a few that should be performed congruently with fire attack—forcible entry, search, and occupant evacuation being priorities. If the ladder crew has committed to fire attack, these typical job functions may be ignored. The lack of forcible entry and ground ladders means no secondary means of egress if a crew becomes trapped.

The ladder crew may be of greater use by forgoing the fire attack and beginning to open and close those exterior doors. Ladder crews can also control the flow path by closing interior doors to quickly and effectively protect occupants and other firefighters while still allowing for normal fireground operations and flow. In the context of commercial or multifamily fires, occupant evacuation provides an efficient means of protecting life. Throwing ladders, forcing entry, and occupant evacuation are all very important functions that are likely to fall by the wayside when the first-due ladder crew commits to fire attack with a handline.

Another key element of a successful firefight is putting the right apparatus in the right place. The type of occupancy and extent and direction of the fire typically dictate that placement. A ladder arriving first at a single-family residential fire may be able to make the stretch and still be in proper position for typical ladder functions. That is most likely not the case on multifamily or larger commercial fires, where aerial ladders are usually placed on the corners of structures to increase their scrub area and reach. It is imperative that ladders arriving first in be prepared to do ladder work to prevent having to move apparatus later in the incident (photo 2).

2 While the ladder crew performs assigned ladder work on the roof, an engine crew uses a handline to extinguish fire on the C side of the structure.

2 While the ladder crew performs assigned ladder work on the roof, an engine crew uses a handline to extinguish fire on the C side of the structure.

Who Is the Engine?

Along with the strategic priorities that dictate the practices of the first-due ladder, there are tactical responsibilities that often get lost in translation when a ladder company acts like an engine and pulls handlines for fire attack. This creates confusion for incoming units as to which role they need to perform. If the ladder crew has committed to fire attack, what are the responsibilities of the first incoming engine? Water supply? Fire attack? Search?

The first-arriving engine should become the attack piece, and subsequent handlines should come off of it, not the ladder. This transition requires clear and concise communication to prevent confusion between the crews. The ladder crew must now recognize that their handline may no longer be the primary line and that they are now to become a true ladder crew again and begin those functions. Once that transition is made, does the ladder crew start over and begin ladder functions, or has the engine crew already searched part of the structure? Failing to explain what has been and what needs to be accomplished over the radio can easily lead to unfinished searches or worse. The confusion of this changeover would be costly and result in overlooked strategic and tactical benchmarks.

As many firefighters start on engines, we believe that everyone should be proficient in those operations. For those assigned to special-service apparatus, whether ladder or rescue, engine company operations may not be in the forefront of their minds or their training. Firefighters usually pride themselves on adaptability and being able to get the job done, but that doesn’t mean they are proficient at something they don’t practice. The confusion of transitioning from a ladder company to an engine company and back to a ladder company all in a few minutes combined with the chaos of an evolving fire scene can provide a recipe for disaster. A strong engine crew trains to move water and understands the capability of the apparatus. A ladder crew may not have operated on an engine company or worked a handline on a structure fire in years and may overestimate the amount of fire they can put out with a limited supply of water in a 300-gallon booster tank. The debate has been made that quints can be engines or ladders, not engines and ladders at the same time; the same can be said for the crew. A ladder crew should do the job they are mentally prepared to do—ladder work.

Never Say Never: When Can a Quint-Style Ladder Be Beneficial?

Officers must perform a quick risk/benefit analysis when arriving first in on a ladder that carries water. Pulling handlines is beneficial when there is a need to put water on the fire immediately. We cannot overlook those situations when a quick attack can do the most good for the incident. A good rule of thumb is asking, “Can I extinguish this fire with one line?” For fires that will require multiple handlines, ladders should look to stick with traditional ladder work.

Another major consideration is time and distance of the first-in engine and the amount of water needed to suppress the fire. There is no hard-and-fast rule or timeline the ladder officer should use to determine when to pull a handline or when not to pull a handline, because each situation is different. Trusting company officers to make those tactical decisions is paramount. In considering whether or not to pull a handline, ladder officers should consider the longer-term impact. Water on the fire right away might be appealing but may not be as effective in the grand scheme of the incident if it causes problems. Most would agree if the engine is more than a few minutes away, a ladder company should consider using their handline. This tactic can be most effective in a transitional attack where the ladder provides water from a defensive position until the engine company arrives and goes interior. If the limited supply of water in the ladder’s tank can essentially extinguish the fire, the officer should consider pulling a handline. In the case of the scenario presented at the beginning of this article, the ladder company could have pulled an attack line to “knock down” the fire from the exterior without committing to offensive fire attack. If they choose this tactic, the intent must be clearly and explicitly announced over the radio: “Ladder 10 to all incoming units, we are pulling a handline off Ladder 10 for a quick exterior attack. Next-in engine will be the attack piece.” A strong command presence and plan of attack will help minimize the confusion for incoming units. As long as the crew can maintain their role as a ladder company when the engine shows up, this transitional attack technique provides a smart option (photo 3).

3 Ladder crews practice deploying hose during a training evolution.

3 Ladder crews practice deploying hose during a training evolution.

Considerations for a Ladder Arriving Ahead of the First-in Engine

In the age of cell phones and social media, a video of firefighters standing around waiting for the engine to arrive while a house is burning can create a figurative firestorm for the department’s public information officer and chief. Let’s consider what a ladder company can do when they arrive first on a fire scene.

A 360-degree walk-around and peek inside the structure will assist in providing a strong command presence and incident action plan. In the case of the scenario presented earlier, there is one option that stands out: Make sure the interior door to the garage is closed. Considering the repercussions of ladders pulling handlines, as well as the time it takes to stretch a line and put water on the fire, closing the interior door seems a much more efficient and effective option. The 21⁄2-gallon water can should accompany a well-prepared ladder crew to provide protection and fire extinguishment around the doorway. After closing the door, the crew buys time to make a quick primary search and building layout assessment. Just as in vent-enter-isolate-search, closing that interior door makes the environment safer for everyone. The ladder crew can also begin forcing exterior doors and immediately closing them to allow the engine company to quickly access the structure and the fire.

For fires in commercial and multifamily structures, occupant evacuation should take priority. As the ladder crew starts closest to the fire and moves away from it, evacuation provides the quickest way to ensure the safety of those occupants. As rescue is the priority for most strategic decision making, it seems that ladder crews can do the most good for the most people by assisting in moving occupants from the burning structure. This sets up a firm platform for the engine crew to do their job when they arrive on scene.

There are certainly many advantages to quint fire apparatus. For many localities, quints provide “another tool in the toolbox” for firefighters to successfully save lives and property. In some situations, giving ladders the ability to extinguish small fires allows departments to be more flexible in their staffing and apparatus housing location. We must be careful, though, to not be drawn into thinking that a ladder with a fire pump provides the same service as a dedicated engine and properly trained engine crew (photo 4).

4 For easier operations, quint-style ladder trucks may have the same pump panel set up as their engine counterparts.

4 For easier operations, quint-style ladder trucks may have the same pump panel set up as their engine counterparts.

Skilled fire officers look not where the fire is but where it will be in 10 and 20 minutes. A little forethought by a first-in ladder company can keep a moderate garage fire from growing into a fully involved house fire. “Flow path” has become the preeminent buzz term over the past decade and out of all the fireground crews, ladder companies seem to have the biggest impact on controlling that effect.

By looking beyond the initial reaction of committing to a handline, ladder companies can provide effective firefighting operations while reducing fireground confusion and allowing those whose job it is to flow water do just that. Ladder companies should be prepared to do ladder work when they arrive first at a fire whether they carry water and hose or not.

IAN G. POOLE has been in the fire service since 2007. He is a master firefighter/medic with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department and is assigned to Fire Rescue 1 at the Hazardous Materials Team. He has previously been assigned to both engine and ladder companies. Poole is a nationally registered paramedic, FEMA certified structural collapse technician, as well as Virginia certified fire instructor I.

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