Aerial Target Practice

By Raul A. Angulo

Aluminum and steel aerial device use has numerous pros and cons, and there are many factors that go into why fire departments choose one over the other. It’s great when firefighters have input in the purchasing process but, more often than not, firefighters have to work with the apparatus they’re given. One thing’s for sure: the aerial device is the largest tool at our disposal. To be a master craftsman at operating an aerial device, you have to practice-but where?

Most training towers aren’t realistic structures for apparatus placement and aerial operations. There’s usually a wide open pad; the standpipe connection and the hydrant are always in the same locations, always accessible; and you usually have access to four sides of the building. Though it’s better than nothing, it doesn’t feature the obstacles encountered in real-life emergency situations. The challenge to having an incident run smoothly starts with the initial placement of first-in apparatus. A good rule of thumb (more of a guideline) is having the first-in engine pull past side A to view three sides of the building on arrival. This maneuver is not always possible, but no matter how the first-in engine approaches the emergency scene, there needs to be room for the ladder truck on side A. Engine companies may have up to 1,200 feet of hose, but a 100-foot aerial only has 100 feet of ladder.

(1) Using treetops for aerial target practice is a safe drill that will not cause any property damage. The objective is to get the tip of the aerial to just touch the branches of the trees.
(1) Using treetops for aerial target practice is a safe drill that will not cause any property damage. The objective is to get the tip of the aerial to just touch the branches of the trees. (Photos by author.)

First-Due Training Grounds

I like to think that my whole district is my drill court. There are plenty of structures my aerial operators can use for nondestructive target practice. In my case, I have an aerial ladder, but these drills will work with other aerial devices. Start with trees. Pull up to a row of trees at a park and see how quickly your crew can deploy the ladder to the tip of a designated tree. Then move to the tree to the left, then the tree to the right, and so on. This is a good way for your operators to develop their depth of field judgment without causing any damage to the ladder or the trees.

There are usually major construction or remodeling projects occurring within a community at some time or another. These make for excellent drilling locations. I look for construction projects that are in the framing stages or remodels where they have taken the building down to the shell.

Many fire departments have new construction or demolition inspections as part of their fire prevention responsibilities. During these inspections, I meet with the superintendent of the project and ask if I can come back after hours, or on a Sunday when construction crews aren’t working, to practice laddering the building. You don’t want to interfere with their construction schedule. I explain this is aerial target practice and, in most cases, the ladder will not even come in contact with the building. They always say yes and are happy to cooperate because after completion, these are buildings where we may have to perform ladder operations for real.

When it comes time to drill, spot the apparatus for the best access to the building. The objective of the drill is to have the aerial operator place the ladder to as many positions as possible. Let’s use a seven-story building for an example. These are the commands you can give the operator:

• Place the aerial to the roof, side A, above the third window from the left.

• Place the aerial on the roof at the A-D corner.

• Place the aerial on the roof at the A-B corner.

• You have a rescue at the fifth-floor window, second from the right.

• You have a rescue at the center window on floor four.

• We are going to do a transitional attack from defensive to offensive. Use the preplumbed master stream (or ladder pipe) and sweep the sixth- floor windows from left to right, starting at the second window from the left.

(2) Buildings in the framing stage, buildings being remodeled, and buildings scheduled for demolition make make excellent props for nondestructive target practice-with permission from the owners. This building has numerous floor and windows where the operator can practice making aerial rescues or positioning for transitional fire attack.
(2) Buildings in the framing stage, buildings being remodeled, and
buildings scheduled for demolition make make excellent props for
nondestructive target practice-with permission from the owners. This
building has numerous floor and windows where the operator can practice making aerial rescues or positioning for transitional fire attack.

Obviously, you’re not going to actually flow water. These drills are conducted “dry.” Remember, these are nondestructive drills but allow operators to sharpen their skills in raising, lowering, extending, and retracting the ladder. It will also expose the effectiveness, as well as the limitations, of this operation. For example, the last order above was to sweep the sixth floor starting at the second window from the left. As the operator sweeps to the right and adjusts the direction of the nozzle, he may discover that this tactic may only be effective for three more windows. After that, the nozzle may be out of position to effectively knock down any fire in the fourth window. A second aerial ladder would have to come in to continue the operation, or the original ladder would be repositioned. Using deck guns or monitors would also be options.

High-rise or mid-rise buildings under construction provide lots of scenario options, but these drills can also be performed on one- or two-story strip malls, shopping malls, or business complexes.

Consider rotating crews so all members get a chance to operate the aerial controls. This is the only way they are going to learn. For additional challenges, try these evolutions at night. Darkness changes the dynamics of the drill. Make sure you light up the scene with the high-intensity lights of the apparatus and use the rest of the crew as spotters. With good radio communications, hand signals, and flashlights, you can run a safe drill at night without causing any damage. Be safe, use common sense, and don’t take any unnecessary chances.

Using Bridges

Other structures I use for aerial practice are steel bridges. If the ladder truck can get below a steel bridge, there is usually a series of trussed structural members in the shape of triangles and rectangles. I position the aerial and have the operator raise the ladder to the bridge and extend the fly sections through the open spaces between the structural members. For example, there may be a series of trusses that create a row of triangles. I will issue these commands:

• See that top row of triangles? Extend the aerial ladder through the center triangle (this is open space). Then, retract it, move the ladder to the left, and shoot it through the top left triangle. Then retract it, move it all the way to the right, and extend it through the far right triangle.

This evolution of extending the aerial ladder through the various spaces gives the operator a chance to execute a series of commands in extending, retracting, and rotating the aerial ladder. At no time does the ladder ever come in contact with the bridge.

(3) The aerial operator has aligned the aerial ladder with the center, top triangle of the bridge.
(3) The aerial operator has aligned the aerial ladder with the center, top
triangle of the bridge.

There’s usually a top horizontal beam somewhere in the geometric shapes, and I have the operator extend the fly section through the space and lower the tip to within six to eight inches of the beam. Again, use the rest of the crew as spotters. Use radio communications and hand signals. Once the operator feels he’s there, have a firefighter climb the ladder. With the weight of the firefighter, the tip should come down to within one to two inches of the beam or gently rest on the beam. The beam is not weighted. For most aerials, this is the practice when a ladder is extended to a roof. I have checked with bridge engineers in our city and explained this drill to them. They have assured me this drill poses no undesigned stress on the trusses. The maintenance equipment they use to work underneath the bridges for maintenance and painting weight the steel trusses far more than this drill ever will. So, this is a safe drill.

Consider Risks

Every drill poses some degree of risk. Administrators that are hypersensitive to any sort of potential liability are not likely to grant permission to perform these drills. If this is the case in your department, look for structures that are scheduled to be demolished. One problem with acquired structures is asbestos abatement. Any time roofs are going to be cut or walls breached, a department needs documentation that any asbestos has been removed and there is no asbestos hazard. Fire departments usually have a procedure for acquired structures to ensure firefighter safety. But simply laying hoselines to a vacant structure, deploying the aerial, or raising ground ladders doesn’t disturb or destroy the structural membrane of the building and shouldn’t pose any environmental hazards to firefighters.

(4) The tip of the ladder is placed just above the top plate of a horizontal truss. A firefighter climbs to the tip to check the accuracy of the ladder placement. Note that the ladder is not touching the bridge.
(4) The tip of the ladder is placed just above the top plate of a horizontal truss. A firefighter climbs to the tip to check the accuracy of the ladder placement. Note that the ladder is not touching the bridge.

Bottom line-if your department has an aerial device, you have to look for creative ways and opportunities to drill with it. You have to train your crews on the largest tool in the fire department. If you can’t get permission to drill on the buildings, use the training tower or stick to the trees. If someone questions your intent, tell them you’re looking for a cat!

RAUL A. ANGULO, a veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

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