Mike Wilbur

AERIAL LADDER AND TOWER LADDER

Aerial and Elevating Platform apparatus of all kinds represent some of the most expensive pieces of equipment that we operate in the fire service. Yet, at the same time it tends to be the most under utilized and misunderstood piece of equipment in our firefighting arsenal. Training and education are the keys to reversing this trend. It is in that spirit that this article, the first in a series on this subject, is published for your review.

The strength of an aerial ladder and where it can operate on the fire ground (i.e. horizontal or vertical or both) is dependent on a lot of factors… the type of material, it’s strength and the way the structure was designed and assembled (riveted, bolted, or welded) . That, plus the weight of the unit and the jack spread will ultimately determine the tip load of the Aerial ladder you purchase. Aerial ladders have tip loads at 0 degrees that range from no load; (most pre 1991 aerial apparatus) all the way up to 1,000 lbs. Prior to 1991 most aerial ladders that were built to the N.F.P.A. 1901 standard were rated at 0 tip load, unsupported at zero degrees. From that point on aerial ladders built after 1991 were designed to have a minimum rating of 250 lb. at the tip from any angle between zero degrees and maximum angle at full extension.

Photo #1 from the Authors collection Photo #2 by

Pictured is a pre-1991 aerial ladder with a 200 lb. vertical tip load (Photo # 1). In 1991 the N.F.P.A. 1901 standard was revised and up graded which caused manufacturers to change their aerial ladder design. This photo (Photo # 2) represents some of those changes which brought the apparatus tip load up to 250 lbs. on this 100’ rear mounted aerial ladder.

Note: The tandem axle chassis and the different stabilizers that helped improve apparatus stability and safety.

Photo’s from the author’s collection.
Photo # 3 depicts a medium duty, 500 lb. tip load aerial ladder.
Note the addition of another set of outriggers that appear before the tandem axles.

Pictured in the bottom (photo # 4) is a 1000 lb. tip load aerial ladder.
Note the difference in which the outriggers span the body vs. the 500 lb. tip load ladder in the previous picture.

Photo’s from the author’s collection

The pre-1991 light duty aerial ladder pictured (Photo # 5) was not designed to be used in a horizontal position. Note the tremendous bow in the ladder. This ladder is in danger of a catastrophic failure.

The medium duty ladder pictured (Photo # 6) above was meant be operated at the horizontal and even at a negative degree of elevation off the side of the truck. However with the positive tip load improvements come some operational impediments. Note the deployment of the outriggers on the heavy duty aerial ladder at this common suburban / urban setting and the way that the street is completely blocked off (Photo # 7).

Photo by the author

While manufacturers have dramatically improved ladder load capacities, stability, and safety we now need more area just to maneuver the apparatus and to deploy the outriggers and jacks.
Having conducted many aerial and tower ladder placement and operations classes lately I have seen, first hand, how some aerial apparatus need to be setup on a flat, wide street, on a sunny day, before all the interlocks, micro switches and safety’s can be satisfied to get power to the turn table. This is great for firefighter safety however if you are the civilian waiting to be rescued, you may have to jump as the operation becomes too time consuming and arduous to satisfy the safety’s in a timely fashion. Manufacturers need to consult line firefighters and officers about product design and user friendliness. An example of this lack of communication can be found at the pedestal. Look at the three short control handles or levers with only a few inches of space in between each lever (Photo # 8). This lay out maybe great if you are in Phoenix, however if you are in International Falls, Minnesota in January, when it is 20 or 30 degrees below zero, you have one of two choices. Expose your hands to frostbite or glove up and hope you have enough control over the controls to avoid high voltage power lines or any other hazard on the fire ground that may exist. These controls are definitely not user friendly and were certainly not designed for or by an aerial apparatus operator. As a group, the fire service in general, but more importantly aerial operators and the manufactures need to work together not only to continue to make aerial apparatus safer, but also make the apparatus more user friendly so that we can properly protect the people we serve.
Once you respond to a fire, where you position the aerial ladder could make or break the whole operation. A difference in just a few feet could make the difference between proper positioning or asking the question “why did you even bring the apparatus to the scene of this fire.” Where the first in Engine Company positions itself could determine the ladder companies’ ability to perform its life saving function. Some firehouses I have visited make it clear how little they understand the operation of their aerial apparatus especially when you see it parked behind two or three other apparatus. By the time the aerial device shows up it is blocked out by 3 police cars, 2 EMS vehicles, the fire chiefs car, two engines, the rescue truck and perhaps even the private cars of volunteer firefighters. Does this scenario sound familiar? At this point in the operation you now realize that it would have to have a 500 foot stick in order to reach the fire building.
Probably the worst invention on an engine, from a truckies point of view, was the crosslay, speedlay, Mattydale or whatever your department calls these pre-connected lines. Engine operators have an uncanny ability to align these hose loads dead even with the front door. Police cars, EMS vehicles and yes even the Fire Chiefs car tend to block aerial apparatus from proper positioning. First arriving chiefs should pull on to the side walk. Police cars and EMS vehicles should not be in the block at all. The aerial apparatus must have full, un-obstructed access to the front of the fire building. Engine apparatus must stay out of our way. I have had the good fortune to travel to firehouses all over the country and I have yet to find an engine company that could not stretch 1000 feet of hose. Yet, at best, American aerial ladders are 110 feet. We can stretch hose we can not stretch ladders. I went to chauffeur’s school over 20 years ago and remember being constantly reminded of not blocking the aerial apparatus, yet it still appears that we have not learned our lesson.

If you have a 100 foot stick and you get blocked out and are 150 feet away from your objective, you should be asking yourself why did the fire department buy this apparatus and why did I bring it to this fire?
The aerial apparatus needs to be one of the first responding apparatus. Depending on your departments procedures the aerial apparatus should be the first or second apparatus to arrive on the fire ground for proper placement. Generally if an engine company arrives first it should pull past the fire building (Photo # 9).

Photo by Matt Daly

Note the picture above where the first in Engine Company took a hydrant before the fire building, but the operator positioned the engine apparatus parallel to the curb to allow the first in aerial ladder a position in front of the building. This situation resulted in excellent positioning for both units.

One of the first lessons that I learned from an old timer when I first started to drive over three decades ago, was that the positioning of the first in apparatus will make or break the whole operation. With poor positioning, Murphy ’s Law sets in and the operation is doomed to failure before you ever get off the apparatus. However good positioning can be the first step to fire ground success.
In part two I will continue our discussion on aerial ladder placement.

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