Firefighters use ladders every day for their work; without them it would be impossible to rescue people trapped in burning buildings or to get stuck cats down from trees. They have a variety of ladders designed specifically for the situations involved in fighting fires.
Types of ladders used by firefighters
There are ground ladders (those which aren’t mounted onto the fire engine itself) and aerial ladders, which are designed to be used in much more elevated situations. The following examples are all ground ladders. The ‘single’ ladder is a fixed length ladder that sometimes comes in hinged sections rather than telescoping sections (where the ladder is quite long). These can be used by one firefighter with no need for anyone else to help use the ladder. Drop ladders are used to escape from balconies or fire escapes; they hook over the fixture and have a catch which releases the additional sections of ladder and drops it to the ground. A pole ladder (or Bangor ladder) is an extending ladder that also has stay poles for stability. An attic ladder is not the same as a loft ladder, it is a special type of ladder that has hinged rungs, meaning the ladder itself can be collapsed inwardly to be carried in tight spaces and attics.
Examples of aerial ladders are the turntable ladder, so called because it sits on a turntable mounted to the truck chassis and can be swivelled into position wherever it is needed. Because of the stability of the mount to the truck the ladder can be extended much further than a ground ladder, allowing the firefighters to work at great heights. Some turntable ladders also have a cage, or basket attached to the top of the telescopic ladder, which serves as a place for a firefighter to use their equipment from, and is also a safe place for rescued people to be while more people are saved.
The ladders on a fire truck are extendible ones, and can be moved around a building along with the truck. They are usually hydraulic, which means they can take a while to be extended to their full length. Most also have a water pumping function, or at least a specially designed gangway for the fire hoses to run up the ladder. Firefighters use ground ladders for ease of movement around the building; for example if a firefighter needed rescuing from an upper storey window it is quicker to have a ground ladder that can be carried into position to provide an escape route.
Knowing how to be safe in a dangerous situation
Firefighters receive a lot of training in using ladders. They are responsible for checking them over for wear, tear and damage, and for carrying them around the scene of a fire. They are trained in how to put up and take down a ladder quickly and safely, and also in climbing a ladder whilst carrying a fire hose. Firefighters also have training in carrying people down ladders after having rescued them. A lot of the people firefighters rescue and have to carry down the ladder have passed out due to smoke inhalation and are therefore dead weight making them harder to carry. It if seems like hard work carrying a heavy tin of paint up or down a ladder, just imagine what it’s like doing the same with a 60 kilogram person on your back.
Firefighters routinely practice working on ladders, sometimes with two or three people on the ladder at the same time. They practice attaching themselves with safety harnesses and leg locks (where they are secured to the ladder with their legs rather than a rope or harness) and where to lean a ladder when a structure might be unsafe or unable to take the load of the ladder. The angle of the ladder is also something firefighters are trained in, as each ladder could be used for something slightly different in each situation (either quick escape, access or as a place to fight fire from) and the angle of the ladder is very important.
Part of the fitness test for the fire service in the UK is based around ladder safety. One of the tests involves safely lifting the equivalent of a quarter of the weight of the standard ladder (which is 13.5 metres long and 60kg in weight) to ensure you can safely lift and carry the ladder with three colleagues. The potential firefighter has to lift this weight up to a height of 6 feet to pass. The other part of the test which involves the ladder is to climb at least two thirds of the way up the 13.5 metre ladder wearing all the safety equipment firefighters use (including boots, gloves, helmet, trousers and jacket, respirator, tools), then perform a leg lock, turn around with both hands off the ladder so you are looking at the base of the ladder and identify a signal from the ground. This is to check the potential firefighter can safely climb a ladder, keep themselves attached to the ladder without holding on, and also communicate with the ground crews in case of emergency. It also makes sure no-one applying has a fear of heights!
A particularly impressive feat for a firefighter is going down a ladder head first. Firefighting is unique in that no other job would ever require anyone to go down a ladder head first, but if you are inside a burning building and a ladder is the only way of escaping, it is much quicker to bail out head first than to turn round and climb through a window backwards. As well as being faster, it takes less space to go out head first than feet first, which is especially important when a broken window presents a hazard. This method has caused injury, and one reported fatality during training in the past, and because of this, the head first bail out is not really advised any more. However, if this turned out to be the only way to get out of a burning building quickly enough it would be worth firefighters having had the proper training for this.
It is possible to start the slide down the ladder head first, then turn round once clear of the window and slide down in a more normal position, but if you have a few more firefighters behind you all waiting to escape the burning building there may not be time for this. Firefighters are trained to slide down a ladder rather than climb down in an emergency, but the normal way of doing this is to go feet first, not head first!
No-one should ever attempt to use a ladder in the same way a firefighter can, due to the extensive safety training they get to do their job. A firefighter can use ladders up to 300 feet long, which is far longer than any other moveable ladder that might be used in the workplace, even for builders and oil-rig engineers.
Firefighters – using ladders for fun?
Firefighters are so used to climbing and carrying ladders that they often use them in charity events; recently in Yorkshire a team of volunteer firefighters took part in a 26 mile walk whilst carrying a 46 kilo ladder all the way in order to raise £4,000 for charity. A group of firefighters from the Isle of Man won back their world record title for the longest distance climbed on a ladder over 24 hours (which had been taken by a team from New Zealand in 2005) by climbing 71.6 miles between ten men. Since the New Zealanders took the title in 2005 twelve separate teams have tried and failed to beat the target they set. Ladder climbs are a popular way of raising money for firefighters’ charities and those that they support as well as being a good showcase for the level of fitness needed to be a firefighter.