I was preparing a lesson plan for my technical rescue students when I came across the rules for a rescue competition event they were going to attend. I looked at the various skills they would need to be proficient at performing. There were ropes and rigging, lowering, belaying and hauling skills.
Patient packaging and patient care were also being evaluated. But then I came to a section on ground ladder rescues, and it made me stop to ask myself, “When would I ever need to perform a rescue like that?”
During my career as a firefighter/EMT I attended many training events and rescue schools. As far back as the mid-1970’s, when I took my first Civil Defense Heavy Rescue course, I remember being shown the various ways in which a rescue squad could improvise rescues by the use of fire service ground ladders.
These were always challenging activities that required a great amount of skill with ropes and knots, as well as a basic understanding of simple mechanics. Pulleys, fulcrums, levers, and inclined planes were always part of the discussion. As a team we would labor to lash together ladders and configure them into A-frames, Jib Booms, and other variations on the theme of supporting a load system.
But as I sat in front of my computer, I could not recall a single incident during my 30-plus year career when we were ever put in a situation where such a rescue technique leaped out as the most logical or practical means of completing a rescue operation. So I began to go back down the trail to see where this concept originated, to determine if it is still valid in today’s world of technical rescue.
It did take some backtracking through my library of training manuals to find, what I believe to be, the first reference I have to using ground ladders in rescue. It all began with the first fire brigades. As towns became cities and buildings began to rise to new heights, the challenge to firefighters was reaching fires without entering the burning structure.
Hence, the need to raise ladders from the ground to reach the upper levels of the building. In other words, using ladders for climbing, as they were intended. With that came the ability to reach people trapped on the upper levels of the building and then either guide or carry them back down the ladders. A very simple form of rescue that has continued in use in the fire service until today.
With the advent of even taller buildings came the need to engineer ladders of greater lengths. Ladders that were no longer practical to be moved by hand or raised from the ground. These ladders, now mounted on vehicles, became known as aerial ladders. Engineered to be supported solely by the base without the need to brace the ladder against a structure, these ladders made it possible for firefighters to quickly reach heights of over 100 feet.
Aerial ladders were well suited until the concept of skyscrapers came along. Though they are unable to reach these new heights, the aerial ladder will continue to be a valuable rescue tool, but we must accept that even they have limitations.
I continued going back through my firefighter training materials to see if any references were made to using ground ladders for rescue other than simple climbing. I found examples where step ladders are used to support smoke extraction fans. I’ve even seen ladders lashed together to form a makeshift hazardous materials decontamination pool.
I reviewed other training manuals, including technical rescue courses, but found few references to the use of ground ladders in rescue. There was the example of using a straight ladder to reach a victim in an ice rescue, but otherwise the ladder was only referred to as a means of climbing.
Which brings me back to the question of when ground ladders became rescue tools. Aside from the obvious use of ladders for climbing, the use of ladders as a means of supporting a rope-based rescue system appears to have been born during the Second World War. I have found Civil Defense training manuals from Britain and the United States that date back as far as 1941.
In these manuals you can see civilian rescue squads adapting ground ladders to perform a variety of rescue functions. Ladders are used alone to climb and carry rescuers, tools and victims to and from upper levels of damaged structures. But beyond the normal use of a ladder, the authors go on to demonstrate some very ingenious methods of using ladders to improvise for mechanical equipment that might either be unavailable, or might be unable to gain access to the rescue scene.
Ladders are shown being projected from upper levels of the building to serve as makeshift crane booms for supporting rope hauling and lowering systems. Ladders are lashed together at their tips and then anchored to the ground to create bipods, or A-Frames, to allow rescuers to operate a rope system over a ground opening or a vertical opening in a damaged structure.
In the absence of a stable structure to support the tip of a ground ladder, the ladders are even shown being anchored at their bases and supported by guy ropes to form a jib, or derrick. These all make sense as there is an obvious need to create a high anchorage point to allow free movements of rescuers and patients.
But then I came upon an example that I still don’t fully understand. The ‘ladder-hinge’ maneuver for lowering a patient, lashed to a litter, from an upper level of a structure.
The concept is easy enough to grasp. A ground ladder is raised flush to the outside of the structure until it is standing vertically against the wall. The head of the litter is secured to the tip of the ladder positioned directly outside of the window. The foot of the litter is attached to a rope system which is anchored within the structure.
On the command to lower, two or more rescuers guide the ladder itself as it ‘hinges’ against the base of the building while rescuers support and control the litter movement from within the structure. The litter is maintained in a flat, horizontal position throughout the maneuver until the patient is safely landed on the ground. That much I understand. But the question I have is, “When would that be the most efficient method of rescuing someone?”
The setup for the ladder hinge requires that you have a ladder that can reach the window; enough rope to form a 45-degree angle from the window to the landing spot; and you have a clear, level pathway for the rescuers to navigate as they guide the ladder to the ground. With all that being present, what gain is there to performing such a maneuver?
I also began to question whether this was a proper method of applying a load to a ladder. I did some research to see if any of the fire service ladder manufacturers provided load rated data for their ladders when used in the ladder-hinge configuration. All I have found, so far, is that the load rating of a fire service ladder is determined with the ladder supported against a structure at a prescribed climbing angle of approximately 70 degrees.
Would it not be simpler, and safer, to position the tip of the ladder above the window opening and then use the ladder to support a rope lowering system controlled entirely from the victim level of the building? It seems that this would be a far more compact way to operate a rescue system, particularly in confined spaces. And in this configuration the ladder remains secure and stable against the structure rather than being supported over the heads of two or more rescuers.
This configuration would be consistent with another ladder rescue technique known as the “ladder slide.” The litter is supported directly on the structure of the ladder while a rescue team controls the ‘slide’ using a rope system anchored above the ladder. I have practiced this method and the alternative method of creating a friction control system by reeving the rescue rope up the ladder using the rungs as brake bars. It seems to work well, is simple to operate, and seems very safe.
I hope that I will meet someone who has had the experience of using the ‘ladder-hinge’ in an actual rescue operation. Until then, I will continue to practice that skill, as prescribed, just in case.
John A. Lindstrom is a NREMT-certified firefighter.