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Back to Basics: February 2010

Ground ladders are one of the basic tools that firefighters use on the fire ground. Often, though, we overlook their importance. Knowing how to work ground ladders is crucial and will make our jobs easier.

February 17, 2010
By Mark van der Feyst

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Ground ladders are one of the basic tools that firefighters use on the fire ground. Often, though, we overlook their importance. Knowing how to work ground ladders is crucial and will make our jobs easier.

A video titled “Improper Ladder Heeling” (available for viewing at the bottom of the page), which shows a firefighter falling off a ground ladder, has been circulating on the Internet for a few years. The video shows two firefighters using a 12-foot ground ladder to gain access to the roof of a garage. One firefighter is heeling the ladder from the underside, using his hands on the beam to prevent the ladder from kicking out. The other firefighter starts to climb up the ladder to the roof. The ladder has been set properly at the correct angle – three to five rungs are above the roof-line – yet the ladder kicks out and the firefighter falls to the ground. This happens just as the firefighter reaches the top of the ladder. When the firefighter puts his foot on the rung that rests just above the roof line, the firefighter who is heeling the ladder walks away, allowing the ladder to kick out. The video stops before viewers can see the injuries sustained by the climbing firefighter or the reaction of the firefighter who was heeling the ladder.

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Firefighter Dan “Deadly” Hedley is heeling the ground ladder from behind as taught in basic training.
 
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Heeling the ground ladder from the front allows firefighter to view the entire operation and become more effective.
 
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Firefighter Sean Robinson is pinned against the ladder by the heeling firefighter, stopping his fall.
Photos by Mark van der Feyst


 

There are many ways to heel a ground ladder. In the fire service, we seem to use the method described above. In most basic training classes, we see firefighters heeling the ladder from behind, as in photo 1. This method is also shown in all our textbooks. The other ways to heel a ground ladder are to heel it from the front by having a firefighter use his foot against the beam at the butt, or for the heeling firefighter to put his foot on the bottom rung while standing in front of the ladder. Why do we choose to go behind the ground ladder to heel it? Why are we instructing our future firefighters to heel ground ladders from behind? While this may be an acceptable practice, it is quite dangerous.

When firefighters heel a ground ladder from behind, they are unable to view the entire operation. They are able to see the beginning stages of the operation but not the end of it. This was the case in the video. The firefighter who was heeling the ground ladder from behind was able to see only the beginning stages of the climbing operation and not the final stages. As soon as the firefighter who was climbing the ground ladder cleared the view of the heeling firefighter, the heeling firefighter walked away. He did not see that the climbing firefighter was just two rungs away from getting off the ladder and onto the roof. This was the cause of the ladder kicking out and the climbing firefighter falling with it. When firefighters wear full turn-out gear, SCBA and a helmet, they are restricted from looking all the way up. For some, their helmet hits the top of the SCBA cylinder; for others, the front brim of the helmet blocks part of their view. Either way, the view of the operation is hindered and thus becomes a dangerous way of heeling a ground ladder (see photo 1).

Another dangerous aspect of heeling a ground ladder from behind is exposure to falling hazards. Often times firefighters carry hand tools to help with an assigned task and these hand tools can fall. Firefighters get tired, lose their grip and the hand tool falls to the ground. There is a good chance that the tool will hit the head of the heeling firefighter. When firefighters are breaking glass from a ground ladder, that glass falls on top of the heeling firefighter. Have you ever heard an instructor tell you to not look up when you are heeling a ground ladder from behind? This is so that you will not have falling tools or debris, or broken glass making contact with your face. When you look up, you are exposing your neck, mouth and eyes to whatever may be falling on you.

What if the firefighter climbing the ladder starts to slip or lose his balance while climbing? How quickly can the heeling firefighter come around from behind and stop the climbing firefighter from falling? Not very quickly. What if he needs assistance right away? Can the heeling firefighter assist him quickly from his position behind the ground ladder?

The best method to heel a ground ladder is from the front. Being in front of the ground ladder allows the heeling firefighter to view the entire operation and the entire building. This allows the heeling firefighter to constantly monitor the conditions and activities. Whether the heeling firefighter is heeling the ground ladder with his foot against the beam at the butt or on the bottom rung, he is preventing the ladder from kicking out (see photo 2).

The heeling firefighter will also be out of the way of any falling debris and can help the climbing firefighter by preventing him from falling (see photo 3). In photo 3, the heeling firefighter can quickly climb up the ladder to pin or stop the climbing firefighter from falling off the ground ladder. This will work within distance of one section; if there are two or three sections of distance between the heeling firefighter and the climbing firefighter then the heeling firefighter will not be able to reach the falling firefighter in time.

The next time you conduct ladder training, try to incorporate the front heeling method into your routine. Compare the two methods to see the differences and hopefully you will realize that heeling from the front will benefit you. 

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 Improper ladder heeling


Mark van der Feyst is a 10-year veteran of the fire service. He currently works for the City of Woodstock Fire Department. Mark is a n instructor teaching in Canada and the U.S. He is a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, an instructor for the Justice Institute of BC and an associate professor of fire science for Lambton College. He can be reached at Mark@FireStarTraining.com


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