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Back to Basics: Ladder dating — The halyard

July 14, 2020
By Mark van der Feyst

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Here the ladder is extended, with the halyard is not tied off and the ladder is working properly. Photos by Mark van der Feyst

There are some great debates to have in the fire service between firefighters and colleagues about different ways of operating, uses of equipment, types of equipment, etc. These endless debates can go on forever with all sides agreeing or disagreeing. For most debates, there is not going to be a right answer because most of the items being debated will be situationally based. One of these hot topics to debate is the halyard – to tie it off or not to tie it off?

This investigation into the halyard continues my Back to Basics series called Ladder Dating (so named because firefighters need to “date” their ground ladders and get to know them well like a significant other).

Every extension ladder in the fire service will be equipped with a halyard, which is a piece of rope used to help extend the fly section or lower it. Depending upon the type of ladder (whether a two or three section ladder), there will be one or two halyards being used. Without this piece of equipment added to the ladder, the extension of the ground ladder will not be as easily achieved.

Most halyards are going to be constructed out of nylon, polyester, hemp or cotton; all are classified as utility rope. Different manufactures of ground ladders will have differing styles of utility rope. Some will be small in diameter and others will be thicker. Regardless of the diameter size, they are all classed as utility rope. For the two-section ground ladder, there will be a utility rope affixed. For the three section ground ladders, there will be a combination of a utility rope and a steel cable being used in tandem. The steel cable is affixed to the fly section of the ladder while the utility rope will be affixed to the mid-fly section.

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In basic training and in the textbooks used for basic training, the fire service has been taught and is still teaching to tie off the halyard once the ladder has been raised, extended, and placed in position. The main reason for this is for the safety of the firefighter using the ground ladder. The main premise is that should the locks, dawgs or pawls (for this article, locks will be used) of the ground ladder ever fail, then the halyard will prevent the fly section of the ladder from sliding down like a guillotine.

Will the halyard hold the weight of a firefighter and the fly section of the ground ladder in position if the locks were to fail? That answer will depend upon the rope being used and the factors of how old it is, how it been maintained over the life span of the rope, how thick or thin is it, what it is made of, whether it has been exposed to any heat over time, whether it is fraying, etc. The other factors to consider is what the halyard is attached to, such as the pully and the anchor tab on the bottom rung. Those two items are not life safety equipment and are not rated or tested to life safety limits like with rope rescue. They are unrated, utility purpose devices used to operate the halyard. The locks of the ladder are going to keep the fly section from sliding down and to date, there has not been any recorded case of locks failing on a ground ladder. Ensure they are locked in properly and the ladder will work.

The halyard is usually tied off with a clove hitch around the rungs of the ladder. Most of the time it is tied off wrapped around the rungs of both the bed section and the fly section keeping it secured while it is bedded on the truck. The issue with this method of storage is the time it will require to undo it when the ladder needs to be raised.

Here is a scenario to consider: There is a fire in your home. You are trapped in the bedroom of your house and have called 911. The fire department arrives on scene. By this time, the fire has grown, trapping you still in your room with heavy smoke now entering the room with intense heat. There is a team of firefighters who have brought a ground ladder over to your window to rescue you. Do you want them to take the time to undo the series of rope wrapped around both rungs just to extend the ladder, and then tie the rope around both rungs again with a clove hitch before they start to ascend up the ladder to rescue you? Or do you want the team to immediately raise the ladder, extend it, not tie off the halyard and come and get you?

This is main reason behind not tying off the halyard after extending it — immediate rescue purposes. If the ladder is being extended for other reasons, such as ventilation or gaining access to an upper portion of the building and time is available to do this, then certainly tie it off, if required. But the ground ladder can sit there with the halyard untied, and it will still work. For multiple rescues at different points of the building with the same ground ladder, having the halyard untied will allow for quick extension, making the rescue, then lowering to move to the next spot on the building.

There are ways to prep a ground ladder so that the halyard is tied permanently not requiring to be untied, so that the ladder can be raised and extended quickly to tactical rescue. This is effective and efficient. In the photo, you can see how the ladder is extended, with the halyard not tied off, and the ladder is working properly. In this setting, the halyard has been tied off around the bottom rung of the bed section for rapid deployment/extension.

If there is really a need to tie off the halyard because it is department SOP or because an officer is ordering it to be done, the halyard can be tied off without having to untie the rope off the bottom rung or from the quick deployment model. It can be done by tying it on a bight (a clove hitch on a bight). This will accomplish the same effect as the basic way as taught in our textbooks.

Are you putting your stock into the halyard or the locks of the ladder?


Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is currently a full-time firefighter with the WFD. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States, FDIC and India.  He is a local level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and the lead Author of Pennwell’s Residential Fire Rescue book. He can be contacted at Mark@FireStarTraining.com.