Hit 'em High, Hit 'em Low
The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man's foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher. ~ Thomas Henry Huxley It is often stated about ground ladders that they are one of the most underutilized tools in the fire service today. Which is tough to argue because with the aid of modern technologies, anyone, anywhere can watch videos or look at pictures of incidents and the evidence presents itself. Many times we don't empty our ladder beds on incidents, but this is not another post about the importance of ground ladders. Far more experienced and talented firefighters than myself have already grasped the reigns of that topic. What I want to dive into concerns how some of us were taught to throw ladders and how have we continued our education into the art of throwing ladders, (and I do mean art, the same as stretching and advancing hose or forcing a tough door). Ladders seem to be at least for many firefighters one of those skills that we were taught the basics as a brand new firefighter and we never progressed past that. There was usually two schools of thought first the, "You throw ladders once you can throw them the rest of your career" where ladders were shrugged off as a skill a gorilla could accomplish. Or the IFSTA mentality where the goal seemed to be to simply pass a set of skill sheets and then go out onto the real fire-ground and learn the "(Insert Department Name Here) Way" and forget what you were taught in rookie school. Neither one of these options lends itself to be a minimum standards challenging, self improving THUS company improving model. So assuming that I'm not the only one who learned ladders in one of these fashions we're going to take it back all the way to how you carry and WHY you carry a ladder the way you do. For single firefighter carries there really is two options; the low shoulder carry or the high shoulder carry. Ask yourself WHY you carry the ladder the way you do? It's hard for us to confront our personal abilities and actions especially when it comes down to us getting the job done but we have to ask ourselves if what we do is a thought out, reality based action or is it simply the way we learned to do it. For myself I learned to carry a ladder using the low shoulder method, after all it was the hallmark of the IFSTA single person ladder throw. But then as time passed I started to experiment within my own abilities the high shoulder carry. It seemed that I could throw every ladder with less effort because of the mechanics of creating a better starting angle by having a shorter distance of ladder in front of me allowing the ladder to be nearly raised by the time I planted the butt, and taking nothing more than a few steps forward with the ladder sliding up my shoulder to have it vertical. I fell so in love with this method that I refused to throw a ladder any other way. I threw ladders everyday until I could throw every ladder in our department efficiently with a high shoulder carry everything from the 16ft roof, to the 2 and 3 section 35fter's. Often times the biggest knock on the high shoulder carry is that firefighters say you can't or it's hard to carry tools. So, I set out on the task of figuring out the best way for me to do a high shoulder and carry tools, because as we all know you're only as good as the tool you're carrying. (A picture of a quick tip of holding the halyard with your hand to speed up the process of raising the ladder.)
The first stop of this journey for me was adding the tools to the ladder itself. My usual tool compliment of choice was a NY hook and a halligan. I could drop the pike of the halligan into a rung crossing the forks over the bed section of the ladder locking it in and I could put the NY hook onto the fly section locking the hook end behind a rung block. This method allowed me to simply carry the entire ladder high shoulder with tools mounted freeing up both hands to either stabilize the ladder or carry a saw.
This method works great for me and allows me to continue to throw the ladder high shoulder and have tools ready.
Next I messed around with staging the tools in various places so that I could shoulder the ladder then pick up the tools with my free hand on the way by. This also worked well with the only added difficulty being you now had to stabilize the ladder with one arm instead of two.
Then something happened, I started talking to firefighters who disagreed with using the high shoulder carry. I thought, well "WHY? What's not to like about it?" It's easier to throw the ladder and I can do it while carrying tools. One of the main points of the discussion was, it was hard to high shoulder a ladder while going through, around, under or over obstacles. Ok, so how much had I really done that? I had thrown ladders this way a thousand times but did I really know WHY I did it this way? Or what obstacles I could mitigate while balancing the ladder with one arm? So it was time to go back to my roots of learning to throw ladders and do some tests.
First was the overhead obstacle test. We have a lot of trees where I work and sometimes it can be like going through a jungle getting to the house. So what was the best option for going under some smaller sized trees? Well, the pictures speak for themselves. The low shoulder cleared the trees just fine while the high shoulder had the potential to get hung up. Is this a low percentage hazard, sure for most, but none the less it made me question my decision to hang my hat on the high shoulder. Now, some of you may be thinking, 'yeah, no shit' but many people throw ladders most of the time on clear concrete, not on fires so the possibility is that many firefighters haven't asked themselves this question or simply haven't made themselves mitigate obstacles while carrying a ladder. It's just the reality that we train more than we fight fires.
The next test we decided to go for the lower obstacles, add some bushes, weeds, a lightpole, and a car. The low shoulder as predicted hung up more on the bushes than the high shoulder, however that did not make the high shoulder the clear favorite. The issue of balance came into play when holding tools in one hand, the 28ft ladder in the other and plowing throw the bushes. Even though the low shoulder hung up more on the ladder, the balance was far better than the combo of balancing the ladder with one arm and having the bushes pulling at your legs while doing the high shoulder. Could you put the tools on the ladder, allowing yourself to use to arms to balance the ladder on a high shoulder? Sure, but it still elevates your center of gravity, making it harder to balance.
Next was climbing over obstacles. Going over fences, drop offs, up hills, and down hills. The clear favorite in these tests was the low shoulder. Again, it came down to a center of gravity issue. Now, can you do a high shoulder carry in all of these scenarios? Absolutely, you can, but in the quest to be the most efficient we can be is it the appropriate carry? That is something I challenge you to test for yourself. Am I going to stop doing high shoulder carries? No, but what I am going to do is challenge myself to size up my ladder assignment. What is the landscaping like? What is the terrain like? Is it a tight space or open area? Is it uphill? Downhill? How far do I have to travel? What tools do I have to take? What is going to be the best method for me on this incident? These are all questions that we should answer multiple times before the incident in training, so that when it comes to immediate action, we don't hesitate because we know WHY.