What is Impossible?: The 35' Engine Company Ladder
It seems that just about everything is up for debate in the fire service. Firefighters are jacks-of-all-trades and that includes the ancient art of debate. We argue about the big things, like safety of roof operations and tactical priorities. We argue the small things, like whether to carry six- or eight-pound axes, and the proper color of fire engines. Wanna sit back and be entertained? Place a combination nozzle and a smooth bore on the kitchen table at shift change. Better than the movies, and the refreshments are cheaper. One thing that seems nearly universally agreed upon is the complement of ground (or portable) ladders for an engine company. These are understood to be a 14' roof ladder and a 24' extension ladder. While Firefighter 1 training teaches us two-person carries for 24's and two or three-person carries for 35's, it is widely accepted - and in many places, expected - that a single firefighter should be able to perform a 24' ladder carry and raise. There are myriad training resources for a firefighter who wants to learn a single person 24' ladder.
We don't all carry 24' extension ladders.
Some engines carry 28's. And, like me, you might even have the incredible fortune of a three-section 35' ladder on your engine. I don't believe in karma, but if I did, I'm pretty sure whatever karmic debts I've incurred would be wholly redeemed by the punishment of carrying that monstrosity on our pump. Simply put, it sucks. Generally, I've griped about it and complained that it never comes off the rack because I'd much rather steal a ladder than I can throw by myself from another rig. I mean, I want to take personal responsibility for my own excellence, and own the fact that while it might be a piece of shit, it's my piece of shit. But how can I do that, when everybody knows that throwing a 35' three-section ladder by oneself, in full gear and SCBA, is impossible? Right?
Turns out, not so much.
My buddy and co-worker sent me these photos the other day. We'll just call him, "Ogre". Ogre is the man. He's one of "those guys" on my job; one that is always pushing the envelope, training his ass off, and spreading knowledge and passion wherever he goes. So it was no surprise to me to see him sticking the ladder throw, and it was no surprise to see it land on Facebook and cause an uproar. Ogre's just like that, always trying to break the internet and whatnot.
Having seen him and others do this on the interwebs, I was confident that I could do it, too. But I consider myself a critical thinker, so I evaluated some of the common objections to determine their validity.
OBJECTION #1: Throwing ladders by yourself is unnecessary, because there's always somebody around who can help you.
Okay, so this one was pretty easy. Because it's stupid. I've heard this from guys on my job and elsewhere, and I'm totally perplexed by it. We have minimum manning of 3 on our engines, as do all of our automatic aid partners, and our district is quite varied: trailer parks, big box stores, multi-million dollar estates, rural farms. Help is not always close by. Even if I've got one other engine on scene, there’s more than six guys worth of work to be done. Thus, I dismiss that objection with extreme prejudice.
OBJECTION #2: That ladder is too heavy and awkward, and you might hurt yourself.
The 35' Duo Safety ladder we carry weighs 130 lbs. It is heavy. But I had to be real with my expectations of myself. Firefighting is hard and a lot of our tools are heavy. Fall patients and fire/smoke/rescue victims will usually weigh more than that ladder. The average FF weighs around 250 lbs in gear and I've hauled my share of simulated RIT victims around. It's damn hard. But I can do it, as can any firefighter worth their paycheck, and I don't hear anyone saying we shouldn't run a Denver Drill because someone might get hurt. Look, I'm not Superman. I'm reasonably strong and fit, but I'm not qualifying for Crossfit Regionals or washing laundry on my abs. I'm not in some big hurry to do foolish things and extend injury risk to myself, but there's risk in any physical activity. This physical activity happens to be in direct relation with my fireground responsibilities. So, while there is a valid argument to be made that I could hurt myself, I'd argue in response that the best way to ensure I won't hurt myself is with preparation.
OBJECTION #3: You could just use a ladder drag/package.
This is easily the most valid objection. I'm a fan of ladder drags and packages. I think they're smart and efficient in certain situations. Still, there are many properties where dragging a ladder over (fences, landscaping) and/or around obstacles (cars in parking lots or driveways) would make it a total pain in the ass and potentially impossible, or at least not feasible. In this scenario, I'd want to carry and throw the ladder from high shoulder.
I looked at the objections, and this is what I came up with: Most of the time I'm on the fireground, I won't be throwing a ladder. Most of the times that I do, I can rob a 24' or 28' from another rig. Most of the time, those ladders are long enough. Most of the time that a 35' is truly required, help is available or I can wait until it is. Most of the time that I can't get help, I'd be able to drag the ladder to my destination. The reality is that an event where throwing a 35' solo is necessary is a rare one. And because it is so rare, that is precisely why I decided I needed to try it. I needed the confidence that in a rare, once-in-a-career moment, that I could execute the move effectively.
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This is my first attempt. You can see that I failed to find the balance point before lifting, and that the ladder kicked my butt there for a minute. I was able to eventually get it without putting my back in a terribly compromised position, but it wasn't pretty. Not pleased with that evolution.
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Here's the second try. I decided to drop the butt to the ground, leave the tip on the rack, and position myself under the ladder. I wouldn't say it was easier, but I do think it's safer. That's an effective throw, but not great.
I could have left it there. I did it, and so did they other dudes on my crew. Still, looking at that first video, I couldn't let it go. Again, in response to the safety argument, one of the ways we mitigate risk is to train and drill. So, I picked it up again. And again. It took a few sessions of hard work to work out the balance points, hand placement, and tempo. I dropped it more than once, but I got better.
[video width="640" height="360" m4v="http://www.brothersinbattlellc.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Final-35-throw.m4v"][/video]
It's better. It isn't elegant, but this is firefighting. A fine instructor I once had told our class, "This ain't figure skating, it's ice hockey." When throwing a 35' on my own, ice hockey will do just fine.
Spending time improving my ability to throw this ladder, I've found that the throw comes naturally with time and repetition. The more difficult part is raising the fly on my own. This is an area where I am still weak. On a concrete building or a real-life scenario, I lower the fly onto the building and raise the fly against the building.
I still don't like the three section 35' on my engine. It is cumbersome and unnecessarily long and heavy for an engine company, particularly with just three on the rig. I'd prefer a 24' or 28', but that is not my reality.
We all have our own realities. My apparatus, tool complement, hose loads, and first-due area are all different than yours. I have to prepare for my reality. You must prepare for yours, and I hope you do so relentlessly. And when you're out on the pavement, preparing for your reality, I hope you'll examine to what others say is impossible. Say it with me: "Is it?"