Laddering Considerations: Combustible Egress

Years ago when fire protection systems were limited and firefighters without SCBA had challenges accessing the interior, there was greater attention paid to planning and designing ways out for occupants in the event of a fire. Over the last 50 years a certain hazard and complacency may have developed in regards to egress.

There has been enough perceived advancement in our abilities as a fire service and the quality of fire protection systems, that additional means of egress have been almost completely eliminated from modern construction.

Day in and day out apartment buildings are being specifically designed and constructed at a overall building height and layout to avoid certain building codes. The modern two and three story apartments have doors to open halls and are served by exterior stairs. We as firefighters and the residents in these communities have been somewhat lulled into a sense of safety that they can always get outside. Does this always mean they will have a way out?


In the picture above you see what you may see day in and day out during medical responses to these apartment buildings in your area. Unfortunately that open hallway and exterior stairs are only one open apartment door away from being just as much of a trap as a center hall apartment.  What you aren’t seeing when you walk up and down those stairs on your next difficulty breathing call is how they may look at two o’clock in the morning like the picture below.

In the picture above we see just one side of the egress involvement from a second floor fire has cut off 4 apartments. If this stairwell serves a breezeway style hall through to the rear as many do, there is a high probability that the residents of 8 apartments are now trapped.

In order to further demonstrate that this is not a unique fire, here is another, nearly identical presentation in the daylight.

With all the talk about flow paths and door control we should be very aware of how damaging a fire can be when it is fed all the air it needs. The amount of fire and lack of smoke  in the picture above means this fire is burning up that path of egress with incredible intensity and efficiency. The fire has made it out of the original unit and into a combustible hallway and staircase that it is open to the exterior on two ends (well vented) and confined by walls on the sides (compounding heat).

This picture above is from a recent fire in San Francisco where you can see the stairs and decking from the second floor up have been completely destroyed.

Once a fire has impacted an exterior egress the window of opportunity may be limited to windows

Or maybe on balconies

The key point in this post is that we are the fire department and we exists to protect lives, property and the environment from fire. If a fire has taken control of the paths of egress for our citizens we need to provide new ones, and for the most part that will be done by ground ladders. So here are a few things to consider.

Do you have enough ladders? If 8 apartments are cut off by fire you should assume you may need at least 8 ladders to access them. Do you have them?

Is your truck company set up to arrive and support suppression or perform rescues?


Do you know what you can reach with your ladder compliments, and what you are missing?


Have you only trained to throw ladders straight to a single target or have you considered the potential ways to hit targets over targets or deal with the challenges or stability benefits of different off-sets presented with 3 dimensional targets.


Have you ever trained with live victims who actually act as panicked people in need of rescue, grabbing for ladders or climbing for their lives. Meeting them for the first time on the side of a building on a stick of aluminum may not be the best setting.


This post is a brief out take of a bigger presentation titled Raising Ladders. The play on words is intended to raise interest in laddering the fire ground, raise the awareness of the potential challenges and needs for ladders, raise our ladder IQ and skills, but first and foremost light a spark in you to raise the question, how good are we at ladders?


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