Built to last
July 20, 2014 6:11 PM   Subscribe

“San Francisco's Fire Department is one of the few left in the United States that still uses wooden ladders. Each is made by hand at a dedicated workshop. Some have been in rotation for nearly a century.”

Inside the Ladder Shop

The 2011 graduates of the SFFD’s fire academy demonstrate raising a 50-foot ladder from horizontal to vertical, then hold it steady for climbing. Ground to vertical begins at 2:30; hoisting to the full ladder height begins at 4:45; first climber begins at 6:45.
posted by rtha (25 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
That's just awesome.
posted by hoyland at 6:28 PM on July 20, 2014

This is fascinating and even if you think "I don't want to watch 10 minutes of a ladder being raised," you're wrong; you totally do.

Does it take that long to raise a 50-footer in an actual fire? I don't think I could be that patient in a fire, even with training.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:37 PM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

There was a house fire around the corner from us some years ago, and the firefighters raised a wooden ladder because the street is kind of narrow (though flat, at least) and there's a dense overhead weave of power lines and cables. I don't think it was a full 50-foot ladder, but it took six or eight firefighters to carry, place, and raise it. They were faster than in this video.
posted by rtha at 6:50 PM on July 20, 2014

SFFD's Ladder Shop, previously.
posted by zamboni at 7:11 PM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've helped raise a 60' ladder for house painting but never anywhere near that fast. Not sure about wooden ones but the aluminum ones are heavy has hell. I have really long arms so I always got to be the one to climb up that high too (the longer your reach, the fewer ladder moves necessary).
posted by octothorpe at 7:12 PM on July 20, 2014

This is good to know because I recently made a life decision that I am no longer going to live in any city where the fire department doesn't make their own free range artisanal ladders.

(srsly tho this is very cool)
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:24 PM on July 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

That is way cool. I like sending the necktie guys up rather than the full-gear guys, too.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:28 PM on July 20, 2014

If I had to guess, the people climbing are probies.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:39 PM on July 20, 2014

I'm still stuck on the wood + fire issue...
posted by rednikki at 7:58 PM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never tried building one but there's a good chapter on making wooden ladders in Jobbing Work for the Carpenter.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:04 PM on July 20, 2014

Some have been in rotation for nearly a century.

I wonder if when neighboring Livermore needs to change this, the SFFD will let them borrow one of those.
posted by radwolf76 at 8:19 PM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm sure it's mentioned somewhere in the links but wood = non-conductive around power lines which is a plus.

I'm looking at the Doug fir in the cabinet next to me here- I've never counted but the rings/inch are something like 150 or so; barely visible. That's some slow growing wood.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:28 PM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm still stuck on the wood + fire issue.

The linked article goes into that:
They can be involved in a fire for a pretty long time; after that, it's just a matter of sanding off the top coat of material then inspecting the wood. If it's good we'll re-oil it, revarnish it, and put it back in service.
and one of the comments notes that "When aluminum heats up, it anneals (gets soft and bends, I guess) you can't see this damage. With wood, you know exactly what you are getting when it gets damaged."

"We build the ladder by which we climb" is a gloriously Game-of-Thronesey motto.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:25 PM on July 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Not sure about wooden ones but the aluminum ones are heavy has hell.
Wood ladders are heavier than aluminum.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:52 PM on July 20, 2014

Yes, the weight has got to be a problem. Does anyone use more advanced materials - is carbon fibre an option?
posted by Segundus at 3:04 AM on July 21, 2014

Does anyone use more advanced materials - is carbon fibre an option?

Probably not -- the epoxy isn't probably good with heat, and as noted above, it has a bad failure mode of "fine, fine, fine, FUCK."

I suspect that, unless you already have a 100 year old ladder shop with a stockpile of aged wood, replacing your aluminum ladders every few years is vastly cheaper. High quality wood like that is not cheap, and if you buy new today, and wait, you get your first ladder in 15 years or so.

Plus, there's the cost of the craftsmen and time. I'm sure they do other things, but the reason SF uses wooden ladders is because they have them, they have the shop to work on them, they have the stockpile of wood needed to replace them, and thus, it's *now* cheaper for them than aluminum.

And I suspect some of these sixty year old ladders are sixty in the same sense that a hammer that's had three heads and four handles replaced is 60. The SF shop is quite willing (indeed, quite proud) to swap parts, or recycle parts wholesale into a new ladder. Not that this is a bad thing, but it's very different that "We built this ladder 60 years ago and it's been in use without any work for 60 years."

As to Aluminum -- in Chicago, 3 men can put up a 50' ladder against a wall. That's the real reason that fire companies went to aluminum ladders -- wooden ladders are heavy as hell. You'll also notice that on the big truck ladders on top of trucks, those are steel at the lower reaches, switching to aluminum for the top segments.
posted by eriko at 5:22 AM on July 21, 2014

Well, that and there's no chance they'll get electrocuted raising a ladder in a street full of power lines! That is also important!

Also, re: wooden ladders and fire - remember that these are not being put directly in fires. They're being leaned against structures that may not be involved in the fire at all but that may provide access to the involved structure. Even if they're being put against a active in-flames structure, they're used against the part of it that isn't fully involved. These are firefighters - they know wood burns. If wooden ladders had proved to be so detrimental over the years, someone would have noticed.
posted by rtha at 5:36 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

A wooden fire ladder, if well maintained, is a thing of beauty that is also useful and practical. But they require much more maintenance than an equivalent aluminum ladder and so aren't practical for smaller departments who can't support a dedicated shop for them.

And yes, it's possible for a three man team to raise a 50 ft. aluminum ladder, but it's not easy and when we train we do it with six. The reality is for most departments, if you need a 50 ft. ladder it's time for the ladder truck, not a ground ladder. Not only are they easier and faster to deploy but only one person is required.
posted by tommasz at 6:16 AM on July 21, 2014

Another interesting, now mostly-obsolete, type of ladder is the "Pompier Ladder" or Hook Ladder. They were originally designed to be used in narrow alleyways between tall buildings, where maneuvering a traditional ladder would be too difficult, or simply to climb higher than is possible on a normal ladder. There's really no limit to how high you can go with it, if you're motivated enough. AFAIK it's no longer in active use anywhere in the US, although some departments still use it during training.

Video (starts at 2'06") of Pompier Ladder in use by Providence FD recruits on a training tower.

Apparently they're still used in Europe; here's a video of a rescue being performed using one, during a 2012 apartment fire in France. Their modern version has two vertical members with horizontal crossbars between them, like a traditional ladder albeit a very narrow one, instead of the single vertical used on older US versions. It appears to be made from lightweight steel or aluminum. It's not clear from the video exactly why they needed to use it, but one assumes it's consistent with the ladder's original purpose and due to the tight alleyway between the buildings.

Bonus: Meanwhile, in Bulgaria...
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:25 AM on July 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

The local fishwrap had a good article about the ladders a few years back: Firefighting tradition also saves city money / Wooden ladders resist heat, cost less to build and repair than aluminum, fiberglass.

I get nervous when I have to climb the to the third rung of my stepladders. I made the mistake of watching the climbing part of the video above and I am now going to feel slightly nauseous all day.
posted by Nelson at 7:59 AM on July 21, 2014

Six minutes to raise a ladder isn't too bad. Of course than can do it faster, but as in all things of this nature you have to trade off and weigh speed vs safety. For a non-critical demonstration you will take more time to ensure greater safety because you have that luxry.
Tho if you really want to see speed, you should check out firefighter olympics.


Deployed and climbed in under 15 seconds.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:16 AM on July 21, 2014

Okay, those pompier ladder videos are....wow! I can't imagine climbing one in the dark, on a flaming building, while dressed in full turnout gear - especially the boots, on those tiny little rungs. Respect!
posted by rtha at 8:22 AM on July 21, 2014

I'm still stuck on the wood + fire issue...

Not so crazy! The homeopathic way to put out a building fire is to dissolve a toothpick in a million gallons of water...
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:54 AM on July 21, 2014

Wooden ladders are a thing of beauty, and tradition is celebrated in the fire service.

That being said, wooden ladders are heavy. Especially a 50'.

We had a 40', I believe, on old ENG5 when I still worked for the City. It had staypoles on it, and I'm unaware of that thing ever coming off the rig.

We carry a complement of 10' attic ladder, 14'/16' roof ladder, 24' ext, and a 35' ext on most trucks. I can throw a 24' myself easily; I need at least one other person for a 35', preferably 2, as the thing weighs about as much as I do. As an engineer, I can park my truck and be at the panel/table with my ladder on my quints raised, extended, and flowing water a lot faster than 6 min, but ground ladders have their place. Mostly for rescue, ventilation, roof access, and egress from second/third floors.

As far as pompier ladders…I think Charlotte still trains with them in their rookie school, but that's about it around here.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 11:18 AM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

While watching the ladder-raising video I was in such a happy state of old-tech squee!!

Thank you for posting this!
posted by Lexica at 8:11 PM on July 23, 2014

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