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The Risk for Ground Ladder Rescues at Multi-Family Dwellings

On January 16th 2007, at 0047 hours Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) was dispatched to a reported fire in an apartment building. Three minutes later, the first district chief arrived and immediately requested a second and third alarm when dozens of occupants were observed at windows and balconies (Royal, 2009). “We addressed the obvious challenge and priority of the life safety need by calling for an ‘all hands’ rescue” (Royal, 2009). In reviewing the article of lessons learned from the Castle West Apartment Fire in Colorado Springs, 85 occupants were rescued by ground ladders and none were removed by aerial ladders.

While laddering is traditionally considered a truck company function, the experience of the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) at the Castle West Fire shows that most if not all ladder rescues at dwelling less than 4 stories will be performed with standard ground ladders and the immediacy of an “all hands rescue” situation will be placing all companies arriving with ladders to work.

  • The first three companies to arrive on scene at the Castle West Fire made 40 ladder rescues.
  • Nine apparatus from the first three alarms were dedicated to ladder rescues and responsible for removing a total of 85 occupants via ground ladders (Royal, 2009). The 85 occupants rescued from upper floors represent 25% of the buildings total residents (Royal, 2009).

The incredible challenge of rescuing 85 occupants from a building by ground ladders at a single incident is unique, however, the act of rescuing occupants by ground ladders at multi-family dwellings is much more common. In the first four months of 2014, 117 rescues by ground ladders from multi-family dwellings were reported to (

  • Nine fire incidents at multi-family dwelling fires resulted in more than 5 rescues on each scene
  • 65% of fires at multi-family dwelling fire where ground ladder rescues were reported had multiple rescues (

(Data was collected from 01/2014 to 04/2014)

Of the above incidents several multi-family dwelling fires which would meet the “all hands rescue” situation described by Chief Royal where as many as 10 civilians were removed via ground ladders. To see 117 documented ladder rescues from multi-family dwelling fires in the first 121 days of the year through a voluntary reporting system would present the case that on average at least 1 civilian is rescued everyday by firefighters with ground ladders in the United States. Ground ladder rescues should be a scenario every operational member of every fire department in the United States should be drilling on and preparing for especially if your district is one with multi-family dwellings.

Information like this, and the high percentage of multi-family dwellings in my first due area sparked an interest in researching the topic of ground ladder rescues at multi-family dwellings further. The plan to take both an operational and more academic approach through the use of a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Applied Research Project. Through the process I discovered a great deal of information specific to my department and in-particular the very common suburban 3 story multi-family dwelling which leads me to believe that it is not a matter of if but when your next fire will present with an all hands rescue situation.

It is my hope that through sharing this information you may be able to draw from it information that will directly apply to your department and operations or at least provide you with an example of a process to evaluate the risk for ground ladder rescues at your district's multi-family dwellings.

Our Fire Problem

Multi-family dwellings in our area house an average of 3.5 persons per unit. Compare this to a standard single family dwelling with an average of 2.23 occupants per structure for the district. With many buildings averaging well over 30 units this would places the equivalent of an entire single family residential neighborhood at risk in one building fire. 26% of our district's population resides in multi-family dwellings and responses to these occupancies account for 32% of the districts 30,000 alarms.

  • In the calendar year of 2012 my department had 53 working fires in multi-family dwellings. This accounts for just under 30% of the district's total working fires
  • Of these 53 fires 75% had a point of origin above the first floor

On average our firefighters are responding to a working structure fire in a multi-family dwelling once a week. The fact that the floor of origin is also most commonly above the first floor presents a greater risk of entrapment to citizens in our district who live in these occupancies.

A working fire in one high density residential structure can present with an equivalent life hazard to an entire neighborhood of single family dwellings. As an organization my department identified the increased risk for and severity of fires in multi-family dwellings and attempted to address them. In 2010 the department increased the response to working fires in these occupancies by adding an additional truck company to the initial dispatch.

  • In the last 5 years 80% of the our fires which exceeded the initial alarm assignment were in multi-family dwellings

This internal data shows that even with attempted solutions, the demands of these incidents continue to outpace initial responding resources and do so statistically more than any other occupancy type. The tactical demands of incidents at these occupancies are one piece of a hazard assessment, the true life hazard present at these occupancies should also be evaluated

Socioeconomic Factors

Beyond the statistical data for our organization there is a great deal of research into the topic of fires at multi-family dwellings. In a 1997 report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency titled the Socioeconomic Factors and the Incidence of Fire, several points are addressed which clearly demonstrate why multi-family dwellings are a higher risk occupancy for fire than other dwellings. The report begins by presenting the fact that nationally, over 66% of all residential fire causes are human related and that evaluation of the socioeconomic factors are the best known predictors of fire rates at the neighborhood level (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], 1997).

  • Ownership of property plays a significant role in the increased risk of fire at multi-family dwellings. These units are primarily rented and not privately owned occupancies. Fire rates in areas with low individual home or property ownership have been determined to be more than two times that of areas with high home ownership (United States Fire Administration, 1997, p. 5)
  • Low vacancy rates translate to a low supply of housing and in the multi-family category this is a low supply of affordable housing for low income families which can result in overcrowding of the available units. In the most densely populated areas of our district the multi-family dwelling vacancy rate of 3.2% is the lowest for suburban communities surrounding the City and County of Denver (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013). The incidence of fire is two to three times higher in housing tract areas ranked high on crowding (United States Fire Administration, 1997)
  • “Virtually every study of socioeconomic characteristics has shown that lower levels of income are either directly or indirectly tied to and increased risk of fire.”(United States Fire Administration, 1997, p. 2)
    According to the Denver Metro Area Apartment Vacancy and Rent Survey which reviews multi-family dwelling occupancy rates the average rent for the same area is $841.84 a month (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013). This is the second lowest of all reported neighborhoods and over $150.00 a month lower than the Denver Metro Average of $992.89 (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013).
  • “In most urban areas the lowest income units are in the oldest most run-down portion of the city’s housing stock. Living in an older poorly maintained housing unit raises a households risk for fire for several reasons.”
    • Poor maintenance of systems, heating and such which increases mechanical malfunction and the risk of fire.
    • Dated electrical wiring systems are typically overloaded by modern technology and alternative strategies increase electrical fire risk.
    • Households may be forced to compensate for poor systems of construction with stop gap measures such as space heaters.
    • Construction in these areas is typically before modern building codes and enforcement with very little retrofitting. (United States Fire Administration, 1997, p. 12)
  • Housing quality and age of dwellings is expanded on as a significant factor in the risk of and severity of fires. The USFA estimates that 92% of dwellings built since 1981 have working smoke detectors. The estimate for dwellings constructed prior to 1980 is only 74% (United States Fire Administration, 1997). For the City of Lakewood there is a marked difference in the vacancy rates in housing built prior to 1980 versus that which was built after 1981. Within Lakewood multi-family dwellings built before 1980 have the lowest vacancy rate at 2.7% compared to 1981 to present with a 4.4% vacancy rate (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013). As data collection and initial investigation begins to demonstrate the fire risk in multi-family and contributing factors begin to compound in areas with increased density and socioeconomic challenges.

Building Construction

Thirty-one percent of multi-family dwelling fires extend beyond the unit of origin (USFA, 2012). Common stairwells to multiple units in multi-story occupancies are vulnerable to exposure especially when the fire apartment door is left open and products of combustion rise through these channels. In regards to the interior of the multi-family units, 90% of  firefighters who I questioned in an online poll, reported that from the front door of the unit the kitchen area was open to, or between the front door and the sleeping areas. These two findings are significant factors in occupant egress during fire events. Cooking fires are the leading cause of multi-family dwelling fires at 69%. Cooking areas and kitchens are the primary areas of origin for non-confined multifamily dwelling fires at 33% (United States Fire Administration [USFA], 2012).

Center hall apartment design is another example of a factor which would increase the risk for ground ladder rescues during a working fire. Center hall construction in these apartments is accessed by open stairwells on opposite sides of the building and a common center hallway for access to each unit. This construction feature presents great risk to all occupants of the building in the event that the door to a fire unit is left open the products of combustion will quickly fill the common hallways and stairwells. Without balconies, these occupants have no other means to escape other than a ladder to a window in the event hallways and stairwells are blocked by fire or smoke. Center hall construction was reported as a key contributing factor to the severity of the Castle West Apartment Fire in Colorado Springs in 2007, where 85 occupants were rescued by ground ladders (Royal, 2009). The open stairwells to the common hallways allowed for free and possibly accelerated fire spread which almost immediately trapped nearly all the residents (R. Royal, personal communication, March 8, 2014). This construction feature continues to be a rescue problem for Colorado Springs Fire Department. In the first quarter of 2014 they have rescued 17 civilians by ground ladders from center hall design apartment fires (R. Royal, personal communication, March 8, 2014)


In a survey of our members 65% percent described apparatus access to these occupancies as “poor,” and 30% as “good”. When asked “If a significant fire occurred in a multi-family dwelling in your district what would be the best means for evacuating residents?” 60% responded standard egress and 30% responded ground ladders (Brush, 2014). While aerial ladder was an option it was not selected by any of the members questioned. At the Castle West Apartment fire in Colorado Springs, 85 residents were rescue by ground ladders representing 25% of the dwellings population. Not a single person was removed by aerial ladder.

For my fire district the most common multi-family dwelling is a 3 story building. If we take this information, the fact that most rescues will be made with ground ladders and the experience of CSFD and other departments the had "all hands" rescues at these occupancies we can truly focus on a specific ground ladder package, the 14' and 16' straight ladders and the 24' and 28' extension. My department primarily uses the 24' and 14' package on our engine companies, increasing to the 16' roof on trucks and a 35' or 45' extension. While theoretically these ladders meet the floor and sill heights of these structures, experience will tell you otherwise.

Apartments 010 Apartments 007

Captain Vern Scott of Denver Fire Department Truck Company 15 explained in a phone interview that due to the high density three and four story multi-family dwellings in his response district, he worked through the equipment request process to change out the two 24 foot ladders that are standard for DFD truck companies for a 28 foot extension ladders (V. Scott, personal communication, January 6, 2014). Through his experience he found that while four feet is perceived to be a small difference it is consistently the difference in making the tip to a balcony railing or to a fourth floor window sill in the presence of a garden or walk out level (V. Scott, personal communication, January 6, 2014).


(Avillo, 1999)

Due to the climbing angle of ladders a rule of thumb for the working length for ground ladders less than 35 feet is 1 foot less than the total length and two feet less for ground ladders over 35 feet (Avillo, 1999). The graphic above uses common residential floor and window sill heights found in multi-family dwellings to demonstrate the target height of a third floor window at 26 feet. This would be out of the working length reach of a 24 foot ladder which is 23 feet but within normal operation of a 28 foot extension ladder with a working length of 27 feet.

Castle Rock Fire Department (CRFD) also adjusted the ladder compliments of the engine companies. The industry standard ground ladder compliment for engine companies is a 14 foot roof ladder, 24 foot extension and 10 foot folding ladder (Shand & Wilbur, 2013). The CRFD apparatus committee for the new purchases elected to outfit all engine companies as well as the quint with 28 foot extension ladders and 16 foot roof ladders. The change to 28 and 16 foot ladders not only increases the reach of the ladders in these categories but also in width, making them a better tool for effecting rescues (O. Bersagel-Briese, personal communication, May 16, 2014). The CRFD was also specific about the manufacturer of their selected ladders. As displayed in the chart below the service test rating is set by NFPA and is the same for all ladders yet there is a marked difference in weight and a slight difference in the width.

(Alco Lite Ladders, 2014) (Duo Safety Ladders, 2014)


A great deal of attention is being placed on the research of extinguishment and ventilation, both of which I support. I believe that these types of processes in critical thinking and review of our problems and operations should be the way we approach everything we do. An improved understanding of potential and purpose will make us all better performers and give those we serve a better chance. What is presented here is just a short summary of the full research paper recently published to the National Fire Academy Learning Resource Center. This paper is just one piece of my work on ground ladders and has only served to increase my interest and purpose in pursuing more. If you are interested in taking a more in depth look at the paper you can find it here: Out of Reach? Evaluating the risk for ground ladder rescues at mult...

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Comment by Jim Duffy on November 30, 2014 at 1:51pm

Nice job Brian, well researched and thought out!

Comment by Paul Combs on November 26, 2014 at 9:33am

Excellent article!

Comment by John Kroll on November 26, 2014 at 9:01am

Brother Brush, my words certainly don't carry the same weight or credibility as Chief Halton's but my feelings are the same.  Very well researched and written and you bring us back to one of those essential topics of the fire service that are just not "sexy and exotic" so to many instructors are not giving the discipline its just due.  I have enjoyed reading your EFO paper (its an academic paper so by design not a page turner but...) and think it makes a very well supported argument.  Our response area is changing as universities and developers compete for space and the buildings change use and are cut up into smaller living units.  This argument is money in the bank and greatly appreciated. 

Comment by Brian Brush on November 24, 2014 at 11:19pm

Thank you for the kind words Chief.

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