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Metal Awnings, Ground Ladders, And Row Homes


Have you ever tried to ladder a building in the 'middle of the row' with metal awnings over the porch and every window? If so, you know what a real pain in the a** it can be. Whether aerial devices or ground ladders, metal awnings can complicate proper ladder placement when the front of the building HAS to be laddered for a rescue. 

Firemen are often faced with situations that require immediate ground ladder placement in the front of the building. Whether performing horizontal ventilation, accessing the roof, VES, reaching an occupant ready to jump, or a small child being handed out the window, ground ladders must be placed quickly. Of course, other factors and obstructions must be present to make this task difficult. Consider the following:

*1st and 2nd floor fire middle of the row (no side access)

*Overhead energized lines

*Limited setback with parked vehicles in front

*No alley walkway between the homes

*Hoseline and firefighter traffic in front of the building

*Metal awnings over the porch and every window 

These are common challenges for urban departments.

So how do we deal with metal awnings?

The simple answer is to not deal with them at all. Why bother with them if you don’t have to? Removing the awnings just to place ground ladders can be difficult and time consuming. So we must work with or around them.

This awning had to be removed during a basement fire that ran the walls on both sides. This was rare because of the location of the awning on the B-side entrance of the fire building that prevented the smoke from venting out of the structure. Instead, the smoke was diverted back into the building where firemen were working. After several minutes, they were removed and the smoke stopped banking down back into the building. This was a good tactic and a situation where removing the awning solved the problem. But removing them just to ladder the building is much more difficult.

We can’t always ignore metal awnings. If the roof has to be accessed and metal awnings are an obstruction, a common method is to go through the ground floor of fire building (if possible) and out to the rear yard with a ladder. If there’s fire on the first floor, go through an exposure (you might have to navigate a fence or two). Another option is to go down the block and access the rear or roof, and walk back to the fire building. No one ever said urban truck work was going to be easy.


Awnings are common in urban areas and will vary in construction, material, height, width, and depth. Awnings can be expensive retractable cloth or corroded metal awnings with missing hardware, and loose bolts in old masonry walls. Awnings are usually not a problem at most SFD fires as firemen can work around them. But what happens when these awnings become obstructions during ground ladder placement for a rescue?

In general, awnings are only a problem when present on the ground floor, floors above, and the front of the building facing the street. This can be frustrating if a ground ladder must be placed to the bottom of a third floor (or attic) window to make a rescue.

Practical: Using a beam raise, attempt the following method:

Try raising a 35’ ground ladder (beam raise) on the sidewalk between the overhead lines and the house, BUT not extending it (yet). With the ladder bedded, rotate it and make sure the fly section is out facing you as you’re looking at the house. Rest the ladder against the awning at a near 80-degree angle and then extend it. From there, pull it back towards the street until it’s properly placed, even if it’s still contacting the awning. CAUTION: Keep eyes on overhead wires. For training, have an extra spotter present to ensure overhead wires aren't contacted.

As the angle approaches 45 degrees, the ladder must be footed. If firefighters are lucky, a parked vehicle or fire apparatus tire can be used to foot the ladder. Remember this is a rapid rescue and some rules can be broken to save a life.

This same method can also be attempted with a 24’ or 28' ground ladder for a second-floor window. 

Be sure to size-up the window first and consider a 20’ straight ladder if it will reach the bottom of a 2nd floor window. It will be an easier option, and a one-man job.


For horizontal ventilation of both 2nd floor windows, the ladder was raised between the porch and overhead wires, rested against the awning, raised, rotated, and pulled back. If this isn’t possible, attempt to discover a way to roll the ladder onto the windows and break them. Some (coordinated) ventilation is better than none.

*As always use caution with overhead wires. Common sense applies when it comes to placing ground ladders against a metal awning when there's a chance of an exposed live wire dropping and making contact with it.

ROOF ACCESS: Overhead lines can prevent aerial and ground ladders from being safely raised for roof access. A fire on the first floor prevents firefighters from going through the house into the rear yard, a common method for urban firefighters. Firemen have gone several houses down the block to ladder a flat roof and walk back to the fire building to vertically ventilate.

If there’s a porch roof on the fire building (or the exposure) and the main roof can be accessed by placing another ground ladder on that roof, use it. Placing a 20’ straight ladder to access a porch roof and pulling it up behind you to get to the roof is another option. Just make sure a replacement ladder is placed at the porch so you can get down (relax safety officers).


Front porches (like awnings) and overhead lines are obstructions that can be difficult to avoid when attempting to properly ladder a 3rd floor window. But unlike awnings, porches are far more stable making them a better work platform for firefighters. Using a second ground ladder placed on the porch roof to gain access to upper floors is ideal if possible.

Photo by Nick Hollins

Canopies on commercial buildings will also have to be dealt with. This is good ground ladder placement and footing. 

Canopies are common obstructions on taxpayers in urban areas. Despite this canopy frame having a few missing bolts, corrosion, and loose masonry at connection points, it's still very sturdy. But canopies shouldn't always be relied upon for supporting a ground ladder without inspection. 

Rusted connection points

Missing bolt-loose bracket.

Give these awnings and canopies a good hard pull away from the wall and downward to get an idea of their strength. Although not a guaranteed test, it should give you an idea if it's reliable enough to lend some support to a ground ladder.

Other obstructions are fire escapes, canopies, porches, stoops, fences, cantilevered bump-outs, secured properties, and connected houses with no gaps. If there’s fire on the first floor and the roof needs to be accessed, go through the 1st floor of the exposure building with your ladder. From there you can hump it over a fence or ladder the exposure and walk over from there if possible.

In these situations, the “ground ladder” chapter of the book goes out the window.

Parked vehicles can help you or hurt you. Using one of the tires to butt the ladder can be helpful, but while you’re pulling the ladder away from the building approaching a lower angle to clear the awning, that vehicle can be in your way preventing successful proper placement. 


I wouldn’t trust standing on this awning or working off it, but I did apply most of my weight to it and it held. Although a rare practice, sounding an awning may be something that a fireman will have to do to perform a rescue.


This tactic may or may not be successful depending on parked cars out front, a larger awning, or both.

Placing a small straight ladder to a stable-enough porch awning is an easy way to get up and help adjust the ladder when the tips are caught in the siding.

The best way to prepare for awnings is to train using various methods and testing the different angles you can get away with. Awnings are obstructions that will not always interfere with your operations. They will only be difficult when the front of a building MUST be laddered and there are additional obstruction factors present. This may leave your plan A and B impossible, so have a plan C and D.

RESCUE: During the rapid rescue of an occupant ready to jump, landing on the awning may at least break their fall, it may even hold. We placed 200 lbs on one awning and it held, but that doesn’t mean the next one will. We know awnings are unreliable when it comes to stability, but as a last resort it’s better than nothing.


For ventilation, this awning is not an issue if your tool can reach the windows. For a rescue be sure to size up and sound the awning. If it’s not being exposed to fire and somewhat sturdy, it may be just good enough to apply some weight if you have to make a grab from a window or assist an occupant who is ready to jump.


If ventilation is being requested by the attack team, you can take both windows from this angle with a hook. 


One firefighter should be capable of deploying a 14’, 16’, 20’ ladder off the apparatus, including raising a 24’ ground ladder.


Try accessing the fire building in the middle of the row by accessing an exposure down the block.

If the fire is impinging on the awning and it’s retaining heat on the porch where firefighters need to enter, welcome to the fire service. This awning is not going to be easily removed so we’re just going to have to deal with their presence. There may be instances when an awning will be beneficial to firefighters if they have to access this porch roof to perform a rescue in a front bedroom. It may shield firefighters and buy them time by preventing the fire from rolling over the porch

Imagine pulling up with the first due apparatus and there’s an immediate rescue that has to be made. Cell phones are recording, people are screaming, and fire is blocking the residents escape path. There are more occupants hanging out of the 2nd and 3rd floor windows ready to jump. The front of the building HAS to be laddered quickly. Metal awnings over the porch and every window aren't the only problem you observe as you size up the structure. The setback is short with parked cars and overhead wires present. And it’s a middle of the row.

This isn’t the time to realize you have no plan B, C or D.

On training day, go out and find some vacant structures with metal awnings. Assign an additional spotter for training purposes to prevent ground ladders from getting too close to overhead lines. Be creative strategically flipping, rolling, rotating, muscling and driving those ground ladders in position. Practice applying several different methods to overcome these obstructions so you're better prepared to deal with them. 

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