The Shorthanded Aerial Operator

As we fight these fires with less and less staffing, we are all at a greater risk


By Ryan Johnston

Who is coming to the fire? For most of us not in an urban setting, we are not fortunate enough to have a full complement of firefighters on any of our apparatus, especially our aerial trucks. On the modern fireground, now more than ever we are expected to know and do more with less–a lot less. To be an aerial operator, you MUST be able to think fast and act faster. You must take in the whole scene, at least the sides you can see, and you must position the apparatus in the right spot at the right time. This takes more than just training in the local high school parking lot. This requires many real-world condition aerial sets. By “set” I mean to fully deploy your aerial, set the jacks/outriggers, and get the aerial in the air to a useful position. This does not mean that you need to go to tons of fires a year. But it does mean that you should set at the local alarm as if it were a fire. Look at your conditions on arrival and make the set. The more you perform at this high level, the better you and your company will be, and your citizens will benefit from it.

Most departments in my area would be riding heavy if they had just one other person in the truck with them. For those who are fortunate enough to have more than one person in the aerial, just imagine your last tough set at a fire or some type of technical rescue call you used your aerial for. Now think about that set. Did you just show up and place the aerial and say, “That was easy”? Maybe you did but not likely. It does not just happen; you must train. But if that set was easy, then ask yourself why. Is it possibly because you had more than one set of eyes looking out? Now I am not taking anything away from the many outstanding operators out there. But just for a minute, imagine if you had to make some of your tough sets alone or with limited help. It is not easy. I hope this article will help those who do not have that crew to assist, that extra set of eyes, or that senior operator to learn from. For those who do, hopefully you can pull a little something from this article as well.

As a solo or shorthanded aerial operator, you will be tasked with making some major decisions. Should you make a set with the aerial or are ground ladders the priority? Are you going to set the aerial to the roof and then stand on the turntable or are you going to go to the roof and be part of the roof crew; or, are you the only one on the roof crew? Now, do not just set it and forget it if your standard operating procedures (SOPs) do not allow. Regardless of what I or anyone else says about aerial placement or leaving the apparatus turntable or bucket, follow your department’s SOPs.


So, who is training your new aerial operators? Is it the old crusty firefighter just waiting out his time to retire and who has not made a set with the aerial since 1984? Okay, maybe 1999. Is it the kid who was just trained on the aerial eight months ago and who has no practical experience? Is he just there to check the boxes–much like the way he was just trained? My hope is that you have a seasoned operator who has some time on the job, who is still excited about the job and is into the job. I hope that person has made plenty of real sets and is proactive about his Aerial Ladder Culture. You know the type, the ones who can put the aerial just about anywhere you want it and can tell if the set will be good long before the truck is in the right spot–the person who has the confidence with the experience to back it up.

Now, let’s assume for a minute that you are a minimally trained aerial operator. An operator who has met the minimum requirements set forth by some book or task sheet somewhere–not necessarily qualified but certified.  How do you keep up these very critical skills and, better yet, improve on them? Are you ready for the next fire, the next rescue, the next whatever you need to do with that aerial? Or did you get done what was required and now it’s time to just put the old ladder truck away? Well, I assume if you are reading this article, you are not that person. If you work for a short-staffed department and it is now just you and the officer or, worse, you alone, how do you get better? How do you challenge yourself? What are your options?

You need to put the jacks down and get that aerial in the air. You need to be out in your community daily and start making sets. It does not matter if you are alone or with a whole company; you must get out and start putting in the reps and make sets. Make sets to actual buildings. Start out by grabbing a few simple ones and try different angles, different sides of the building. Come in from different directions. When doing so, give yourself an objective and do all you can to meet that objective. Whether it’s two sides and the roof or placing the aerial in a position to short jack, figure it out and make it happen. The best way to get better is to simply do it.

Another good drill that I learned from Captain Nick Esposito of the Bridgeport (CT) Fire Department is to just pick a street and then say, “Set to the fifth house on the right or the eighth house on the left,” not knowing what that house is or what the obstacles are. This way it is closer to the real deal as if you were responding to the address for the first time because technically you are.

I often see aerial trainings at the local high school parking lot, and the aerial is in the middle of this huge empty lot. One firefighter, the trainer, is out there with a stopwatch “timing” you on your setup. Then the next person goes and does the same exact thing while being “timed.” This does not do a whole lot to help refine the fine skills of an aerial operator. Alright, maybe day one ever operating the aerial this may help some, getting the feel and the sounds. Maybe. If you choose to go to that high school parking lot, set to the buildings instead. Hit different spots, make it a challenge. Do not let the other “competitors” watch, especially if this is a competition. In fact, if you make it a competition, you will add a little bit of stress to the set.

When you are out training and making sets, do it for real. Set where you would realistically want to be. If this means slowing traffic for five minutes on a residential street, go for it. Once you explain that you are training and explain the benefits of this type of training, most people will understand.

Keep an eye out for your obstacles: wires, trees, vehicles, curbs, street signs, people. Be observant of your surroundings. Go slow. Start slowing up for your set several hundred feet prior to your objective. Take it all in and make good informed decisions on your set. This is not a race. If you roll in too fast, you can miss many details of your surroundings. As you make these sets, try setting as if there is an engine on scene. Set up some cones to replicate the location of the engine; maybe even put them in the wrong place. You don’t always get the spot you want. Maybe the engine parks in the wrong place and lines are off running and flowing. Maybe you try setting as a second-due aerial. Maneuver around to get the best set. Remember, even though you may have several firefighters on scene, it does not mean you have help with the set. They all may have tasks they are assigned to complete.

This training time is where you want to try all sorts of different things and really get a feel for the truck–such as how it sounds when operating normally. When that sound changes when you move the aerial, you will learn that sound under normal conditions. When you start hearing new sounds, that is the time to investigate what that means. So, when it counts, during a fire or even a rescue, you will know or have some type of idea if there is an issue. What are the truck’s limits? What are the aerial’s limits? What is the scrub area? How tall is the ladder really? How far will it reach in all directions? Are there any alarms or alerts? There are many ways to tell if your truck is in the right spot. Knowing the size of your truck will help. How long is your truck? How much ladder do you lose when you operate off the front? What do the controls feel like? Are there any alarms that sound if the aerial is overloaded or if you are in danger of striking the cab or other parts of the truck? How reactive is the hydraulics? Do you have a pre-piped waterway? Is there a rescue mode? How do you put it in rescue mode? If you have an older ladder with a pre-piped waterway and are unable to pin it back in the rescue mode, this will affect your rescues. You need to know that you have extra baggage hanging off the tip of the aerial. You need to know how that reacts when loaded. When making a rescue, we are anything but gentle. The aerial will potentially have some tremendous loads on the tip during this task. Adding the weight and bulkiness of the pre-pipped waterway will be a concern. How much does the aerial flex with someone on it? What is the tip load of the aerial? What is it flowing water?

One of the most important things you can do in this setting is fail. Now is the time to fail, reset, and do it again. When there are lives on the line is no time to try new things. This is when you need to get it right the first time.  

Most would say that the start of your set is as you approach the fire building. I believe the set starts long before you set foot on that truck. You need some basic information to make a good informed decision. That starts with clear expectations from your officer–either the chief officer or the truck officer. Where does the officer’s expectations come from? Partially from experience, partially from a good set of SOPs and the aerial operator’s manual for that apparatus. Having these two documents and clear expectations of the officer will go a long way.

Know your area. Get out in the district and learn the streets. Know the ones you may not be able to get the aerial into; or, maybe you have to go a different route because of the truck size. Also, knowing the types of buildings and their construction will assist you in making good effective sets. What is the wire situation overhead? What is the street surface like? Is it brand new pavement and it’s July and hot? If it is, what will your jacks/outriggers do on that surface? Do you ever beach the aerial–place it on the front lawn because that is the only place you can reach the objective? What is that ground surface like? Will it support the aerial? Are there any trouble areas in your response district? In my area, we have some old train trestle supports, and they are in the river. We had a person stuck on one, unable to get down without help. The crew positioned the tower truck in a manner that allowed them to go below grade from the shoreline and reach out to the trestle. They packaged the person and brought him to safety. The crew was well versed in this trouble area as well as the capabilities of the aerial.

Know your rig. Know what your truck can and cannot do and how to position the truck for optimal use. Know how to do simple things like short jack and how to operate the emergency bypasses–all things you should do in your daily or weekly truck check.

Know that training can take place any time. If you respond to a lot of automatic fire alarms, smells and bells, and false calls, take this opportunity to make sets. This is a great time to see how you react to a little stress of getting the best set for the job. Now make sure your higher ups are on board with this. They should be. So, make your set as if it was a fire. Listen to the radio traffic, figure out where the alarm is coming from, and attempt to make that area. Now if the call is on a major street and it’s busy, reconsider or at least get the go ahead from the officer.

Train every day that you can as often as you can. As we fight these fires with less and less staffing, we are all at a greater risk. Seek out that seasoned aerial operator, the one who knows that truck better than anyone else, knows your community better than anyone else. Buy him a cup of coffee and have a seat. Open your ears and speak minimally. Sometimes by just listening you get so much more. The stories these senior firefighters are telling have meaning. They have information on buildings that they have had fires in and what made those fire so tough to fight. There is always a lesson to be learned in these talks and not just about the truck, the set, the buildings, and the fire. You will learn so much more. You may even become part of your department’s aerial ladder culture. Take what you learn and apply it.    

Ryan Johnston is a 23-year career firefighter for the Waterville (ME) Fire Department and is the rescue technician on Rescue 1. He started as a volunteer in 1991 and still volunteers in his hometown of Oakland, where he holds the rank of lieutenant. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and is a charter member of the Managing Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. He also is the owner of Maineiac Training, a fire service training company.

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