What You Need to Know to Properly Spot & Stabilize an Aerial


Ready, Set … Proper aerial spotting & stabilizing requires a thorough knowledge of your rig
By Peter F. Kertzie

Local carnivals move and set up several times, often weekly, as they move from town to town. The North Bailey Fire Department was in view from my bedroom window in the house I grew up in. Each year, the department held a firefighter carnival, complete with a ring toss, chicken barbecue, refreshment tent and amusement park rides.

In late May, I would watch from my window with fascination as the carnies moved in with their assortment of truck-mounted amusement rides. The movements and placement of the various vehicles were executed with rote skill. There were clearances and adjacencies that had to be honored for each ride to fit in the allotted area. Carnies would release latches, engage PTOs and grab hydraulic control levers attached to big metal folding thrill rides. After a short time, the carnival would all unfold into to a spinning, moving, lowering and raising world of metal, flashing lights and excitement.

The confidence to work up and around a fire on an aerial device comes from the proper preparations—spotting & stabilizing your rig the way the designer’s intended. Photo John P. Fecio III

A roving assortment of amusement park rides as set up by carnies who know exactly what to do to get their equipment safely placed, set up and operated. The process bears a striking similarity to what truckies must do when arriving at the scene of a fire. Photo Peter F. Kertzie

The chocks are an easy step to skip. Twice, I had my rig roll away on me when we failed to use them. Tip: Keep the chocks slightly away from the tires so they don’t get pinched underneath when the rig is brought down. Photo Peter F. Kertzie

The North Bailey Volunteer Fire Department in Amherst, N.Y., operates this refurbished basic American LaFrance aerial ladder. The outriggers are manually deployed and screwed down tight to the ground. Photo courtesy Erie County Fire Wire.

Setting up on snow-covered surfaces may hide things on the surface, such as manhole covers. Photo Peter F. Kertzie

This training photo shows the utilization of the roadside curb. These surfaces are usually very strong. As much as the hydrant in the picture sticks out like a sore thumb, truckies approaching the scene looking for overhead obstructions could easily miss it, much to the engine operator’s chagrin. Photo Peter F. Kertzie

At the controls of this aerial is firefighter Jonathon Croom of Buffalo T-7. The crew is out on routine training. Firefighter Croom was killed in the line of duty on Aug. 24. Photo Peter F. Kertzie

Carnies and truckies share a lot more than you might realize. We’re not born with the ability to position the truck and operate the aerial device; once we learn it, it isn’t like riding a bike. We must keep practicing and practicing under many different conditions. Overhead obstructions, different terrain and building setbacks make spotting and stabilizing an aerial a learned art.

By the Book
Before venturing out the firehouse door, we should be familiar with the manufacturer’s guidelines for operating our aerial device—and I refer to the ones in writing, not the ones given to us with a wink and a nod by the guy in a manufacturer’s baseball cap. Sometimes the representative sent to us may ad lib the answers to our questions or misunderstand what we’re asking, or simply have the wrong information for our apparatus. This is not a slam against these trainers, but rather a suggestion to verify what you’re told with the owner’s manual and, if needed, get clarification in writing from the company that built the rig. It may be hard to find an ally if something goes wrong and you were acting in a way that’s inconsistent with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

When you’re learning about your rig, educate yourself on all of the levers and gauges and the hydraulic system overrides. Knowing all the nuances of your rig will give you and your crew the confidence to professionally stabilize your aerial so that it can be efficiently and safely used in an emergency. And if something doesn’t go right, you’ll be able to troubleshoot the problem.

What might go wrong? Examples: no power to the outriggers, no power to the aerial device after the outriggers are deployed or slow operating outriggers. I worked on a rig that required an unusual operation: When it was stabilized on uneven ground, we would have to take a broomstick and reach up to the ladder’s cradle and manually trigger the interlock. No one panicked when the power didn’t go to the turntable because, through experience, the crew knew how to address the problem.

Know your pedestal and controls in the bucket if so equipped. You should look like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pushing and pulling levers and grabbing switches. The standard controls for raise/lower, rotate and extend/retract are labeled, but try to be so familiar with them that you don’t need the labels to operate. That way, when smoke, weather conditions or failing eyesight obscure the labels, you’re not tripped up. If you know your controls well enough to operate them without always looking down, you can concentrate on watching where the aerial device is going.

Many pedestals have a “dead man switch.” If the pedestal controls don’t respond and you’ve completed all the required previous steps, you might not be depressing the dead man switch. If you have the dead man depressed and still get no action, there could be ice, snow, dirt or some other material under the button, preventing the switch from working. This can easily be removed without the need to panic.

My department has mechanics on call and ready to respond to fires. Occasionally we’ve called them out for what amounted to be a small problem—the PTO switch wasn’t on or the dead man switch wasn’t depressed. However nicely the mechanics relay this information to you, it translates to, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” If something isn’t functioning and you have troubleshooted everything, you needn’t fear calling for the help of a mechanic or reporting to the incident commander that your rig is malfunctioning.

Stabilizing & Spotting
Sometimes in our haste to get the ladder up and operating, we think that we have to cut corners. This is foolhardy; we must set up our rig safely and completely all the time.

Many times I’ve fielded the question, “Do we have to use the wheel chocks or the plates?” My standard answer: If skipping a step could save someone’s life—if that extra couple seconds would make a difference, if a baby was hanging off the peak of a roof as fire licked upward and you needed a couple extra seconds—then you can skip a step. “So we can skip a step?” would be the reply. No! Don’t skip a step. That’s a much better answer.

The type of outriggers on your aerial can determine where you spot. Some outriggers are hinged and drop down into position, some extend from below and some hydraulically come out and then down. How do you know if the outriggers are properly deployed? Some have lights that go on when ready, while some older rigs may rely more on your knowledge and (dare I say) common sense. The previously mentioned North Bailey Fire Department in my town is still operating a refurbished American LaFrance tiller rig that has manual outriggers. (This is the oldest in service aerial ladder in New York State.) The outriggers are pulled out, unfolded and then turned until tight to the ground. There are no buzzers or lights to let the operators know that things are ready to go. All they have is their training.

Place your rig where it can reach its target, avoid overhead obstructions and be located on firm ground. This takes practice. The street is usually pretty solid, but weak spots can exist. If the roadways are snow covered, outriggers may be inadvertently placed on top of manhole covers—even more reason to use the manufacturer’s recommended plates.

At times we find ourselves on surfaces that may be suspect, such as bare ground, gravel or sidewalks. Knowing your district can keep you up to date on recent excavations that may yield soft ground. Sidewalks look solid, but aren’t always. I wouldn’t rule them out as a surface, but would certainly exercise caution when stabilizing an aerial on them.

Street curbs are normally very substantial and I’ve never had a problem using them for stabilizing. Problems can occur when you’re half on a curb and half on the roadway. You can solve this dilemma by using cribbing on the uneven surface before setting down your plates.

Now You’re Ready
I’ve worked my way through an entire article, and all we’ve done is park our rig and get it ready to use—no tactics, no riding positions and no discussion of what we’re going to do with our aerial device once we have it deployed. That should tell you that a lot goes into getting the rig spotted, stabilized and ready to go.

Peter F. Kertzie is a 21-year veteran of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Fire Department. He is currently serving as a battalion chief and was formerly a lieutenant and captain at Truck-14. He is a New York State-certified Municipal Fire Training Officer and holds a bachelor’s degree in business and an associate’s degree in fire-protection technology.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Joseph L. De Laura, jr. on November 1, 2009 at 7:43pm
Good lesson in learning the basics first and learning them well.
Comment by Kathy Williams on October 31, 2009 at 11:35am
Excellent article, well written, articulate. Article is written with careful thought and covered the subject well. Thanks.
Comment by Paul Montpetit on October 30, 2009 at 7:16pm
Cool....but I can already "spot" an aerial....especially if the ladder or tower is up....(you asked for that one) LOL
Comment by Mark Berg on October 30, 2009 at 3:45pm
Very good article. I delivered a 100 foot tiller just 24 years ago with Hand operated tormentors. The fire dept never read there specification!

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