Do Fire Departments Always Use High-Tech Equipment?

Prior to 1930, all of the ground ladders used by fire departments were made of wood. But as building heights continued to go up, a new solution for fighting fires vertically became necessary. Enter Sam Carbis, who invented a more maneuverable aluminum fire ladder, changing the landscape for first responders.

The San Francisco Fire Department uses its own specially-made wooden ladders, which are preferable to metal in a city with many low-hanging power lines.
The San Francisco Fire Department uses its own specially-made wooden ladders, which are preferable to metal in a city with many low-hanging power lines.

Wooden ladders are still in use in some communities, most notably in San Francisco, where the fire department uses ladders made from Douglas fir trees. Unlike those made of metal, wooden ladders don't conduct electricity, making them safer in a city known for its tightly packed streets and low-hanging power lines.

Fighting fires the old-fashioned way:

  • San Francisco is especially unique because its fire department builds its own ladders. The San Francisco Ladder Shop has been designing, building and maintaining ladders for the SFFD since 1917. At a cost of about $100 USD per linear foot, the ladders aren’t cheap -- but they are easier to repair when breaks occur.

  • San Francisco's ladders are made from lumber that has been allowed to mature for at least 15 years, which keeps the ladders stable in the city’s humid conditions.

  • San Francisco has a maze of very steep and narrow streets that make ladder truck access difficult. Another challenge for San Francisco firefighters is the strong wind that comes in off the bay, making lightweight ladders less stable.

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