The lowly ground ladder may not seem very important -- until it fails while you're climbing it. Your perspective on the matter changes the higher you climb. Here are some basic ground ladder maintenance tips to help keep everyone safe.
Clean the ladder after every use to remove mud, soot and any foreign matter in the locks or pulley. Clean it every six months to remove accumulated road grime and salts, even if the ladder has not been used during that period. Soap and water works well on all types of ladders. Wash the parts with a sponge or fiber brush. Avoid using high-pressure washers, especially on wood ladders. Be careful not to wash the protective surface off the heat sensor label found near the top of aluminum and fiberglass ladders.
Rinse the ladder with a spray of clean water, paying special attention to flushing out the inner surfaces of the side rails and inside any hollow rungs.
When the ladder is clean and dry, visually inspect it for defects. Check for damage to the side rails, rungs, feet, rope, pulley and pawls or locks. Shake or twist the rungs to make sure they are tight. Check the dot on the heat sensor label found on aluminum and fiberglass ladders. If the dot is black, remove the ladder from service and have it load tested; if it is expired or missing, test the ladder and install a new label.
Physically check the operation of the rope, slides and locks on extension ladders. Check the hinge mechanisms and locks on folding ladders and the spring-loaded roof hooks on roof ladders. Repair or replace any ladders that do not operate properly.
Aluminum ladders can sustain small nicks and dents without concern about strength or safety. Cracks or more significant damage require testing, repair or replacement. Small nicks and dents in fiberglass ladders should be lightly sanded and have a spot coat of clear epoxy glue applied. Both aluminum and fiberglass ladders should be coated with a liquid car wax to protect the finish.
Nicks and dents in wood ladders require immediate spot repair with clear varnish to avoid water absorption and maintain electrical non-conductivity. Periodically, the entire ladder should be given a coat of clear varnish.
Before the ladders are placed back on the apparatus, the sliding surfaces on all extension ladders should be rubbed with a paraffin or candle wax. Fully extend the ladder and rub the wax onto the upper and lower portions of the rails that slide against each other. Also rub wax on the accessible portions of the locks, especially those portions that rub against the rungs as the ladder is extended.
The NFPA 1932 Standard on Use, Maintenance, and Service Testing of In-Service Fire Department Ground Ladders requires ladders be tested once a year. The main test consists of a large load applied to the center portion of an extended ladder supported at each end in the horizontal position. It is a severe test, and may cause some older ladders to fail. Be aware of this and conduct the test safely.
New Rigs Need New Ladders
One final point. New apparatus usually require new ground ladders. Although some tools and equipment may get transferred from an old rig to a new one, ground ladders shouldn't be among them. NFPA 1901 Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus requires that ground ladders on new apparatus must meet the NFPA 1931 Standard on Design of and Design Verification Tests for Fire Department Ground Ladders. Most older ground ladders don't meet this standard. When you buy a new rig, specify new ground ladders as part of the purchase -- after all, you wouldn't re-use old tires on a new rig, why re-use old ground ladders?