By Anke Henrich
"When the wind causes the basket to start swaying, too, it feels like you’re on a roller coaster just before a drop." Firefighter Thomas Kuhn from Grevenbroich, near Düsseldorf, describes the feeling of facing flames from the front while also battling wind from the side. In baskets on turntable ladders, at heights of up to 30 meters, Kuhn and his colleagues focus their efforts on extinguishing a building fire - securely attached but sweating in their equipment which, complete with breathing apparatus and tools, weighs between 15 and 20 kg. Sometimes they also have to rescue people from burning homes.
All eyes are on the firefighters, but the vehicles are worth a look too. Just how important they are was clear for the entire world to see during the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris this April. With the roof beams of the cathedral ablaze, firefighters would have had to risk life and limb to reach the site of the fire. Fire departments from Paris and surrounding areas therefore dispatched fire engines with turntable ladders to the cathedral, which was in danger of collapsing. With humans and machines working in perfect harmony, they managed to save the most beautiful church in Paris at the very last second.
Turntable ladders on fire trucks must have sufficient reach to extinguish fires in attics. The vehicles must be heavy and stable enough to not tip over when the ladder and the basket are at angles of up to 78 degrees. The turntable ladders cannot be too heavy either, as they need to meet the requirements of the building code, while also remaining maneuverable enough to navigate the narrow streets of old towns. A further prerequisite is speed, as mere minutes can mean the difference between life and death.
As soon as a turntable ladder vehicle has reached the site of the fire and the four stabilizing legs have been extended, the firefighters travel skywards on a ladder which, in Germany, generally extends up to 30 meters. However, firefighters may also have to scale the ladders on foot, navigating ever-narrower rungs - a part of the design which enables the telescopic ladders to fit together to save space when not in use. "This means that every step we take pushes the rung away a bit and the ladder sways in sync with the step," Kuhn explains. "Once fully extended, the turntable basket has to be flexible like a tree branch, so that it doesn’t break in windy conditions when loaded," he describes his workplace matter-of-factly. "And a lot of the time, we need electricity and water up there." Electric cables run up the side of the ladder sections, while the firefighters pull the water hose with them as the basket is extended.
Alongside this, help for the firefighters is increasingly coming from high-tech solutions. Cameras attached to the basket can take images and provide an overview of the situation - with no risk to people. Thermal imaging cameras provide vital information on the location of people and fire sources in the building.
Recent technological advances mean that this information can be sent directly to the operations management team via their own WiFi source. Demand for these services is also growing among industry customers and airport fire departments. At 90 meters, Germany's longest telescopic mast (on a fire truck) is used by energy supplier RWE Power at its huge lignite power plant near Düsseldorf. This giant ladder is the only way for the trained site fire department to reach the top level of the power plant. 52,000 kg permissible total weight and a 420 hp engine. The firefighting equipment and structure are produced by Rosenbauer. Permanently installed, the fire pump can pump up to 4,000 l/min at a pressure of 10 bar. All this certainly places high demands on the manufacturer.
Development in the firefighting equipment industry took a huge leap forward just five years ago, reports Michael Kristeller, Managing Director of aerial rescue vehicle specialist Rosenbauer from Karlsruhe. It is now possible to build baskets that can hold up to 500 kg. This means that even sick people who weigh over 200 kg can be removed from a building more quickly than if up to eight people had to work together to carry the person down a staircase.
"But 500 kg is probably the absolute upper limit," says Kristeller. "Previously, the stretcher and the patient were placed on the basket rails, attached via two pins. This has been improved too: In our new baskets, the front column can be removed so stretchers can be placed on the base." This enables the firefighters to perform cardiac massage in a kneeling position, for example. The patient still needs nerves of steel, as their legs and feet extend beyond the basket into the air. Even without burning attics, baskets which are open on one side are an important innovation, particularly in an aging society. In future, more and more people who rely on a walker or a wheelchair for mobility will live in care homes, and many will not be able to navigate the stairs on their own.
Turning something old into something new
Unfortunately, not every municipality or site fire department can afford the latest technology. A cutting-edge aerial ladder starts from 400,000 euros, increasing to 800,000 euros for high-tech vehicles with telescopic ladders of up to 50 meters. The solution here is refurbishment - a process that takes old equipment and brings it into line with the highest levels of modern technology. This is also an important market segment for manufacturer Rosenbauer.
"The process makes sense for vehicles up to 20 years old and represents significant cost savings compared to procuring a new vehicle. We make these vehicles almost brand new again," says their Managing Director. The chassis, ladder, turntable, basket and podium can all be completely refurbished. A new substructure, metal plating and cover surfaces are manufactured, installed and painted. It is also the perfect opportunity to install additional equipment, such as a deluge gun which can be attached to the basket, a stretcher attachment, or a platform next to the turntable to hold an electricity generator or ventilator. The lighting can also be converted to cutting-edge LED technology. There appears to be only one problem for this type of business: German engineering quality.
"Many fire departments use their vehicles until the absolute bitter end," says Kristeller. "There is sometimes a lack of suitable used vehicles that don’t have as many miles on the clock."