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Do Fire Departments Always Use High-Tech Equipment?

Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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