Memory Jogger – Roof Operations 101

September 30, 2018

The goal for this article is simple: keep you thinking, keep you learning, and keep you safe. The following may seem like basic everyday information, and it is. It contains all the stuff you learned as a rookie but now, with time, have forgotten or have not put into practice for a while. Hopefully, these points will generate renewed interest and create questions that will lead to further training.

Most experts will agree that people learn best by receiving information in small segments and then reinforce it by performing the action—all of which should fit perfectly into daily training at the fire station level. Many of the emergency operations we perform are complex processes. They may seem simple to the seasoned veteran but only because a particular individual has performed these actions over and over during the duration of their career. It’s called experience. Our actions come from studying a subject and then actually performing what we have learned to build muscle memory. We then repeat this action time and time again until it becomes second nature.

Roof operations are a great example. The process of vertical ventilation is a complex one but one that can become second nature with proper training and practical hands-on applications. Captain Matt Nolen, a former A/O himself, now assigned to Drill Tower 81 knows the importance of training. “When laddering any structure, a number of things must be considered. You must make an assessment (size up) of the building itself, the perceived location of the fire, the size of ladder needed, and any obstacles in your way. It is also critical to understand what role your company is playing at this incident. For example: is your company assigned to the roof or is your company laddering windows and balconies for rescue? Your assessment of the building should begin as soon as possible. By the time the apparatus comes to a stop you should have some idea of the size, type, and age of the building.

“Remember to size up your building as soon as possible.
Determine the size, the height, the type of building, the location of the fire, and any obstacles in your way.”

Captain Matt Nolen, DT 81

Operational guidelines are evolving daily, however, some basic tactics always apply. Even under the best of conditions, working above ground is hazardous, let alone doing it with fire beneath you. The following are some points to consider.

Choose your Ladder Wisely

When choosing a ladder to gain access to a roof, make sure you have more than you need. If the ladder is just a little short, it’s not the right one—plain and simple. Searching for a rung while trying to get off a failing roof is not a situation you want to find yourself in. The ladder should extend past the roofline or railing by two to three rungs minimum. This will make it a lot easier to see during the night or in heavy smoke conditions.

Ladder Placement

The correct ladder placement is the foundation of your roof operation. A ladder placed in the wrong location could be disastrous. In general, we ladder the uninvolved portion of the building. Ideally, you want to start from the strongest points of the building, like the corners, where you give yourself a safer area of refuge to get off the building and the likelihood of structure failure is the lowest. Try and pick a location close to the area where you will be working. Don’t make your commute across the roof too long or choose a location where you are forced to cross an area where the conditions of the roof are unknown. Placing a ladder over a window could allow for the potential of fire impinging on the ladder, trapping you.

Another overlooked item you need to take into consideration is the height of a parapet wall or the pitch of the roof. It is not uncommon to find very tall walls on a commercial building. The heightened wall may be designed to hide equipment located on the roof. From the ground it is sometimes difficult to determine the actual height you will need to climb down to access the roof. Look for the locations of the scuppers, as it relates to the top of the parapet wall. This should determine the need for additional laddering. You may need multiple ladders to reach your final objective.

LAFD Apparatus Operator Robert Stoffel adds that, “In regards to steep pitch roof ladder operations, if it looks steep, then it is steep! It’s much easier to vertically ventilate off a proper roof ladder than hope your team has adequate footing to perform their job.” He goes on to say, “Always have an operational plan that all members of the roof team understand and rehearse. Keep to basic operations that are performed often to yield positive results.

“It’s when you “get trick” that safety and results are compromised.”
LAFD Apparatus Operator Robert Stoffel


You reached the top of the ladder, now what? Stepping onto any roof, in the best of conditions, can be a dangerous thing. Loose tiles, poor construction, even termite damage are all hidden hazards that can hamper your progress. Before taking that first step, let your rubbish hook or pike pole check the integrity of the roof first. Sound hard and sound often as you proceed to your work location.

Walk the Safest Path

Walk and work along the naturally strong areas that the roof’s construction features offer you, such as the hips, valleys, ridges, and load-bearing walls. Going “cross country” can open you up to a number of hidden dangers, including the collapse of the structure with a one-way ticket downward.


If your body is not up to the task at hand, injuries can occur. Taking a proactive approach to this concern, LAFD Captain II Paul Ybarra emphasizes to his crew that, “Circuit training that includes cardio, strength training, and functional movements that simulate actions performed during roof ventilation are essential to successful fire ground operations. This is important because we are able to focus on the task at hand and are not concerned about fatigue or physical limitations. In addition, muscle memory can be relied on when we face unexpected challenges. Examples include working on a hot summer day or waking from a dead sleep to respond to a structure fire.

“Physical fitness and practice builds confidence on the fire ground,”
LAFD Captain II Paul Ybarra.

Just the beginning

The information contained in this article is far from being everything you will need to know before going up on a roof. But as noted above, it is our hope that the small segments of information we presented here will jog your memory of things already learned and inspire you to search out new knowledge on the subject. Remember—keep thinking, keep learning, and keep safe!

Captain Paul Ybarra, Captain Matthew Nolen, and A/O Robert Stoffel contributed to this article

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