The Ladder Shop

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Pictured above is a San Francisco Fire Department truck. If you look carefully — the photo is unfortunately grainy — you may notice that the ladder is made of wood. That’s a curious choice for a fire department — wood, after all, burns, and fire fighters bring ladders to fires pretty regularly. And while wood ladders were the norm decades ago, it shouldn’t be surprising that most U.S. fire departments have traded them in for metal ones. Not only does metal not burn when brought near a flaming building, but aluminum — the metal of choice for such ladders — is much lighter and is therefore easier to transport and carry.

So why hasn’t San Francisco switched? The city has a problem that most other municipalities don’t: trolley lines and, for that matter, low-hanging power cables, which often are in the way of a firefighter trying to enter a higher-story floor of a building. And while introducing a wood ladder to an inferno is a bad idea, bringing an aluminum ladder into contact with a power cable is a much, much worse one. (An LA Times article on the San Francisco ladders noted that in the 1990s, a New Jersey firefighter lost his life when his aluminum ladder struck a cable.) So San Francisco and a few other towns — mostly in California — still use wood.

But unlike those other wood-ladder towns, San Francisco’s ladders are special. The San Francisco Fire Department is the only one with its own ladder-making shop. And they take woodworking seriously. The shop, according to the city’s website, makes sure that the department has 350 good condition ladders made of ash, fir, and hickory at the ready at any given moment. The ladders are impressive — they can extend fifty feet, weigh up to 350 pounds, and the largest ones require six firefighters to carry and deploy. And they can last a long, long time — as the Etsy company’s blog noted in 2012, one of the ladders still in daily use as of that writing dated back to 1918. That’s due to the craftmanship. Per a Gizmodo profile of the ladder shop, the ladders are designed so that “elements of every ladder — all 13 different styles, the tallest of which is 50 feet — can be repurposed in a newer incarnation, should the original need to be taken out of service for any reason.”

For photos from the ladder shop, check out the Gizmodo story, here.

Bonus Fact: Historically, dalmatians — the spotted breed of dog — are associated with fire departments, as the pet of choice. There’s a reason for this. Early firefighters used horse-drawn vehicles to get to the scene of a fire. As Mental Floss notes, the horses needed to be protected from thieves. Employing a guard dog took care of this, and dalmatians were specifically selected because they, “more than any other breed of dog, formed an amazingly close bond with horses once they were introduced.”

From the ArchivesThe World’s Littlest Skyscraper: It’s a scam, and it needs a ladder.

Related: A relatively inexpensive, and relatively popular, two-story escape ladder.