Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hook and Ladder

On December 3rd, the popular game show Jeopardy! aired this clue:

“A hook & ladder is another way of referring to this type of conveyance”

The contestant correctly answered, “What is a fire truck?”

As I noted in my post “Fire Apparatus 101,” “fire truck” is an acceptable generic term for most fire service apparatus. But my initial knee-jerk response to that clue was “aerial” or “aerial ladder truck,” because that’s what I’ve long called them. I had to wonder if Alex Trebek would have accepted my response, asked me to “please be more specific,” or if the judges would have needed to research either of those answers to credit me with a correct response.

The New Oxford American Dictionary on my computer defines “hook and ladder” as:

“A fire engine that carries extension ladders and other firefighting and rescue equipment.”

This is not quite correct, at least from a fire service perspective, because to firefighters a fire engine is technically a vehicle equipped with a pump, water tank, and hose as well as an assortment of ground ladders and other tools.

Merriam-Webster online does a little better with its definition of “hook and ladder truck”:

“A piece of mobile fire apparatus carrying ladders and usually other firefighting and rescue equipment —called also hook and ladder, ladder truck.

Different departments and regions of the country may use “hook and ladder” in reference to slightly different types of apparatus. A few folks use the term to refer to a modern aerial ladder truck of any variety, perhaps out of tradition. (An aerial ladder truck (aka ladder truck or simply truck) is one that has a large, hydraulically-operated extension ladder mounted to a turntable on the truck.)

One common use of “hook and ladder” applies to a present-day tiller truck or tiller ladder truck. Tillers are a type of aerial ladder truck that resembles a semi-tractor and trailer. Two drivers are required - one up front who drives the rig, and one on the back who steers the ladder portion. These types of apparatus are used in big cities like New York because they can navigate narrow streets more easily than a standard ladder truck.

Photo by Matthew Field,
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a video shot from the rear driver’s seat of a Kansas City 100” tiller ladder truck:

The term “hook and ladder” has a myriad of origins, depending on the person explaining it. It can refer to:

  • The pike poles (which resemble hooks) and ladders carried on turn-of-the-century fire apparatus.
  • Hooks used to pull down burning buildings to minimize the spread of fire (a huge concern when cities were largely constructed of wood).
  • Scaling ladders that firefighters once used to use to climb up the sides of buildings to gain access.
The standard caveat applies: If you're going to drop the phrase "hook and ladder" into your story, make sure it's appropriate to the time and place.

One note of caution: There is a lot of information available online. However, if you’re not careful with your Internet search terms when researching “hook and ladder,” your results will include:

  • The title of a 1932 skit by the Little Rascals
  • Restaurants in Hartford, CT; Hollister, MO; and Sacramento, CA
  • A realty in Sarasota, FL
  • A CrossFit training facility in Kent, WA
  • A fire buff group in the Denver area that seems to have gone dormant

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