Not Very Many Places
FOR THE FIRST 100 YEARS all the fire departments had specially-built ladders that could withstand the rough usage and brutal conditions they were used under. In fact, all ladders used by everybody, painters, construction crews, burglars, were made of wood because that was the only suitable material that would work.
But in the late 1940's – early 50's availability and affordability of aluminum led that medium to start being used for ladder construction. It is so much lighter and easier to carry and set up that there's no thought of staying with wood.
Gradually in the 1950's heavy-duty aluminum ladders developed for fire service use started taking over the ladder beds of firetrucks everywhere and by the end of the 1960's the wooden jobs had virtually disappeared. But not in San Francisco and a handful of other West Coast cities.
The Golden Gate City is one of the few remaining fire departments in America that still uses wooden ladders and they are adamant about staying with them. It's not a blind adherence to tradition that keeps those 400-lb. beauties on the ladder racks, but what they feel are necessities due to their unique geographical situation. Basically it's the hillside construction throughout the city that leaves electric lines in the way of ladder-raising coupled with the off-shore winds that frequently whip through the streets and can easily blow over an aluminum ladder no matter how sturdily it's built. Once a wooden ladder is in place, it stays there.
There are twelve other FD's that use wood, 3 of them in the San Francisco Bay area, 8 in Los Angeles County plus the City, and Bellevue, Washington.
So where does San Francisco go to buy their ladders? They do what they've always done…. they make them themselves. In their dedicated ladder shop where skilled craftsmen both make and repair the several hundred ladders in the fleet. And that brings us up to today's treat, a video visit to the country's last wooden ladder shop:
Did you catch that statement in the early part of the video where they tell us that their timbers are aged for 15 years?
Cities currently using wood: San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward, Alameda County, San Mateo, all in the Bay Area, plus Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, Glendale, Pasadena, West Covina, Montebello, Arcadia, all in Los Angeles County, and Bellevue, Washington.
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