• Museum of Fire Heritage Team

How the tables have turned: A brief history on turntable ladders

An early history of firefighting ladders

In the early days of firefighting, appliances were often too small to carry a ladder or have them affixed. As such, ladders were carried by the responding firefighters to and from disasters. This created a need for faster response times and longer, heavier ladders, which led to the development of a means of transporting them.

Wivell’s fire escape ladder used at the Golden Fleece Hotel [Musuem of Fire Collection]

In the United States, early inventions like the ‘Hook and ladder trucks’ from the early 19th century resembled more of a four-wheel wagon drawn by horse, with racks and brackets to store ladders, buckets, etc. These appliances, although effective for their time, failed to pick up any real traction in Sydney. Returning from San Francisco, Andrew Torning, often regarded as the founder of volunteer brigades in New South Wales, attempted to establish a brigade that would primarily assist in the evacuation of fires – going so far as to have a specific truck made for the team in 1878. The unit was referred to as the Hook and Ladder Volunteer Company, or sometimes as Hook & Ladder Co., however, the arrival of the Fire Brigades Act in 1910 resulted in the unification of the Brigade and Torning’s plans were set aside. In the United Kingdom, however, Abraham Wivell’s ladder escapes became reasonably popular. Wivell’s escapes had a 32-35 ft main ladder mounted on a two-wheel carriage with an apron hammock slide chute suspended below, and a 20 ft fly ladder. Additionally, many had a first-floor ladder as well, which gave an extension length of approximately 60 ft.

Later adaptations, such as the Curricle ladder, arrived in Sydney in approximately the late 1800s. The first was a Shand Mason 50 ft curricle ladder, with the company’s distinctive metal trussing. This escape ladder travelled with the head of the ladder at the rear, and the heel pivoting down between shafts. In 1990, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB; now Fire and Rescue NSW) ordered a Merryweather 45 ft ladder, which featured a ‘sliding carriage’. The style became the standard for the Brigade, with an additional 15 locally made versions placed in service over the subsequent years. Many other designs would come and go throughout the years.

Broken Hill Fire Station with curricle hose cart, curricle ladder, and steamer [Museum of Fire Collection]

The development of the turntable ladder

The Magirus brand was first established in Germany in 1864 by Conrad Dietrich Magirus, a volunteer firefighter himself, who began constructing wheeled ladders and hand-pumps. In 1904, he created the world’s first engine-driven turntable ladder. In the years to follow, technological advancements allowed for the ladders to be operated directly from the road engine. Wooden ladders were also subsequently replaced by harder, steel or aluminium ladders and later, mechanical drives were replaced by hydraulics and computerised controls.

The first self-propelled turntable ladder was commissioned by the MFB in 1909 which could reach up to 86 ft and imported directly from London. The Brigade tested the ladder thoroughly and were exceedingly happy with the results. A storage battery of 80 cells furnished the power for travelling and extending the three sliding sections of the ladder, while it only required two men to raise the four sections from a horizontal position in a few seconds. Additionally, the ladder allowed for hand-powered control in the event of an emergency, but again, no more than two men were required to handle the ladder.

In the years to come, the Brigade would have a plethora of makers entering the market with turntable ladders. Ladders and their appliances would come from Shand Mason & Co, Simonis & Co, Tilling-Stevens, and many more. Many of these ladders would move from chassis to chassis and be repurposed due to their longevity, however not all ladders and their respective appliances lasted long in the Brigade due to preference or advancements in technology.

The 1985 ME: 804 Iveco Magirus DLK23-12

For some regions, such as Europe and Japan, an additional challenge to firefighting are the narrow laneways, tight confines in built up metropolitan areas, low clearance archways or bridges, and unstable terrain for firefighting appliances. To combat this issue in Europe, Magirus introduced a low-profile appliance in the early 1980s – a 30 metre turntable ladder with a height of just 2.85 metres and a width of 2.35 metres.