The Pompier Ladder

The Pompier Ladder made a distinguished mark in American firefighting.

Many people owe their lives to this strange ladder and the daring firefighters who deftly scaled the outsides of buildings to rescue trapped occupants. In the late 1800s American cities were teaming with immigrants anxious to make their mark in the New World. Buildings, to house these new arrivals sprang up all over these cities.

They were taller than ever thought possible and consequently well beyond the reach of conventional ladders companies. Fires in these buildings often resulted in catastrophic life loss. Firefighters were overwhelmed with frustration as they watched terrified occupants cling to window ledges above the reach of their ladders.

New York City learned of a new life saving ladder invented by a Lieutenant from St Louis named Chris Hoell. This new ladder was called the Chris Hoell Life saving device. It was shaped like a question mark with saw type teeth in the hook portion and rungs affixed to the long part. A skilled freighter could start from the ground and scale the outside of a building to the roof. The hook part was plunged through the window and pulled into the sill. The firefighter would then climb up and into the window. Stradling the sill, he now pulled the ladder up and plunged it through the next higher window and repeated this procedure until he reached his destination.

FDNY bought this new devise. Special units were formed and trained with this latest life saving tool. The year was 1882, the Hoell life saving device was placed into service.

The first rescue made using the Hoell devise occurred on April 7, 1884. Firefighter John Binns of Ladder Company number three climbed up the outside of a burning Saint George Flats apartment house to the sixth floor. An aerial was raised to Binns location, it was maxed out, Firefighter Binns climbed onto the tip of the aerial. Using his pompier ladder, he climbed up to the seventh floor and rescued a trapped elevator operator named Louis Castigan. Binns brought the frightened young man down over the pompier ladder to the aerial where he was safely delivered to the ground. Firefighter John Binns was awarded the James Gordon Bennet Medal, which is the highest award presented by the New York City Fire Department.

Pompier ladder rescues wrote new chapters in the proud history of firefighting. Old film footage of parading firefighters often shows special groups of firefighters marching while carrying their special rescue tool.
Pompier ladders remained in service on apparatus for many years. The last rescue made using a pompier ladder was accomplished on December 15,1967. FDNY Firefighter Gene Dowling of Ladder Company Number Twenty-Five made this dramatic rescue. Firefighter Dowling responded to a fire in the Morgan Post Office. This fire went to five alarms. Dowling spotted three trapped postal employees at a window. Ladder Company Twenty Five quickly raised it's hundred foot aerial but it was one story sort of the terrified postal workers. Firefighter Dowling grabbed a pompier ladder and climbed the hundred foot aerial to the tip. The window was just above a large out cropping of decorative granite. Dowling, in a thirty mile per hour wind, raised the pompier ladder over his head and made his first attempt at placing the pompier into the windowsill, he missed, but held onto the ladder. Mustering all his strength he made a second attempt. The pompier ladder just cleared the granite and made it into the sill. Firefighter Dowling then climbed up the Pompeir ladder and one by one brought down all three postal workers. Firefighter Gene Dowling received the James Gordon Bennet medal for this rescue. Ironically the first and the last rescues made using the pompier ladder both resulted in the awarding of the James Gordon Bennet Medal.


Pompier ladders are used in training for all FFOPs in the Boston fire Department drill school but they are no longer carried on the apparatus.

When you hear about pompier ladders it conjures up thoughts of horse drawn apparatus and a colorful long gone era in firefighting history.

But think again, The New York City Fire Department carried pompier ladders on their apparatus up until July 11, 1996 when they were officially placed out of service