Leg Locked

At the age of 55 I decided to become a volunteer firefighter. I’m 56 now. So I’m taking training along with guys from all over the island who are young enough to be my sons–or grandsons, I suppose. A few weeks ago on a crisp Sunday morning I had to pass my practicum in ladders. How to: carry, set up and take down ladders of various sizes in one man, two man, three man teams; place & climb a roof ladder; carry a 105 lb. dummy down a ladder. And, demonstrate a leg lock:

Per the internets, the Vancouver fire department defines a leg lock thusly:

A leg lock is a way of hooking a leg onto the ladder so that a firefighter can work safely from the ladder with his/her hands free while eliminating the danger of falling.
If a leg lock is not used, a firefighter must have at least one hand free to hold on to the ladder beam. No exceptions.

To perform, say, a right leg lock, you:

  1. step your left leg up one rung higher than you want to be
  2. put your right foot through the opening
  3. bend your right leg back and through the opening below and
  4. hook your right foot around the right rail
  5. step down one rung with your left leg

and Bob’s your uncle.

From another fire department on the internets, we get this explanation of the ladder climb evaluation:

Ladder Climb
Purpose: to assess the applicant for fear of heights.
A 40 firefighting PFRS ladder will be erected in a safe and secure location. A department member will demonstrate a climb to a point half way up the ladder, do a leg lock and return to ground level.
Each applicant will be warned to stop if they experience difficulty when doing the exercise. Each applicant will then don a department turnout coat and SCBA (no face piece), climb the ladder to the same point as in the demonstration, do a leg lock and return to ground level.
The applicant will be rated “pass/fail”. PFRS evaluators will note any hesitation or difficulty of the applicant in performing the task.

Our test was a little different. We had to climb with an axe, do a leg lock, and pantomime using the axe to smash a window.

During my evaluation, I got into a scary situation.

The above photo of a leg lock is deceptive. Where are the giant boots? Where are the quilted pants?

Here’s what it looks like when you do a leg lock in full gear (minus the air pack):

Notice the boots. Notice the big, fat, inflexible pants.

I did my first leg lock of the day during the roof-ladder test. I had to place a roof ladder on a one-storey building, which meant: climbing up a regular ladder, doing a leg lock, and then lifting and placing a roof ladder (which hooks over the ridge and lies flat on it), climbing up it, climbing down and off it, and lowering the roof ladder to the ground.

Before it was my turn, a bunch of guys went up in succession & did the thing, some of them a bit nervously, others of them quite athletically. My truckmate Patrick, in particular, did the leg lock especially gracefully.

It helps that Patrick is young and strong and limber. Now then, I’m older and creakier than I once was, but I’m still strong enough. I’ve worked on ladders all my life. I didn’t figure that performing a leg lock would be a problem.

But here’s the thing. I’m 6’3“ tall. And my boots are size 12.

So when my turn comes, I carry the two ladders into position, climb up to the roof level and attempt the leg lock. I can get my foot through the first opening, but damn if I can bend it back and get it through the second. My legs are too long and my boots are too big. The quilted pants are too fat. Leg lock ain’t happening.

Joe, the instructor says, ”Well, show me how to place and use the roof ladder without a leg lock.“

So, holding onto the left rail with my left hand, I lift and place the roof ladder with my right hand, and I switch from one ladder to the other and climb up the roof & climb back down, and then I take the roof ladder down, and then I say, ”let me try this again“, and somehow I get my foot into position– I do the leg lock. ”There!“ I say. ”Joe, please note, I did the lock.“

Then, of course, I had to get out of the leg-locked position.

Patrick, who is standing on the ground just a little bit below me, climbs up behind me and pushes my boot out, saying, ”here, I’ll give you a hand.“

So we go to a few more demonstration stations and all’s well, but eventually, about an hour later, we get to the ventilation station, and now I have to demonstrate a leg lock and how to use an axe on a forty-foot ladder. (To swing the axe, of course, you need to use both hands.) By this time it’s pretty warm outside. And y’know, when you’re in full gear–pants, coat, helmet, etc– that gear is insulated. Which means, you’re getting pretty warm.

My turn comes. I grab the axe and up I climb. Thirty feet up I stop, somehow accomplish the right-foot leg lock, demonstrate use of the axe to ventilate a window. Look at me, I is just like a real firemans!

But now the trouble begins. I can’t get my leg out. My right leg won’t bend enough, and my boot is too goddamned big. It just won’t go. The boot is wedged, the tip of its toe atop the rung, about one inch from freedom. I’m trying as hard as I can to bend that leg up, to pull it through. The thigh muscles in my right leg are screaming, I’m sweating like a stuck pig, sweat is pouring down my back, down my legs into my boot. If I could use my left hand, I could probably pull my leg out; or, If I could use my right hand, I could push it out. But I’ve got an axe in my left hand and my right hand is holding the rail. Both hands are in use.

”Request permission to drop the axe.“

”Nope, sorry. Permission denied.“

Of course the evaluators are not going to allow me to drop the axe! Patrick is immediately below me, stabilizing the ladder. Now, I would attempt to throw the axe to the side, of course, but what if I fuck it up? Dropping an axe on a fellow firefighter’s head is not generally consistent with long-term membership in the department.

Well, long story short, in a feat of super-human strent & determination, I pulled my damn clown-sized boot through, got unlocked, and climbed down. Test passed.

”I’ll tell you one thing,“ I said on the ground. ”If there had been flames coming out of that window, I damn sure would have dropped the axe.“

So, that was scary.

I had not been afraid of the height. I had been afraid that somebody would have had to rescue me. Damn, that would have been awkward. Not only would I have then had to take ribbing forever from every firefighter in all six island towns, (”That’s him! the old guy who couldn’t do a leg lock“), but I also would have had to perhaps abandon my goal of getting Firefighter-1 certification.

Not getting that certification would not be the end of the world, of course. It would not mean that I couldn’t stay as a member of my truck’s company. But without certification, the number of tasks I can do would remain restricted to what I can now do as a rookie: hauling hoses, hooking up hydrants, running pumps, helping firefighters change their air packs, fetching equipment, and so forth. Anything you can do at a safe distance from the actual fire, in other words. But I wanted (& still want) to get that certification. Sure, at the rate that training proceeds here on our little island it’s going to take me until I’m 58, at least, to get it. I’ll proably be senile by then. I still want it.1

Anyway, I only mention this little story because I’ve been feeling pretty leg-locked in my Wetmachine and Famous Writer careers for some time now. I’ve made a pretty good effort to get where I am. I’ve started the site, written a good number of blog entries, done some publicity, recruited some good writers, somehow cajoled Gary into being our webmaster . . . And I’ve written and published three books. It’s as if I placed the ladder, climbed up it, got into a leg lock and vented the window.

But I’ve been wedged for a long time, stuck in the same spot. I don’t seem quite able to get my act together to do all the things I’ve been planning to do for years. For example, why have I not yet gotten the kindle-ized versions of my books, which are virtually complete, up on the Amazon site for sale? Why haven’t I gotten the audiobook versions done? I’ve had offers of help and it wouldn’t be too hard to get them done. I’ve been meaning to do a redesign of the ”landing pages“ for each of the books to make this damn website actually conducive to selling books, which is the reason for which I started the site in the first place. Why haven’t I done it? There are a million other things I could be doing that I’m not doing. Why is that? There are about a dozen blog entries that I’ve half-started and that I think might actually be great, if I were to finish them. Why haven’t I finished them? Heck, I started writing this post that same Sunday afternoon, about a month ago. Why did it take me until today to finish it?

Oh well. That’s enough navel-gazing for now.

Maybe finishing this little post will be the logical equivalent of that feat of super-human strent I described above; maybe starting today I’ll get myself unwedged & move onward to the next ladder-skills evaluation station, which is the ”dummy rescue“.

Stay tuned, as the man said.

(1) I found out later that the ladder on which I did my test was of the ”old standard”. New ladders that conform to the latest standards are four or six inches wider. Wide enough for me to do leg locks with relative ease.


  1. I was the only child of depression-era parents. I grew up thinking the goal of life was to be safe and to provide for my family, and that if I didn’t do that I was getting it wrong.

    It wasn’t until I had failed the test in my forties that I even became conscious of the idea that there could be other modes of living. Like a poker player that understands that only the bet before him matters and not the money he has already anted, I started to appreciate that the past was prelude and that my actions now were what mattered. Never mind how you got to this point on the ladder. You’re there now. What’s your call?

    I don’t know what drives you, John, but I suspect it has to do with touching people’s lives. I can assure you that on this you are most certainly not leg-locked. Never were.

  2. Well Howard,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    As to how to get myself unwedged: I’m working on it. I have about 5 longish posts that I’ve been nibbling away at, and, by golly, I’m going to get them done. I have a few marketing/outreach thinks in the works, and a few new ideas for wetmachine that I think I can actually pull off myself without impinging on our beloved webmaster.

    Living in present with hope for the future is definitely the way to go. It’s when dread cancels out hope that things get dicey.

    As you said, the ante is ante; it’s already spent. Time to push onwards.

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