Have You Ever Used an O’Dell Ladder?

“The Ditch” is the name Detroit Firefighters use for many sections of freeways that cut through the city.  In certain locations the roadway is set far lower than the surrounding area and is flanked by vertical concrete walls.  It literally looks like the freeway is set into a ditch in the landscape. When referring to the service drives that run along the top of these freeways we often say it is “top side”.

Photo courtesy of skyscraperpage.com

Photo courtesy of skyscraperpage.com

You can imagine the difficulties fire companies encounter while responding to fires or accidents located on “the ditch“.  Access ramps to the freeways may be far away and traffic backups occur because there is only a small curb area for traffic to move around damaged vehicles or get out of the way for responding fire apparatus.

One inventive firefighter found a way to deal with these difficulties.  Bill O’Dell invented a special ladder that was carried on rigs that worked in these freeway areas.  The ladders had hooks that went over the top edge of the wall on the “top side” and allowed firefighters to climb down into “the ditch” to deal with emergencies.  It was quickly dubbed the O’Dell Ladder.

Firefighter Alan Silver using the O'Dell Ladder invented by then Sgt. William O'Dell

Firefighter Alan Silver using the O’Dell Ladder invented by then Sgt. William O’Dell


I’m not certain what happened to the O’Dell ladders.  I have been told they worked well, but I’ve never seen one and don’t  believe there is one in use in Detroit any longer.

Bill retired as Chief and recently passed away.  In addition to being described as a wonderful person and a Chief that always had his firefighter’s backs, Bill leaves the legacy of the O’Dell Ladder in Detroit Fire Department history.

Sheryl Jayson(a.k.a. Sheryl Fox)
Detroit Firefighter
Engine 54

Read another interesting story about Bill O’Dell and the Tiger Stadium Press Box Fire, written by retired DFD member R.J. Haig.

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