Conditions are starting to change, smoke is getting darker and the heat is pushing you to the floor. The fire hasn't been found yet and the area behind you starts to light off.
You move down the hall and find a room; you enter and close the door. As you re-evaluate your situation, you notice there are no windows leading to the exterior. What now?
We have all had classes where we breach an exterior wall or even an interior wall to seek a safer place. Typically these walls are made of one layer of drywall and we can kick through them with our boots. If we are transferring from one interior space to another, that might work just fine.
But, what if we are required to penetrate plaster and lathe or some other hard, difficult-to-breach membrane? This is when tool selection is critical.
I have seen and still see firefighters coming off the apparatus with no tools or tools that are virtually ineffective for most facets of operating in a working structure fire. This is the fault of the firefighter and that of his officer.
Consider the possibilities
While riding to the scene of a reported fire, we must put our mind in a place that requires us to consider all of the functions we will be asked to perform. Will we be doing suppression, ventilation, rescue or exposure protection? These are questions posed to most companies on the way to the call.
We must pick a tool that is versatile and functional for every task that we perform. We may be challenged with forcing entry through a door on the exterior and possibly on the interior. We may need to pull some ceiling to ensure that as we make our push we don't have fire above us.
We may need to make openings in walls, roofs or floors to inspect conditions above, below and around us. In addition to all of these, we may need to force our way out of a bad place.
The most versatile tool we use is the halligan bar. This tool, when complimented with a sledge or flat head ax can force just about any door thrown at it.
It can be used to pull ceiling and open up walls. And it is heavy enough to penetrate plaster and hard boards in walls and ceilings.
This tool can also make inspection holes for checking conditions and can easily pry away trim and other components for overhaul. In addition, it can be used as a step to get into or out of an elevated window and can be used as an anchor for a bailout system.
Uses and limitations
Axes and the sledges are similar except for the weight and the cutting edge. As the halligan is the prying tools during forcible entry, these are the striking tools gain the seat.
Sledges can be used to pound holes into surfaces but they take a lot of energy to swing repeatedly. The flat head can be used to cut into surfaces life roof, floors and walls and can be used as a striking tool.
The pick head ax also can be used to cut but the usefulness of this tool is limited to that. The pick side is not much use and will typically take more time to pull out of a material than it's worth.
None of these are much good for pulling ceiling as you advance a line or search a space to be sure you don't have fire above you.
Pike poles and hooks are designed for one basic purpose: pull ceiling. And the type of hook will dictate what you can and cannot do with them.
I prefer a solid steel hook because it can assist in forcible entry. It also isn't as prone to breaking or splintering during heavy work like busting through plaster and lathe and other hard-board surfaces.
The fiberglass hooks are good for only pulling ceiling, so long as that ceiling is drywall. If the ceiling is plaster and lathe, they will struggle to get through.
I've seen firefighters come off of the truck with closet hooks, pike poles that are about three feet long. These are really good tools if you want to pull ceiling or walls in a closet, but that is about all they are good for.
You cannot force a door, hard-surfaced wall or make inspection holes. They just aren't that useful. Unless your department requires you to take that tool, I encourage you to find a new one and leave that at the fire station.
Time to get out
Now, we're back in that room, and you need to get out. What tool did you bring? Would it be the same one you picked or have you decided to bring different one after reading this?
Remember, make your tool selection judiciously; it is not an on-the-fly decision. Make your tool choice based on what your tasks might be, what you train with and what unexpected tasks might be thrown at you.
Whatever tool you fall in love with, train with it and learn everything that it can and cannot do. Most importantly, always have a tool that can do the job.
Until next month, I'll see you on the fireground. Train hard and be smart.
About the author
Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. His experience spans more than 20 years and he has been an instructor for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and is a State Certified Fire Officer II. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor's degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is currently a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative, a Board Member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the technical committee for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications for NFPA. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.
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