I'm a confirmed hose jockey for life — even in retirement. But even an engine guy can appreciate the simplicity and functionality of one of firefighting's most basic tools: the ax. It has no moving parts, relatively easy care and maintenance, and is built to last a long time.
Fire services axes used to come in two basic models: the flat head and its partner the pick head. In addition to those two, today's selection now includes five other options.
A pry ax is a hybrid tool that merges the cutting and hammering functions of an ax (using the head) along with the prying and ramming functions of a pry bar or Halligan bar at the opposite end of the handle.
The combination ax is the Swiss Army Knife of the firefighting ax world. In addition to the normal cutting, prying and striking functions normally associated with flat-head and pick-head axes, combination axes provide a firefighter with capabilities that would otherwise require getting another tool from the apparatus.
One manufacturer says its combination ax includes 14 tools in one: ax, hammer, spanner wrench, windshield cutter, rappelling ring, gas shut-off, water shut-off, battery disconnect, dry wall cutter, forcible entry, hinge remover, pry bar, Stortz latch opener and hood remover.
A truckie ax is a traditional-style pick-head ax, but with a slightly smaller head and shorter handle — usually 28 inches as opposed to the more standard 32-inch handle found on most axes — that's designed to be carried on a truckie's belt.
The Pulaski ax is a favorite of the wildland firefighter community. This ax consists of a smaller-profile cutting blade on one side of the head (for chopping) and a mattock on the other (for digging and clearing soil). It is very useful for clearing and maintaining fire lines in wildland fire situations.
The rescue ax is a high-tech camp ax or hatchet. This smaller cousin to the ax has gained popularity because of its utility in rescue situations involving tight spots with limited operating room, such as auto extrications or trench rescues.
Basic ax maintenance
The simplicity of an ax makes it easy for it to get lost in the routine maintenance that we provide all the equipment carried on fire apparatus. To be safe and effective on the emergency scene, an ax, like any other fire fighting tool, must be kept in serviceable condition.
Improperly maintained tools are a hazard to the user and anyone working nearby. Here are six key elements of good ax maintenance.
The cutting edge
The working edge of an ax must be sharpened on a true bevel on both sides of the blade in a manner that doesn't change the character of the blade as it came from the manufacturer. You want to sharpen the blade, not change its shape.
When sharpening, do not overheat the metal — avoid using a mechanically powered grinding wheel — as this will remove the temper from the steel and weaken it, thus putting the edge at risk of cracking or chipping during use. Instead, maintain the cutting edge using a flat metal file.
Do not make the ax razor sharp. The cutting edge is more prone to chipping or cracking during cutting operations if the edge is too keen.
Remove any rust or scaling to the remainder of the ax head and other working surfaces such as the prying end. Use either steel wool or a wire brush for this task. Using a wire brush wheel on a power bench grinder is OK in this application as it will not generate the same degree of heat as the aforementioned grinding stone.
Once all rust and scale has been removed, cover all metal parts with a coating of lightweight machine oil or industrial petroleum jelly.
Be sure to check all handles for twists, cracks, rot and smoothness using a dry cloth — you'll avoid having to dig a splinter out of your hand by doing so. Remove any gouges and slivers with a wood rasp and sandpaper; make a first pass using 180-grit sandpaper and then finish off with a 320 grit.
Once the handle is smooth, coat the entire length with a light layer of boiled linseed oil. Make sure you properly dispose of linseed oil-soaked rags. Remember spontaneous combustion from your Firefighter I class? Yes, it happens. I've seen several cases where plastic trashcans melted from the heat generated several hours after rags contaminated with linseed oil were piled into them after a robust session of small tool maintenance.
Ax handle grip
Many axes, especially those using fiberglass or composite fiber shafts for the handle, come with foam grips that provide a more secure grip and lessen the physical shock to the user during impact.
Make sure that these grips are still in good condition — that they are not rotting, cracked or losing their grip on the handle. Foam grips on axes stored on the exterior of apparatus are particularly susceptible to damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays.
The ax head
The fit of the handle to the cutting head is very important. Closely inspect this critical junction to ensure a tight fit. Insert wedges to tighten any loose ax head-to-handle connections.
Take care of your finely tuned ax, particularly the cutting and prying ends, by protecting these surfaces from exposure to physical damage. Most ax manufacturers now include protective guards or sheaths to serve this function, but you can also make a very serviceable ax blade sheath using lengths of old fire hose and heavy rubber bands made from automobile or bicycle inner tubes.
Even our simplest tools, like the fire ax, need and deserve regular inspection and maintenance, especially after we've used them for their intended purpose. I'm sure this may sound trite, but it's really true: take care of your ax, and your ax will take care of you — ask any truckie.