How to buy firefighting tools
By Firefighter Nicholas Martin
As most firefighting operations — suppression, rescue, etc. — cannot begin until we gain entry to the structure, forcible entry is an essential component of initial work at the scene. Not only must personnel be trained in proper techniques, but they must also be properly equipped.
Here are several items to consider when assessing or upgrading the forcible entry equipment on your apparatus:
What kind of buildings do you respond to?
Different building types present different challenges. For example, a company that responds primarily to wood-frame houses may have less of a need for a hydraulic forcible entry tool than a company whose district is filled with apartment buildings as those tools are primarily designed for inward-opening metal doors.
Driving around their response district, companies should look at not only the front of a building but also the rear and the sides. These areas can reveal unanticipated challenges not seen from the curb. Further, it would be helpful not to just look during the day, when everything is open, but also at night when things are locked up. Some things we should be looking for may include:
- Security bars or gates over windows or doors
- Roll-down doors or gates
- High-security locks on entry doors
- Common door types, construction, and configurations
- Access concerns
Areas of high-crime or with heavily secured buildings may have a greater need for heavier tools such as torches, metal-cutting saws, through-the-lock tools, etc., as seen in photo 1.
Leverage vs. portability
Aside from cutting tools, such as saws and torches, forcible entry is primarily about leverage. Our goal is generally to break either the door, lock or frame. When purchasing prying tools, consider that the primary source of leverage is the tool's length — the longer the tool, the more leverage it will exert.
However, the trade off is portability. While a 54" Halligan bar may be great outside, it is probably too cumbersome to be carried inside during a search. Check out photo 2.
Halligan bar design
The design of the head and fork must also be considered. Keep in mind that these parts are going to be driven into a very tight space (between the frame and the door). As such, they should be narrow and strong: an excessively wide fork will hamper your operations. Look for Halligan bars designed with beveled parts, which are designed to increase leverage, as seen in photo 3.
Accompanying every prying tool should be a striking tool. Depending on a survey of your response district as well as company preference, these may include a flat-head axe, sledgehammer, or maul, as seen in photo 4.
There are many factors to discuss regarding the selection of a striking tool. Keep in mind that the key factor is the weight of the tool's head. The heavier it is, the more force it will deliver in setting the prying tool. However, if it is too heavy, firefighters may not be able to control it effectively and it will be counterproductive.
Who will you have to use the tools?
Forcible entry operations typically occur early in the incident. Department leaders must consider how many firefighters they will honestly be dedicating to this task. The availability of manpower may drive what tools or techniques can be employed effectively. Low manpower levels may force departments to rely on tools and techniques that can be used effectively by a single firefighter, as seen in photo 5.
Over the years, several tools have been produced that claim to combine multiple tools into one. Keep in mind that there is almost always a sacrifice involved here — namely the "all-in-one" often does not perform as well as the individual tools would. All-in-one tools should be used as a supplement, not as a primary forcible entry tool.
The driving force regarding equipment setup and layout should begin with an assessment of your response district and the firefighters who will use it. Equipment should be designed to fit your operations — you should NOT be designing operations around equipment.
When considering a new tool, do your research. Ask the manufacturer or vendor for a demo model and try it out during company training. Check with neighboring departments for their experiences. Remember, it all starts with getting inside — choose your weapons wisely.
Nicholas Martin has more than 15 years of firefighting experience and is a firefighter with the District of Columbia Fire Department. Previously assigned to Tower Ladder 3, he is presently assigned to Engine Company 11 in Columbia Heights and has served as an adjunct instructor at the department's training academy. He is also a volunteer in Prince George's County, Md., where he previously served as a lieutenant. He is a vice-president of Traditions Training, LLC and provides hands on and lecture instruction nationally, focusing on operational topics of the fire service.