How to buy manual forced-entry tools

Know your jurisdiction and your staff, then choose tools from among these different types that best meet those needs


One can argue that forcible entry is one of the least-understood emergency service tactics, but it is certainly one of the most important.

Forcible entry is about more than just forcing doors or windows. Successful fire suppression operations depend on firefighters being able to safely, effectively and efficiently conduct forcible entry tasks.

When your department is looking to buy new forcible entry equipment or upgrade its existing inventory, there are five factors to keep in mind:

Forcible entry operations typically occur early in the incident.
Forcible entry operations typically occur early in the incident.
  1. Forcible entry needs
  2. Staffing
  3. Training requirements
  4. Apparatus storage space
  5. Maintenance

Every department's forcible entry demographics are different.

Does your department provide services to a primarily bedroom community where 80% of the buildings are residential, wood-framed construction? If so, your needs are certainly going to be different than that of a fire company in a heavily commercialized district with buildings of ordinary construction with inward-opening metal doors and windows covered with security bars.

A good size-up

Conduct a good assessment of your district by driving around and getting some good first-hand intelligence on what's out there. When doing your assessment, be sure to look at a representative number of structures, and don't forget to give those buildings a 360-degree size-up. Sides Bravo, Charley and Delta may have entirely different forcible entry challenges compared to those presented by side Alpha.

Be sure to check those buildings out during nighttime hours, as the forcible entry challenges may be much different than they are during the daylight hours.

Some things you may only see when the lights go down include security bars or gates over windows or doors, roll-down doors or gates, high-security locks on entry doors, and locked perimeter gates.

Areas of high-crime or with heavily secured buildings may have a greater need for heavier tools like torches, metal-cutting saws, and through-the-lock tools.

Forcible entry operations typically occur early in the incident. Department leaders must consider how many firefighters they can realistically dedicate to this tactical objective. Low staffing levels may force departments to rely on tools and techniques that can be used effectively by a single firefighter.

The principle categories of manual forcible entry tools haven't changed much over the years. The basic tools still fall into the categories of pushing/pulling, prying, striking or cutting. What has changed dramatically is the number of tool options under those four categories.

Pushing/pulling tools

For many years, the primary pulling tools were the pike pole and its shorter cousin the closet hook. That was OK when most pulling involved ceilings or interior walls of plaster over wood lath: There was something there to hook and pull.

Everything changed with the introduction of drywall. The drywall hook (marketed under several different names) is specifically designed for drywall removal.

Although it can be used on other materials such as wood, plaster, sheet metal walls and ceilings, the drywall hook was created especially to grab large sections of drywall with each pull. Other pulling/prying tools include the arson-trash hook, the Clemens hook, the San Francisco hook, the (New York) roofman's hook and the multipurpose hook.

Prying Tools

The most valuable tool award in this category belongs to the Halligan bar, designed by and named after Hugh Halligan, an FDNY first deputy fire commissioner. The Halligan is a multipurpose prying tool consisting of a claw (fork), a blade (adz), and a pick, which is especially useful in quickly breaking through many types of locked doors.

The adz end can be used to break in through an outward-swinging door by forcing the tool between the door and doorjamb and prying the two apart.

Other tools in this category include crowbars, flat bars, pry bars, claw tool, the Kelly tool and the pry ax.

Striking tools

A striking tool is a very basic hand tool consisting of a weighted head attached to a handle. Examples of striking tools are sledgehammers (8, 10, or 16 pounds), mauls, battering rams, picks, flat-head axes, mallets or hammers, punches and chisels.

In certain instances, a striking tool is the only tool required. However, in most forcible entry situations, the striking tool is used in conjunction with another tool to affect entry. 

Mauls and sledgehammers have gained stature as the preferable striking tools to be used with tools, such as Halligan bars or Kelly tools, in lieu of a flathead ax. Mauls and sledges are more specifically designed for striking, provide more of a striking surface, and their greater head weight delivers more force with each blow.

Cutting tools

The ax is the most common manual cutting tool available and has been for many years. There are two basic types of ax configurations in use today, the pick-head and the flat-head ax.

The biggest improvement in axes over the years has been the replacement of wooden with fiberglass handles.

The rescue ax is a high-tech camp ax or hatchet. This smaller ax has gained popularity because of its utility in rescue situations involving tight spots with limited operating room, such as auto extrication or trench rescues.

Combination tools

Combination tools — those that incorporate more than one of the four forcible entry functions — have become increasingly popular, especially with declining departmental budgets. These combination tools include, but are not limited to pry, combination and truckie axes.

The 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 provides cutting, prying and striking functions normally associated with flat-head and pick-head axes. Depending on the manufacturer, a combination ax provides the firefighter with multiple capabilities that can include ax, hammer, spanner wrench, windshield cutter, rappelling ring, gas shut-off, water shut-off, battery disconnect, drywall 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 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 tools wisely. 

[Read next: Halligan basics for forcible entry training]

This article, originally published in 2015, has been updated.

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