Understanding the wedge: A simple machine for forcible entry
When wedges are used correctly, there’s often very little force needed to create a large enough door gap
The wedge. One wouldn’t think there is much to say or learn about this simple accessory that some consider nothing more than an adornment on their helmet or bulky object in their pocket. However, in our line of work, the wedge has several important uses. It can be used to hold doors open, slow or stop sprinkler flow, capture progress and create gaps.
Let’s focus on the force wedge, as well as how to modify the standard wedge on the market to save time and make our efforts more efficient.
Why the wedge?
The wedge is considered one of the six simple machines, mechanical devices that change the direction or magnitude of a force. Other simple machines include the wheel and axle, the lever, the inclined plane, the pulley and the screw.
While the wedge can be defined and used in myriad ways, one of the basic ways it’s used in the fire service is to force an object or objects apart. Fire crews are wedging the door and doorjamb apart to obtain a large enough gap to properly set the adz end of the Halligan tool before applying force or saving progress made with the Halligan.
While not new to the fire service, the force wedge is an often-overlooked tool for many members. For that matter, proper technique during standard forcible-entry operations is a lost concept on many firefighters, officers and instructors alike.
There are many wedges on the fire service market today. Most are identical in size, though there are smaller or differently shaped versions, like one currently on the market shaped in a fork, similar to the Halligan tool. Some wedges are made of cheap aluminum, while others are made from aircraft-grade aluminum. Prices vary depending on brand name, supplier and material used to make the wedge. Pro tip: Buy one on Amazon; they’re often cheaper and perform the same functions as the expensive wedges you will find through a supplier or dealer. Cheaper is better for these, as wedges tend to get damaged beyond use or disappear rather frequently.
A lone firefighter armed with only a Halligan and a force wedge can open most doors. If a firefighter has a good understanding of the concept of forcible-entry techniques, they understand that if you allow the tools to do the work, very little actual force will be necessary. Unfortunately, that concept is lost with some of the forcible entry props on the market today and how instructors train firefighters on those tools. (I understand that training props are designed as best as they can be, and some do provide for a good replication to real-world forcible entry; however, it doesn’t mean we should overlook the importance of being trained and capable of performing this task in a non-destructive manner.
Of course, at times, there will be doors that need additional or different equipment than just a simple wedge. There will also be times that a lot of physical effort will be exerted, and a lot of damage will be done to the door simply to get a gap. However, proper technique still applies and should be practiced in those situations.
The force wedge is not recommended when you encounter a steel door set in a steel frame and incased in concrete or concrete block. In this case, you are wasting time and will likely heavily damage or destroy your force wedge. To use a wedge, there must be flexible building materials and features that allow us to achieve the gap we will need to apply the proper techniques and force with the adz end of the Halligan. This determination is made during our size-up of the door.
Additionally, the force wedge should only be used on doors that open toward the firefighter. This is where you will see the biggest benefits to using the force wedge. With doors that open away from the firefighter, it is simply a capture device, capturing any gains made with the Halligan.
However, to produce the best results on scene, some modifications to the wedge may be necessary.
Why wedges often need modifying
Nine years ago, just after I was promoted to senior captain, I did a short stint in headquarters. One day, while walking the halls, I passed an open office and recognized a chief officer. He was sitting with his hands on his head and a look of frustration on his face as he stared down at multiple schematics scattered across his desk. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied, “I am working on the perfect wedge.” I laughed and asked how long he had been at it. Three weeks, he said.
This chief was working on sprinkler wedges. It took another year before the wedges were distributed to members.
Two years later, in a moment of déjà vu, I was training an entire district on the use of force wedges when I realized the chief was right about the shortcomings of the wedges currently on the market. Through observation, comprehension and experimentation, I found that modifying these wedges made them more efficient for forcible entry.
Most of the force wedges on the market are simply too long and tend to make contact with the door stop before obtaining a wide enough gap for the Halligan tool. Yes, it gets a gap just good enough to get the adz end between the door and the doorjamb, but then you must manipulate the Halligan to obtain or increase the gap size, then capture your gain with the wedge, then manipulate the adz end again before getting past the door stop. Depending on the door, as well as the firefighter’s skill level and understanding of the concept, it may take several attempts at manipulating the wedge and Halligan before proper gap is achieved.
So, is there a more efficient way? Absolutely! You don’t have to run out and replace your current force wedge either.
How to modify your force wedge
To modify your wedge, grind off the first half-inch from the thin end, and then grind a second, slightly more aggressive bevel on the thin end. This creates two separate angles on the same wedge, allowing you to simply drive the force wedge to the door stop. By the time the modified wedge meets the door stop, proper gap has already been achieved and you can simply pass the adz through the gap.
Regarding the half-inch I suggested removing from the thin end of the wedge, you will gain roughly one-quarter-inch gap beyond the doorstop and, coincidentally, the adz is roughly one-quarter-inch thick at the point that is good for cranking and applying force when it becomes necessary.
Be aware: Proper forcible entry techniques should in absolutely no way resemble breaking a piece or multiple pieces of 2 x 2 wooden sticks. In fact, the opposite is true if you allow the tools to do the work. I have forced many doors using an axe, Halligan and wedge where often the stain or paint was hardly disturbed. This is the level you should be training to, not to see how fast you can break a piece of small dimensional lumber. If the building has fire showing, by all means use a quick method. However, if it is for a welfare check or light smoke investigation that resembles food on the stove, you should be training to a level of complete understanding of the concepts of the Halligan and force wedge so that you can leave the door as close as possible to the way you found it on arrival. Even more so, you should be training to this level for when you come across a difficult door.
Keep a wedge handy – and use it
The wedge is a good tool to have handy if you are trained on its use and have it readily available to grab with a gloved hand. Get one and put it on your helmet. You will forget about it in your pocket, plus it’s difficult to remove form the pocket with a gloved hand. Arrive on scene ready to show up that second-in company.
Get out and train. Be smart. Be aggressive.