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A firefighter’s back-to-basics guide to forcible entry tools

Understanding the functions of Halligans, K-tools and other options, plus the forces involved and how these tools affect fireground operations

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Firefighters need to understand the leverage principles used in forcible entry as well as the dangers associated with them.

Photo/Sandra DelBello

Forcible entry is an essential fireground function. After all, fires cannot be extinguished and searches cannot begin until entry is made by firefighters.

Firefighters are expected to breach through doors, windows, walls and floors as well as the security devices used to deny unauthorized admittance. This primary firefighter task and requires knowledge, technique and experience. Skilled entry into a building is fast and efficient, minimizing damage and allowing for safe and secure entry and exit for other firefighters.

To effectively enter a structure, firefighters must have a working knowledge of building construction, lock assemblies, as well as the tools and techniques used in forcible entry. Firefighters need to understand the leverage principles used in forcible entry as well as the dangers associated with them.

Tool functions

Fire service tools are grouped by their function: striking, prying, cutting and pulling as well as task-specific tools, such as for through-the-lock or a large wall breach tasks.

Strike: Striking tools – flat-headed axe, sledgehammer (aka maul) – deliver an impact force sufficient to break a lock directly, drive a wedge or strike another tool. Sledgehammers increase striking force, can be short- or long-handled, and can weigh from 2 to 20 pounds.

Pry: Prying tools – crowbar, Halligan tool, pry bar and, in some cases, hydraulic spreaders – provide leverage and a mechanical advantage to widen a door, move an object or expose a lock during entry operations. The Halligan tool used in concert with a flat-headed axe are called the irons. This is the basic fire department tool formula for forcible entry.

Cut: Axes, saws, bolt cutters and cutting torches are examples of tools that will cut materials away from or around locking devices. Tools specific to forcible entry are the “K & A” tools, the “bam-bam” tool, as well as keys and picks designed to unlock individual security devices. Details on each:

  • K tool: The K tool is used to remove a cylinder lock. The K tool itself consists of a steel block roughly 3 x 3 inches by 1-inch thick with a K-shaped notch on one side, having sharp edges that grip the cylinder, and a U-shaped flange on the other side. The notch is slipped over the lock cylinder, and then forced down by striking with the flat side of the axe or maul. The Halligan is then inserted into the flange and used to pry the K-tool off the door, thereby pulling the entire key cylinder out. The bolt is then retracted from the inside of the cylinder hole using a turning tool, such as a screwdriver.
  • A tool: This one is similar to the K tool but has a pry bar built into the cutter.
  • Bam-bam tool: This tool is designed to pull the lock cylinder out of a regular-duty padlock. It has a case-hardened screw that is placed in keyway. Once the screw is set, the sliding hammer will pull tumblers out of the padlock.

Moving on to another type of cut tool, chain saws, circular, reciprocating and rotary saws, such as the K-12 saw, have particular applications in forcible entry. They can be used to breach walls and floors, cut exterior hinges and securities bars, and provide openings to large metal overhead doors.

Basic hand tools, when properly utilized, can be effective forcible entry tools, too. Vice grips or channel lock pliers can secure a cylinder lock while a screwdriver or chisel can expedite the removal of hinge pins.

Pull: Comparable to the goldenrod fence stretcher and just as ancient, the mechanically efficient come-along with its chains and hooks makes it easier to move one thing closer to another. Doors, dashes and seat rails give up to the come-along’s ratcheted pull. The come-along is a versatile field tool, especially when power tools are at a premium on a large-scale scene.

Powered saws, hydraulic wedges, pneumatic tools and the battery-operated rams and spreaders of today have powerful applications when dealing with enlarging secured openings or metal framework.

Like all fire service equipment, tools selected for pulling with force must be used properly if firefighters are to be safe and effective. Misuse can result in delaying entry while promoting a hazardous situation that could resulted in firefighter injury.

The physics of tool use

Most forcible entry tools work on the principle of leverage. A tool has an input force, such as a firefighter’s hand strength, and an output force, that of the work to be done. The mechanical advantage comes with a fulcrum, a pivot point in between forces, as with a teeter-totter or tilting to one side like a wheelbarrow in motion. Understanding how force is applied by leveraging a Halligan or pry bar in a door jamb is critical to proper tool use and firefighter safety.

When carrying forcible entry tools like a pick-head axe or Halligan tool, firefighters need to keep sharp edges and points away from their body, and all long-pointed tools, such as pike poles and pry bars, should be carried with points down and keeping an eye out for objects overhead as well as obstacles near the ground. Heavy-headed tools, like sledgehammers, should be carried with the head close to the hand hold while avoiding swinging as you move toward your objective.

Forcible entry tools must be in workable condition and used in accordance with their designed function. Firefighters must have on full PPE when working with forcible entry tools and must never work alone. Many of the tools used are heavy and awkward to move. Firefighters must work together in moving tools, such as power supplies, multiple hydraulic tools and large support items, like portable lighting assemblies (light trees) and large power fans.

A firefighter’s list

When entering a dwelling or structure, it’s important to remember the fundamentals:

  • Check the door for heat and distortion prior to taking action.
  • Determine the type of glass in a window before breaking.
  • The “Try before you pry” mantra or confirming the existence of a Knox Box may make quick work of an opening.
  • Regardless of technique, make sure to control the swinging of a door or the shards of glass after contact. Civilians congregate at recognized exits during emergency situations and their close proximity to these entrances and exits may coincide with your entry. Be aware at all times.
  • Be prepared to change tactics if a particular tool deployment is not working or taking too long.
  • Begin with a straight-forward task and progress to greater force with more powerful tools as the situation warrants. This is the reason a maul or sledgehammer is brought with the irons when first initiating forcible entry. The additional surface area and force provided by a 5-pound short-handled maul may be needed, as the flat-head axe serves as a wedge and hard surface for the prying actions of the Halligan.

Coordinated attack

Entry, rescue and rapid-intervention crews need to coordinate forcible entry operations with hoseline and ventilation teams. Through command accountability and clear communications, a coordinated fire/rescue attack, leading with entry, can be achieved. Any actions outside command’s purview can result in a sudden change in fire behavior, increasing risk to crews working on the fireground. Knowing when to take a door is as important as how.

Final thoughts

While the fundamentals of entering a structure or vehicle may seem basic, firefighters must know the nomenclature, physical features, capabilities and limitations of all forcible entry tools, combining their myriad uses, increased application speed, and the training and practice to produce a well-executed access while doing minimal damage – the mark of a professional firefighter.

[Read next: Halligan basics for firefighter forcible entry training]

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.