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‘Take the door!’: Soft entry and the application of the shove knife on scene

When the irons aren’t appropriate, shove knives work very well on interior-grade doors with common key-in-the-knob-style locks

Shove Knife Outward Swinging.jpg

Photo/Quintin Pavel

By Quintin Pavel

What comes to mind when you think of forcible entry into a structure? Is it two firefighters rushing to a door with a set of irons, ready to blow it off its hinges and get to work slaying that dragon? Maybe it’s a firefighter in a smoky hallway, kicking down a door to save a terrified citizen. I doubt you picture a bleary-eyed firefighter attempting to open a panel room door at 3:30 a.m. while building maintenance is 45 minutes away, just to silence a fire alarm.

Let’s be honest, we all love racing to structure fires and doing what we signed up to do, but so many of our calls are false alarms. According to the NFPA, one out of 12 calls responded to by fire departments are false alarms (Karter, M.).

My department is located in an urban area, and my first-due area is heavily commercial and industrial, with many multifamily dwellings. We routinely respond to fire alarms only to find that the riser rooms and attenuator panels are behind wooden interior doors. We also find ourselves searching for broken sprinkler heads and activated smoke detectors behind similar doors.

We all have Knox box keys that should grant us access to spaces like the panel room. But what happens when, for whatever reason, we can’t get into these areas? What happens when fire prevention hasn’t got to that business yet for lock updates? Do we put on our construction hats and just blindly demo doors until we get where need to go? I certainly do not recommend that approach.

Having the means and understanding to get into rooms without causing massive damage is pivotal. A well-placed boot or a set of irons will certainly open those doors, but for these incidents, those methods are unnecessary. Instead, a tool that all firefighters should be carrying will solve the issue.

Soft entry

We’re all familiar with the tried-and-true method of a set of irons and forcing through exterior and interior doors. If your academy was anything like mine, you were instructed ad-nauseum on how to use teamwork to make entry through a locked door. While that method does work, it is not always the most applicable or appropriate. This is where “soft entry” using a shove knife comes into play.

Shove Knife Layout.jpg

Figure 1: The halfmoon cutout (1) is used for inward-swinging doors, the “J” notch (2) is used for outward swinging doors, and the trapezoid cutout (3) is for obsolete car door locks.

Photo/Quintin Pavel

The shove knife (Figure 1) is a simple tool made of thin steel (typically 18 gauge) with three notches cut into it. These notches can manipulate a lock latch, freeing the locking mechanism and allowing the firefighter to open the door. A shove knife will not damage the door and is highly unlikely to damage the locking mechanism itself. Shove knives work very well on interior-grade doors with common key-in-the-knob-style locks (think of your home’s bathroom or bedroom doors).

The shove knife works best on outward-swinging doors, but it can also be used on inward swinging doors. Forcing either style door requires a bit of finesse as you will need to manipulate the parts of the lock rather than apply mechanical advantage to the door itself.

Each cutout on the shove knife is used in a different manner depending on the swing of the door you are forcing (Figure 1). Knowing which style door you are forcing, as well as which part of the shove knife to use, is the key to success. Note that you can only use a shove knife on a key-in-the-knob-style lock with a keeper. It cannot be used on a deadbolt.

Outward-swinging door

Using the shove knife on an outward-swinging door is relatively straightforward:

  • Step 1: Insert the shove knife above or below the latch (Figure 2). I prefer below the latch, as I have more control over the tool as I manipulate it slightly upward and back to clear the latch.
  • Step 2: Apply slight upward pressure and slowly pull the shove knife toward you.
  • Step 3: Simultaneously pull the doorknob toward you with your other hand.

You should be able to push the door latch into the door, allowing the door to open.

Shove Knife Outward Swinging.jpg

Figure 2: The “J” style cutout will slip around the latch and allow you to push the latch into the door as you press the tool inward and pull it toward you.

Photo/Quintin Pavel

Inward-swinging door

An inward-swinging door is equally straightforward, unless the door does not have a metal frame and jamb stop. In this case, a shove knife will not work.

  • Step 1: Insert the shove knife between the jamb and the door in line with the latch (Figure 3). If the door has a wooden jamb and wooden jamb stop, the jamb stop can be gently pried away with the shove knife to give access to the latching mechanism.
  • Step 2: While wiggling/pushing the shove knife forward, slide the knife between the latch and the keeper until the door can be pushed forward.

Note that most current key-in-the-knob-style locks have a tamper pin. This pin follows the path of the latch and prevents the door latch from being manipulated if it slides into the door before the latch does. If a tamper pin is present, the workaround is fairly simple:

  • On an outward-swinging door, push the door in before inserting the shove knife to move the tamper pin into the keeper.
  • On an inward-swinging door, do the opposite: Pull the door further closed to get the tamper pin into the latch keeper.
Shove Knief Inward Swinging.jpg

Figure 3: The halfmoon style cutout will marry to the latch radius and allow you to wiggle/push the shove knife between the latch and the keeper, allowing the door to be pushed open.

Photo/Quintin Pavel

Bringing it all together

The shove knife is not a replacement for a well-trained firefighter and a set of irons. However, having another tool in the toolbox (or your pants pocket) is something every firefighter can use. When a situation calls for blowing doors off hinges, the irons work tremendously. When we need a little more delicacy, the shove knife shines.

Most importantly, though, always try before you pry … or shove!

About the author

Quintin Pavel is a volunteer firefighter with a metropolitan department just outside of Detroit. He has a degree in mechanical engineering and holds a state of Michigan residential builder license. Pavel works in industrial and commercial construction, furthering his fire service knowledge of building construction.