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Get inside your forcible entry and search tools

Your go-to options include a Halligan, roof hook, flathead ax, force wedge, thermal imager and flashlight


Basic hand tools for search operations.

Photo/Chris DelBello

In the American fire service, many of us refer to the apparatus as a “rolling toolbox.” We carry just about any hand tool one could need. Having so many choices is great, but what’s better is ensuring our members know how to make the right selection for the task at hand. In that effort, here we’ll focus on selecting the best hand tools for forcible entry and search. After all, not all hand tools are as useful for search, and carrying a slight variation of the standard set of irons – the flat head ax and the Halligan – could help us be more effective and efficient.

Before we go further, I want to stress that you should not use any tools for the physical location of a victim, no matter if it’s made of wood, fiberglass or steel. That’s what your hands are for. Get low and use whatever crawling method you prefer, using your hands – not tools – to locate your victims.

Having said that, we do need to carry tools that can assist us in other ways during our search efforts. Following are some options to consider. I’ll share my recommendations at the end.


Much like the standard set of iron, the roof hook and Halligan combo marry together very nicely for carrying. You can add a strap for additional security or weld a single link of chain to the roof hook for the crotch of the Halligan to nestle down onto.

Photo/Chris DelBello

Halligan bar

First things first, we need to get inside the structure, which may require forcible entry. Whether we’re taking a door or a window, the Halligan is the obvious choice for this action, and your members must be proficient with this tool.

The Halligan is not relegated to the use of exterior doors, though. It is often needed to force interior doors as well. There have been many instances where bedrooms in single-family occupancies have not only standard door locks but padlocks as well.

With search, especially large areas or searches where you find yourself deep into a building, the Halligan can also be used as a marker, identifying a location that you plan to return to, either to search further (e.g., when you have multiple hallways off of a main hallway) or to end a search. To do so, you would simply leave the tool in a chosen spot, perform the search until you return to the Halligan, signifying the end of the search in that room or hallway. It’s essentially a reminder of where you started part of a search.

Perhaps the biggest reason we should carry the Halligan when we are performing a search is for our own rescue. It affords us alternative methods of escape or self-rescue. It also makes a good sounding tool to help other companies locate a lost firefighter. The lost firefighter can use the tool to strike the floor or wall until located by the other crew.

Roof hook

While not used to perform the actual search, the roof hook is a useful tool to have while we perform the search. Specifically, the roof hook can be used with forcible entry or controlled entry through a window. We can also use the roof hook to search out ahead, identifying holes or drops in floors.


While a firefighter is searching a room, the officer can use the roof hook to check for traveling fire overhead, just one step in maintaining situational awareness.

Photo/Chris DelBello

While performing search, it is important for the crew with no hoseline to maintain situational awareness. The roof hook can assist the search crew by using it to check for overhead fire. The officer can punch the ceiling or push up ceiling tiles in the hallway while the firefighter searches a room.

Depending on operational guidelines and tactics, the roof hook could also be used to extend a search for a single firefighter that may be operating on their own. The firefighter simply hooks the roof hook to the door frame, which allows the firefighter to enter and search deeper into a room with a little more safety and confidence.

Another roof hook use involves entering windows headfirst. Windows, especially in older homes, are often not as low to the floor as we would like. We can simply hook the roof hook to a corner of the window and try to place the tip of the roof hook on the floor, centered with the window. Entering headfirst, we can use the roof hook for a controlled headfirst entry.

Flathead ax

While not as functional as the aforementioned options, the flathead ax does have its uses during search operations. It can be used for our forcible entry efforts, and it can also be used as a marker during extended searches. It can also be used as a wedge to keep a door from closing on us while we search an individual room or area.

Force wedge

The force wedge is a pretty simple tool. In fact, 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. For example, fire crews can wedge 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.

It can also be used to prevent a door from closing on us while we search a room.


If you carry a force wedge in your pockets, consider moving it to your helmet. It is much easier to remove with a gloved hand, and if you forget you are carrying it on your helmet, someone in the crowd may see it and ask to use it.

Photo/Chris DelBello


A force wedge can be used to keep a door from closing behind us while we search a room. Often, you will see firefighters place the wedge in the doors hinge area. While effective, it is not a secure location for your wedge, If the door is bumped, the wedge will fall to floor and the door could still close on you. Instead, place the wedge on the floor like a standard door wedge or on the floor in the hinge area. This way the wedge will not have anywhere to fall if slightly bumped.

Photo/Chris DelBello

Thermal imager

The thermal imager is by all accounts the most useful tool that will assist us in our search efforts. It allows us to see any exposed victims through the smoke and helps us maintain situational awareness while we search.

The officer or firefighter carrying the thermal imaging camera (TIC) can quickly find the seat of the fire, locate victims, guide a searching firefighter directly to the victim, watch the firefighter perform the search, and scan the hallway ceilings for temperature changes for any uncontrolled advancing fire.

That being said, it is important that we not rely solely on the TIC to perform the search. A victim under bed sheets and a heavy comforter could easily be missed with a TIC. We cannot forego a physical search with a quick scan of a TIC.


The TIC is our most obvious tool used to assist us in our search for victims, however, it should not be the only tool used to find our victims. We still must perform a physical hands-on search.

Photo/Chris DelBello


The flashlight is the most underrated, under-utilized and misused tool we carry during search. Firefighters often fail to use the flashlight at all or, when they do, they use it improperly.

Many firefighters think a helmet-mounted light is the better option. I disagree. The helmet-mounted light is literally being carried at the highest point. We need to focus on the floor. Further, a helmet-mounted flashlight in “white smoke” only compounds our problem and makes visibility worse. I often have to tell members to turn it off so I can look for any small, glowing fire. A helmet-mounted flashlight in heavy smoke is just as pointless if we can’t get below the smoke. These lights can also create an issue when trying to communicate with other firefighters – the light literally shines in your face and, just like a car driving at you with its high beams on, creates vision difficulties for you.


A flashlight placed at the entry to room, can be a very effective return beacon for the firefighter searching a room.

Photo/Chris DelBello

There are all types of flashlights. Helmet-mounted, 90-degree angle flashlights and box lights with a strap. The most useful is the box light with a strap. The box light with a strap can get lower to the floor, which is where we typically find our victims, than any of the other types of flashlight on the market. On the strap, the box light will tend to naturally gravitate toward the floor, meaning it will hang low while you crawl.

The box light can be removed with gloved hands easier than the other flashlights. Why is being able to quickly and easily remove your flashlight with a gloved hand important? The number one reason is so you can leave the flashlight at the entrance to a room and use it as a beacon to get back to the door if department guidelines allow you to perform single-firefighter searches. It also allows you to put the flashlight on the floor and aim the flashlight toward the firefighter who is performing the search, allowing them to return straight toward the light on the floor. If you were using a helmet-mounted flashlight, it could be up in the heavier smoke and therefore useless as a return beacon. The second reason is because most firefighters and officers tend to forget or leave their own flashlight on the apparatus. Having the box light means they can use mine for a moment, if necessary.

My tool preferences

I prefer and recommend the Halligan and roof hook combo, plus a force wedge and flashlight.

Most firefighters would agree that we should never enter a building without a Halligan in at least one crewmember’s hands, as we never know when we will need to force a door or breach an interior wall. The roof hook complements allows us to search for holes in the floor as well as overhead fire, helping us maintain situational awareness while we search.

I prefer to travel light and efficiently, and I like to see other firefighters do the same thing. A nice complement to our tool set is the force wedge. A firefighter with these three tools – and proficient in their use – is capable of doing more than the average firefighter. Add a box flashlight and you’re good to go.

Do not limit yourself or your victims to what you learned in the academy. Think outside the box. Think about tools that put more options in your hands before initiating your next search.

Stay safe.

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.