Effective and Safe Use of Axes on the Fireground

Issue 5 and Volume 9.

The fire started in a pair of dumpsters that sat in the “L” of a row of stores and a diner that fronted on two streets. Arriving firefighters found the fire had spread to a wooden enclosure that was erected to shield the dumpsters, and to both the row of “taxpayers” and to the diner. Putting their first handline swiftly into operation, firefighters quickly knocked down the fire in the dumpsters and enclosure, but the fire had spread to the rear of the stores and the diner.

The fire had also entered a hardware store, and firefighters worked to force the rear door of the hardware store but struggled against the fortified entrance. Unable to successfully force entry, the crew switched the primary operation to the front of the stores. Unfortunately, fire rarely waits for us to relocate handlines or change our strategies.

Question: Did the delay in forcing the rear door affect the outcome of this fire? Answer: We never really know how operational delays affect the outcome of an event, but only rarely do they work in our favor. The simple task of stretching and operating one handline or the proper knowledge of forcible entry techniques has positively impacted the outcome of numerous incidents—and an inability to do these same tasks has doomed just as many.

Everyday Tools

As firefighters begin their career in the fire service, they are frequently amazed at the amount of equipment we use. But a thorough understanding of basic, everyday tools and how to use them will provide the strong foundation needed to excel.

For an engine company, basic tools include hose, nozzles and fittings. These components allow personnel to do the basics—choose a handline, stretch the line, connect to the engine and flow water.

For the ladder company there are additional tool choices. Hand tools, ladders, lights, power tools and even extrication tools are all part of the complement of equipment carried on today’s apparatus, and the basic tools are the hand tools. Knowing the types of hand tools and their uses will set the foundation for almost all truck work.

Hand tools for the truck company usually fall into one of three functional categories: 1) striking, 2) prying, or 3) pulling. Many of the tools have more than one use, and some might fit in all three categories. Typically, multi-function tools are more valuable on the fireground than single-task tools.

In this article, I’ll take a closer look at striking tools.

Striking Tools

Striking tools can be used to strike a surface, such as chopping a roof for ventilation purposes, or to strike another tool, such as an axe striking a Halligan tool during forcible entry. The most common striking tools are axes, but the category also includes sledgehammers, splitting mauls, etc.

The axe comes in either a flat head or pick style. While both are useful tools, most firefighters prefer the flat head, especially as it relates to forcible entry. Flat head axes come in a variety of sizes/weights; the 6-lb. and 8-lb. are the most popular choices for the fire service. Axes come with wood or plastic handles, and it seems the plastic handle is slowly replacing the wood, largely because the handle requires less maintenance and is more resilient.

Axe maintenance is a relatively simple process: Check the handle for splitting, cracks and gouges, and ensure that the handle fits tightly into the head of the tool. Also check the head of the tool for cracks, chips, any mushrooming on the striking surfaces, and a clean edge on the blade. Do not over sharpen the blade. Axes that are too sharp will bite and bind into wood. A tool with any imperfection on the head that cannot be addressed with a file or grinding wheel should be put out of service.

There are several uses for an axe on the fireground. The obvious ones are striking and chopping, but axes can also be used as a door chock to keep a door from closing, a wedge during forcible entry to “hold” a position while the Halligan is repositioned, or a “spacer” between a door frame and the jaw of hydraulic forcible entry tools to get an extra inch of spread.

Axe Safety

Although everyone knows how to swing an axe, there are some simple training tips that can make things safer. First, hand position is important, whether forcing doors or chopping holes. When forcing a door the hands should be comfortably spaced on the handle, with the top hand slightly below the head of the tool and the bottom hand toward the end of the handle. This helps prevent broken fingers when a misguided strike misses the Halligan. It also provides better control and helps prevent “baseball” swings.

When forcing a door, the swing should be a short and compact, and as directly in line with the Halligan as conditions permit. Hits delivered on an angle to the Halligan can cause the axe to glance off the surface and possibly hit the holding firefighter. If your members don’t force doors on a regular basis, teach them to swing the axe from a kneeling position. From this position, the long side of the axe back will strike the longest part of the Halligan, the adz end, perpendicularly. This gives inexperienced firefighters more room for error.

Strength & Accuracy

To ventilate a building, many firefighters use the “smashing” versus the “cutting or chopping” technique with the axe. Using the back of the axe, they repeatedly strike the roof with enough force to get through the shingles and break the boards or plywood underneath. Depending on the roof covering and composition, and the age of the decking, this can be an effective method of ventilation, although it does require some brute strength. Accuracy is also not very important because the blows don’t have to be in-line; they just need to strike the same general area. Where the smashing technique does not work especially well is if there are several layers of shingles over plywood or, on the rare occasions where we’re operating on a flat-roof surface, with a build-up of tar. In these instances, accuracy becomes very important.

Example: At a training drill, students were shown how to swing an axe in order to open up the roof of a vacant apartment building. After numerous swings with little to no success, a different firefighter stepped up and took a dozen additional swings. By the time a third firefighter got involved, it was obvious that this was not a “normal” roof covering. By using accurate chops in the tar, a line was scribed that led to the removal of the tar in layers. Ultimately, it was revealed that the roof had more than 6″ of tar over a sheet of tin that was then covering a 5″ x 4″ board. Random strikes on the roof were useless as the tar absorbed the energy. Only with the accurate cutting of an initial “box” in the tar (for tar removal), which led to the final exposing of the roof boards, was it possible to cut a ventilation hole.

Proper Form

For those who may not possess the pure strength necessary to repeatedly smash holes in roof surfaces, accurate cutting results in fewer swings and more efficient work. The key to accurate cutting is learning how to properly swing the axe. Most of the effort should be used to get the axe into position over your head. The axe should be raised with one hand near the axe head and one hand at the base of the handle. As you begin the forward swing over your head, the hand at the top of the tool should slide down the handle toward the back hand.

As you repeat this procedure, try to strike the roof in the same place with each stroke. Imagine a line that you would like to follow and raise and swing the axe again. Most firefighters lose their accuracy as they attempt to swing harder. By practicing accuracy first, most firefighters are able to pick up the speed required to make their cuts. The harder you “pull,” the faster the axe moves, so be careful to not lose your accuracy.

On walkable roofs—those that are either flat or with the 4/12 pitch common on ranch style and bi-level homes—most firefighters are comfortable swinging an axe because, due to the low pitch, they are able to stand upright and balance with little effort. Once we move beyond the 4/12 pitch, balance becomes an issue and swinging becomes more difficult. Many firefighters will now kneel or, if possible, straddle the ridge in order to maintain their balance. Some will keep both legs bent under and behind them while some will use a straight leg to brace themselves as they swing. Firefighters should practice both methods to decide which is most comfortable and gives them the greatest efficiency.

Firefighters should carefully practice swinging the axe with their “off” hand, because sometimes, due to construction features or the swing of a door, a traditional or preferred stance will not be possible. Firefighters should also practice swinging the axe in an upward motion, striking a Halligan, to simulate forcing the hinges on a door. This is an awkward operation and should not be attempted for the first time on the fireground.

Final Thought

As with all fireground skills, the only way to become proficient is to train, train, train. Take tools off the apparatus. Inspect them for flaws. Hit things with them. Chop and strike and practice. Clean them and restore them. Make sure both you and the tool are ready for the next incident.

Sidebar – My Favorite

Greg Jakubowski shares the hand tool he likes best

By Greg Jakubowski

Hands down my favorite hand tool is the Halligan bar. It is such a versatile piece of equipment and I am sure many others would concur. My preference is a 30-36″ size bar, as anything much longer than that starts to become unwieldy and difficult to use in tight quarters, and anything much shorter doesn’t give the same leverage. If it’s constructed properly, the Halligan is a strong and powerful tool. It’s the three different parts of the Halligan and the angles they are set at that make it so versatile.

The claw or fork end can be used to pry, to twist metal (in between the claw) to make a purchase point, break hinges or pull things. It can also be used to pry or twist a padlock or similar lock attached to a hasp, pulling it off of a door or gate.

The pick end is useful to drive locks through a door, drive the Halligan into a roof to make a “step” on a sloped roof, break glass, or poke through a padlock or hasp to twist and break it for forcible entry.

The adze or blade end can be used as a prying tool and works well with the K-tool to force locks with minimal damage. The blade can be slipped into an opening and the bar pulled or pushed to get the necessary force to accomplish the job. Use gravity as a friend, and often with the blade in a vertical opening the bar can be pushed downward to twist the blade in the opening, forcing apart the door or window. The flat end adjacent to the blade is a useful striking tool to “hammer” things or break windows, etc.

The Halligan pairs nicely with a flathead axe or sledgehammer as the tools of choice for many firefighters around the globe. I have only touched on a few of the uses of this tool—there are many others that make it number one in my book.

Greg Jakubowski, a fire protection engineer and certified safety professional, started his fire service career in 1978. Currently, he serves as a Pennsylvania State Fire Instructor and as chief of the Lingohocken Fire Company in Bucks County, Pa. Jakubowski is also a member of the IAFC and a principal in Fire Planning Associates, a company dedicated to helping fire departments, municipalities and businesses with pre-emergency planning.