Revisiting the Lock Breaker

Issue 12 and Volume 11.

High-security padlocks have been in existence since the early 1900s and have been presenting firefighters with forcible entry challenges for more than 100 years. Long before power tools became readily available and fire departments were blessed with dedicated forcible entry saws, firefighters were gaining entry into commercial occupancies using conventional entry techniques. In this article, I am going to revisit traditional lock breakers, explain conventional lock breaking techniques, and discuss the merits of carrying them as part of your forcible entry cache.

The earliest lock breakers date back to the 1900s and the Kelly tool and at one time were considered an integral component of the forcible entry arsenal. With the advent of the power saw and the aluminum oxide blade, the traditional lock breaker gave way to the forcible entry power saw, but in my opinion there is still a place for traditional lock breakers in modern day forcible entry.

There is no doubt that a power saw with a metal cutting blade is a formidable weapon when you are faced with multiple case-hardened locks at a commercial building fire. Unfortunately, because of simple economics, it is rare for many fire departments to run with more than one power saw on a frontline apparatus. Most departments must weigh the odds and outfit their apparatus based on the laws of probability. When carrying only one saw on the first-due apparatus, we must decide which type of blade we are going to keep on our saw. The laws of probability in most response areas would indicate that we are more likely to respond to a residential dwelling fire than a commercial building fire. Therefore, we equip our saw with a wood cutting blade to perform vertical ventilation. This thought process makes perfect sense and is exactly how we do it in my volunteer company. The only foreseeable problem arises when we pull up first due to a well-secured commercial building with heavy smoke showing at 3:00 a.m. Now what?

Forcible Entry and Vertical Ventilation

In the scenario mentioned above, the most critical initial operations are going to be forcible entry and vertical ventilation. We are going to have to force entry to the roll-down security system to facilitate extinguishment while simultaneously venting the roof to improve conditions and prevent a potential backdraft. It becomes quite obvious in this scenario that saws are going to be at a premium early on in the operation.

One school of thought would be to switch out the blade to perform the forcible entry and then return the wood blade to cut the roof. While this is certainly an option, it can be quite time consuming and may lead to a significant delay in the completion of both of these critical operations. When confronted with this very scenario, what options do we have that allow us to complete these tasks in a simultaneous manner? A couple of simple and affordable tools carried on the apparatus may come in handy when these rare occasions arise. The duckbill lock breaker and a 24-inch pipe wrench with a breaker bar are two examples of conventional lock breakers that I am going to examine in this article (photos 1 and 2).

Duckbill Lock breaker

The duckbill lock breaker is a commercially available tool designed specifically to force padlocks typically found on commercial buildings. It is a solid steel tool with an 18-inch handle and an 18-inch tapered end used to spread the shackle away from the body of the lock. The operation requires two firefighters, one holding the duckbill and the other holding either an eight-pound ax or a 10-pound sledgehammer. The tip of the duckbill is placed between the shackles of the lock and the tool is set once resistance is met (photo 3).

Once the tool is set, the second firefighter strikes the surface of the tool with the ax or the sledgehammer, driving the wedge downward (photo 4). As the wedge is driven farther into the shackle, it forces it from the body of the lock. It is important to continue striking the surface of the tool until there is substantial separation of the shackle from the body of the lock. As most high-quality padlocks have a heel and toe mechanism, we want to ensure that we can remove the lock from the gate without having to turn it, which the heel and toe system prevents. By creating enough separation of the shackle, or by driving the hasp completely off, the lock can be easily removed from the staple on the gate (photo 5).

Pipe Wrench and Halligan

Another tool we can use to force a case-hardened padlock is a 24-inch pipe wrench fitted with a breaker bar. The breaker bar is simply a piece of pipe two inches in diameter placed over the handle of the wrench to increase leverage. What is nice about this operation is that it can be performed by one firefighter, and it is relatively easy to do so multiple locks can be forced with minimal exertion.

The first thing we must do is pull the lock away from the gate to grasp the body of the lock (photo 6). Next, we want to place the teeth of the wrench firmly and squarely on the body of the lock with the handle and breaker bar at a 90-degree angle to the hasp (photo 7). Once the wrench is set, we want to exert pressure on the handle, rotating it 180 degrees (photo 8). This rotation will exert a tremendous amount of torque on the shackles (photo 9), causing them to fail (photo 10). As was the case with the duckbill, we may have to reset the wrench and spin the lock again to defeat the heel and toe mechanism.

Another option, in lieu of the pipe wrench, is to use the halligan to twist the lock off the gate. Simply place the forks over the hasp, grabbing both legs of the lock (photo 11). Once the forks are securely set, rotate the tool to generate torsion and snap the hasp (photo 12). Continue rotating the tool to separate the hasp from the lock body to remove it from the gate.

Tried and True

These are but a few options when conditions on the fireground present us with a situation where we need two saws for initial operations but only have one. The duckbill and the pipe wrench have survived the test of time and have been successfully used countless times by seasoned firefighters in lieu of the power saw. With proper training and a little technique, you will be well on your way to forcing these locks the old fashion way, and it sure beats cutting the roof with the ax!