Always and Never

by Michael N. Ciampo

Early in your career, you’re going to come across the words “always” and “never” in many training manuals and skill drills you perform. It’s drilled into your head so you can pass a test and become a “certified” firefighter. The big problem with “always” and “never” is that they’ve never been introduced to the rigors, conditions, situations, or problems that arise or we face on the fireground or emergency scene. Sure, they have their places in specific situations, but let’s look at a few situations in which we must bend or break the rules so we can perform our tasks to the best of our ability or to get the job done.

Sound the Floor

Rule: Prior to entering a window from a portable ladder, a firefighter should “always” sound the floor with a tool.

Tactical Tip: If you climb up the ladder, then take the window and pull out the curtains and blinds (so you don’t get caught up in them when you enter or exit the window), then sound the floor and hit the victim with your tool as you pound the floor, did you perform your “always” correctly? How about after you’ve cleared the window properly (complete removal of the center sash, glass, curtains, and blinds) you sweep the floor in the area you’re about to sound. Maybe institute a “sweep and sound” procedure when you enter a window so you don’t clobber an unconscious victim who’s on the floor. The reason you’re sounding the floor is so you know it can hold your weight when you enter the window. Don’t be surprised if suddenly the floor or carpet moves. During fires, laminate wood I-beams with oriented strand board webs have failed and members were saved by the carpet stretching and sagging; luckily, it stayed attached to the tack strips mounted along the walls.

Forcible Entry

Rule: When performing forcible entry on an inward-swinging door, the firefighter holding the halligan tool should “never” move the tool while it’s being struck.

Tactical Tip: The halligan tool has numerous parts: a pike, an adz, forks, shoulders, and a flat hammerhead surface—all attached to the shaft of the tool. It is perhaps the most versatile tool in our arsenal to force or pry with. When forcing a door with the irons (ax and halligan), the firefighter holding the halligan is in control and normally gives the commands on when to strike the tool. He usually uses the word “hit” or “strike,” and the firefighter operating the ax should hit it only once and expect the other firefighter to move the tool to another angle in between hits. If the firefighter in control says “drive,” then the ax can continually hit the halligan until he says “stop.” Remember, if you’re the firefighter operating the ax and the halligan isn’t level and the adz is dropping toward the floor, stop your strikes and tap the adz upward so it’s level and you’re striking the tool square.

When you are faced with a dead-end hallway, angular door configuration, or narrow wall spacing such as an outside stairway leading to the basement, it may be difficult to hit the adz end of the tool. This is where you find out the value of having the tool’s shoulders squared off and sliding the head of the ax on either the top or bottom of the halligan’s shaft to drive the forks in between the door and frame. When it is done on the top, the weight of the ax’s head is carried by the halligan’s shaft; when done from below, the firefighter will hold the weight of the ax. The ax is now being used as a slide hammer, and the firefighter holding the halligan can continually put pressure on the tool’s shaft and move it as it is being hit to reduce the friction between the door and jamb and allow the forks to slide into position easier. Although not our normal tactic, in this situation the tool being moved when being struck helps with this forcible entry technique.

Portable Ladder Tip Height

Rule: The tip of a portable ladder raised to a roof should “always” be extended four to five rungs over the roof.

Tactical Tip: When a porch roof is laddered and a firefighter must work from or on the roof, he should size up the pitch and depth of the roof. If the roof is only about three to four feet wide when measured outward from the structure, extending the portable ladder too many rungs over the gutter line can interfere with members operating on the small roof. The ladder will extend too far into the work space and can be struck with a tool, or it can be accidentally moved in heavy smoke conditions when someone inadvertently walks or bumps into it. Also, if an unconscious victim is brought out onto this short porch roof, it may be better to lower the ladder so the tip is just above the roof line. This will make removing the victim into a waiting firefighter’s arms that much easier while he holds onto both beams.

Automobile Battery Disconnect—Accident Scenes

Rule: Always disconnect the negative terminal of a car’s battery first, then the positive terminal, to prevent any chances of a fire occurring or to eliminate the chances of electrical arcing.

Tactical Tip: With so many newer vehicles equipped with electrically powered seats, you should no longer just be focused on removing the power to the auto. First, size up the accident scene and the vehicle’s makeup, especially if you have entrapped victims in the front seats. If the front seats are electrically powered, prior to disconnecting the battery, move the seats backward from the dashboard to create more room for victim removal.

Remember, you are taught rules and procedures to help you perform efficiently and operate safely at fires and emergencies. However, there will be times when you will need to bend the rules to fit the situation.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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