Throw Back to Basics: Roof Vent with Ax

By Brian Zaitz

Vertical or roof ventilation is normally the process of cutting a hole in an upper section of the building to allow smoke and fire gases to escape. We often associate vertical ventilation with saw cuts in the roof, but what happens when the saw doesn’t start or it fails in the middle of the cut? The ax provides a great alternative and even primary tool for vertically ventilating roofs, and the great part is that the ax always “starts”!

The ax of choice for this task is the flathead ax. The flathead ax is a great all-around fireground tool used for forcible entry as a striking tool; the same principle applies for ventilation.


Many may think that the ax blade would provide a much better cutting edge and more efficient cut, but this is false. The flat, blunt side of the ax provides a better chopping surface and creates less binding on the ax than the blade. (Note that the ax is only effective on residential roof structures with normal shingles and plywood decking. Attempting to gain access with an ax to a commercial metal roof or lightweight concrete will only waste time and resources.)



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To accomplish the cut, take short strokes with the ax to “chop” through the roofing material. The short strokes provide better tool control, improved efficiency and overall stability while working on the roof. It is important to have stability; many times, we can work off a roof ladder or aerial, but if movement off these devices is required, the Halligan can provide a quick and easy foothold by simply by driving the pik into the roof and setting the tool in place.


Take some time to get out the flathead ax and use it for ventilation. Pick up a couple pieces of scrap plywood and some old shingles and make a down-and-dirty vent prop to practice on with both the ax and the saw.

Take the time to talk with your crew about every ventilation tactic available and understand how, why, and when to conduct each so that everyone is on the same page on your next fire.

Download this training bulletin as a PDF HERE (4.8 MB)


Brian Zaitz Brian Zaitzis a 15-year student of the fire service and the Captain-Training Officer with the Metro West Fire Protection District. Zaitz is also an instructor with Engine House Training, LLC , an instructor at the St. Louis County Fire Academy, and the Board of Director with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He has several degrees including an associates in paramedic technology, a bachelor’s in fire science management, and master’s in human resource development. Zaitz is also a credentialed chief training officer through the Center for Public Safety Excellence as well as a student of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.



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