By Clay Magee
Through-the-lock (TTL) forcible entry is a neglected skill in many fire departments. A lot of fire departments view pulling locks as a low-priority skill for situations such as lock outs or automatic fire alarms. Because of this view, many departments never use TTL because they don’t require access at all commercial fire alarms. It’s not uncommon for departments to have a lock-pulling tool on their truck, tucked away behind other equipment never used, with no key tool to be found. Possibly worse is having the tool on the truck with no members knowing how to use it. TTL definitely has a place on the fireground. With the right tools and little training, a firefighter can remove the lock and open the door in seconds, assuming no other locking devices are present. Two main reasons come to mind on why I would choose such methods on the fireground and both involve aluminum frame glass doors, commonly found on many commercial occupancies such as gas stations and strip malls.
Why Pull the Lock?
The first reason to use TTL would simply be that breaking the glass might not allow immediate entry. Many times in the urban environment stores are protected with extra security. Although the rear doors may have multiple deadbolts and drop bars, the front may include metal bars across the doors and the storefront windows (Photo 1, 2, and 3), hampering entry through both doors and windows without additional work and thereby impeding efficient entry.
For the uniformed or inexperienced firefighter, the thought behind process breaking the glass may be one of two things. They may expect to break the glass and step through the door, if no obstacles such as bars are in the way. Second, if bars are present, they may think they would be to break the glass and reach in and unlock the door. Many times, however, these locks are double keyed and will prevent the firefighter from unlocking the door from the inside.
The second reason to use TTL at commercial fires with glass store front doors would be flow path. We know the effects of ventilation on buildings. We have the science to back up what we’ve known for years. Big openings introduce large amounts of air. We want to be able to control these openings as needed. If we break the glass at these fires, we have no way to control the flow path, if needed. By being professional and taking the extra seconds needed to pull the locks, we will keep the door intact and can control the flow path, if needed.
There are several types of tools for pulling locks. There is not enough space in this article to cover all the different types of tools that have been made over the years. The three that we are going to focus on are the K-Tool, the Rex Tool, and channel locks/vice grips. All of these tools require the use of a key tool or other improvised tool to actually manipulate the lock. Some ad hoc tools used in these situations include a screwdriver, homemade key tool on the end of modified channel locks, or the pike of the halligan , to name a few.
The K-Tool (photo 4), useful on mortise and rim locks, was invented in the 1970s by William McLaughlin, who, along with Bob Farrell, would later design the Pro-Bar. The K-Tool gets its name from the shape of the puller on the back side (photo 5). The K-Tool is placed over the lock flush with the surface of the door. The tool is beat down onto the lock as the blades of the tool lock on to the sides of the lock cylinder. The adz of the halligan is placed through the front (photo 6) and the used as lever pulling the lock out of the door.
The Rex Tool (photo 7), useful on mortise and rim locks, was invented by Bob Morris of the Fire Department of New York. It is a stand-alone lock puller not requiring any other tool to pull the lock. The Rex tool is driven over the top of the lock and then used to pull the lock cylinder out of the door. The channel locks (photo 8) can be used on mortise locks due to the way the cylinders are installed in the door. Mortise lock cylinders are screwed into the lock body, through the face of the door. When it is installed, set screws (photo 9) are put in place to help keep the lock cylinder in place. By using channel locks or vice grips, we can grip the sides of the lock cylinder and use their leverage to unscrew the cylinder from the door. It will take some effort in the beginning to unscrew the lock as you will have to overcome the set screws and break them initially as you unscrew the lock body. Sometimes collars are installed around the edge of the mortise cylinder to keep the educated criminal from doing this exact thing. One method of overcoming this would be to drive a screwdriver into the lock cylinder and then use our channel locks on the shaft of the screw driver to spin the lock out (photo 10).
The four most common types of locks seen on these doors are the mortise pivoting deadbolt (photo 11), the mortise retracting deadbolt (photo 12), the mortise deadlatch (photo 13), a type of panic hardware, and the rim lock panic hardware (photo 14). The mortise deadbolt is a pivoting deadbolt.
Mortise locks are installed into the door from the edge or mortised, lending to their name. Once the lock body is placed into the door, the lock cylinders are screwed into the front and back and then set in place with the set screws. When pulling a mortise lock, you are pulling the lock out against the set screws and the threads. If you spin it out, you are breaking these small set screws with the initial effort, which in turn allows you to spin the lock cylinder out. The mortise deadbolt and the mortise dead latch are both easy to manipulate once the cylinder is out of the lock body. Using the angled end of a key tool the firefighter can push down on the pin and open the lock. The rim lock will look different when pulled and will be easily distinguishable from a mortise lock. A rim lock will have a stem off the back end that inserts in the lock body. Using the straight end of the key tool or flathead screwdriver, the firefighter can easily twist the lock open.
Rim locks are surface-mounted locks. The deadlatch is usually attached to the panic bar itself and sits inside of a keeper mounted to the outside of the door frame. These doors are very simple to force with standard outward-swinging techniques and would not necessitate TTL techniques on the fireground. An exception to the rule would be vertical bar rim locks (photo 15). These locks are quite common. A vertical bar runs the height of the door and extends into the top and bottom of the door frame when locked or can have deadlatches at the top and bottom. There are varying levels of security with these locks. If standard irons prying at the top and bottom does not disengage these locks, then TTL methods could be warranted. Another thing to consider when dealing with panic hardware is that if door control is of no concern, breaking the glass, though not perhaps the first option, could be considered since you could reach in by hand or with a tool to pull the panic bar towards you.
Pulling vs. Cutting
Pulling the lock is quick and easy with the right tools and know-how, but another option is to cut the lock. This can be especially useful with the pivoting deadbolt. If pulling the lock has failed, or is not an option for reasons such as lack of lock pulling tool or a cylinder guard that cannot be removed, a forcible entry saw with a metal cutting blade can be employed. In many instances this will enable you to gain access in a timely manner, so long as there are no other locking devices, as in some newer doors. It will also allow you to maintain door control by keeping the glass intact.
Some departments choose to keep their forcible entry saw in the outboard position, if used for mainly forcible entry. This moves the blade to the outside of the bar, allowing the saw to be put into tighter places. While it provides no distinct advantage cutting a mortise deadbolt, it can provide advantages when faced with other forcible entry challenges such as shearing carriage bolts on rear and side commercial doors (photo 16).
Cutting the lock is most easily performed with two firefighters. The adz of the halligan is driven in above the lock, leaving plenty of room for the saw to work, and then one firefighter uses it to gap the door, much like a crushing gap in conventional forcible entry (photo 17). This provides the saw firefighter plenty of room to access the deadbolt. In such a situation, the firefighter holding the halligan should stand to the right side of the firefighter doing the cutting. This will place the pike of the halligan pointing up, leaving plenty of room for the cut to be made. If the halligan is brought in from the left, as seen in photo 16, the pike of the halligan will be pointing down and can interfere with the cutting operation. This operation can still be performed by one firefighter but the gap will only be as large as what the halligan displaces when driven in. Another option is to drive the blade of the ax in at an angle below the lock, much as you would to obtain a gap for a single person force of an outward-swinging door (photo 18).
Pulling Mortise Locks
When using the K-Tool or Rex Tool on a mortise cylinder, the tool is beat down onto the lock. The blades of the tool are kept flush with the face of the door in order to achieve a bite on the lock cylinder itself, instead of just the face of the lock (photo 19). One the tool is secure; the lock cylinder is pried out of the door face, leaving the firefighter an opening into the mechanism of the lock itself. The back of a mortise cylinder will have a cam (photo 20), which is an indication that it is a mortise lock and not a rim lock. Mortise pivoting deadbolts are the most common lock body found in these glass storefront doors. There is a rolling pin (photo 21) that, if depressed with the angled end of the key tool (photo 22), can be moved from one side to the other. Once the pin has been moved and locked into position, the door is unlocked. To secure the building, just move the pin back to the original locking side. The mortise dead latch does not have this rolling pin. It has a sliding mechanism (photo 23) that, when pulled back away from the edge of the door, slides the deadlatch in, unlocking the door. The firefighter must keep pressure on this slide while pulling on the door or the latch will spring back into place. The mortise retractable deadbolt will have a mechanism the will be slid from one side to the other; when slid, it will retract the deadbolt (photo 24). The procedure is the exact same whether you pull the lock on the fireground or whether you spin the lock out on a water gong activation or some other low acuity call.
Pulling Rim Locks
As stated earlier, rim locks are generally easy to force with conventional irons. The exception could be rim locks with vertical rods. If your chosen method for forcing this door is TTL then you need to know the operation is different than pulling and manipulating the mortise lock. Pulling the lock is similar to pulling a mortise lock. The K-Tool or Rex Tool blades are kept flush with the door and the tool is driven down onto the lock. The lock face is thinner on rim locks than on mortise locks. Cheap rim lock faces may break off when you attempt to pull them if you do not have a good bite on the cylinder itself. Once you have a good bite on the cylinder with your tool, pry the tool away pulling the cylinder from the face of the door. When you pull a rim lock, the back of the lock cylinder will have a stem (photo 25). This is a tell-tale sign of a rim lock and not a mortise lock. When looking through the face of the door, you are looking for a cross pattern or horizontal/vertical slot (photo 26). The firefighter can stick the straight end of his key tool (photo 27) or a screwdriver into the opening and manipulate the lock by turning it until the lock has unlocked. The firefighter must keep pressure on it as he opens the door or the door will most likely lock back before he can open it. Once passing through this door, since it is panic hardware, the firefighter on the inside will be able to easily get out, however, the door will have to be slightly chocked if a hoseline has not been placed through it. This will keep the door from locking again and keeping other firefighters from entering the building without having to manipulate the lock again.
This has been just a brief overview on fireground TTL techniques and uses and is far from exhaustive on the subject. While overall TTL methods are simple procedures, they require attention to detail and technical savvy for firefighters to be successful. It would be a good idea for departments or firefighters to buy commercial props or build cheap homemade TTL props to help firefighters fine-tune the technique of pulling locks. TTL on the fireground is often ignored, but a well-disciplined and trained truck company at the scene of a commercial fire can make quick work of multiple storefront doors using these techniques.
CLAY MAGEE is an instructor with Magic City Truck Academy and a firefighter/paramedic with Birmingham (AL) Fire and Rescue. MaGee began his career with the East Oktibbeha (MS) Fire Department in 2004. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Mississippi State University, an associate degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University, and multiple certifications from the Alabama Fire College. He has been published in Fire Engineering and contributes to the Fire Engineering Community. He is an organizer of the Deep South Fire Conference and has taught HOT classes at the Alabama Fire College, Louisiana State University—FETI, the Metro Atlanta Firefighters Conference (MAFFC), and multiple departments across the state of Alabama and has lectured at MAFFC.