Forcible Entry Techniques for One Firefighter

BY NICHOLAS A. MARTIN

In any situation, we strive to work in teams of a minimum of two firefighters. This is desirable for productivity and for personal safety. However, whether we like it or not, situations will occur where a firefighter must operate alone. Therefore, it is imperative that our skill set includes the ability to operate independently when necessary.

One of these skills should be forcible entry, which will provide us with the basic ability to get into or out of an area. This article discusses some techniques one firefighter can use to force inward- or outward-opening doors using existing forcible entry fundamentals.

 

TOOL SELECTION

 

A firefighter’s tool selection results from a combination of variables: What is my company’s overall assignment? What is my individual assignment? In which type of building am I operating? Thoughts along these lines, in addition to a strong familiarity with your response area, will aid you in choosing the proper equipment for any situation. When working alone, you will be limited in the amount of equipment you can carry. As a result, pay extra attention to the versatility of the tools you choose.

Most firefighters will agree that a halligan bar is a core component of any forcible entry operation. You should carry a 30-inch halligan bar for standard interior firefighting operations. A longer length bar may provide additional leverage, but it will likely be unwieldy in the interior of a building. A short bar may be easier to carry, but it will likely not provide the necessary leverage, particularly when you are working alone. The 30-inch bar provides a good combination of maneuverability and leverage and is also appropriately sized to work within standard door widths.

The halligan bar is most effective when mated with a striking tool. Just as engine company firefighters often debate the merits of smooth vs. fog nozzles, truck company firefighters have a similar debate over sledgehammers vs. flathead axes. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss that controversy in detail. It will suffice to say that each has its advantages and limitations, and a good firefighter will have knowledge of both. In the following discussion regarding specific techniques, it will become evident that certain tools are better suited for particular techniques.

 

INWARD-OPENING DOORS

 

It is essential that a lone firefighter faced with a locked inward-opening door conduct a quick size-up. In some cases, there may be glass panels in the door or in the walls adjacent to the frame. Under appropriate conditions, these panels may provide quick access to manually unlock the door. If no panels are present, the most obvious forcible entry option for a lone firefighter is a hydraulic forcible entry tool. However, if the door contains lower security locks (such as a simple knob-lock), the halligan may prove faster.

If your size-up indicates a hydraulic tool would not be effective (such as a door or frame of wooden construction), do not waste time. In addition, if you do not have a hydraulic forcible entry tool available, or if it has experienced a failure, you will need alternative methods.

One of the most effective methods for forcing an inward-opening door is “SHOCK-GAP-SET-FORCE.” This technique provides increasing levels of force to the door, simultaneously weakening it and providing larger purchase points for the various parts of the halligan bar. Two firefighters usually perform this procedure; however, it is easy to modify for situations where only one firefighter is available.

 

Step 1: Shock

 

Strike the door firmly with the halligan: high, middle, and low (photo 1).

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(1) When shocking the door, pay attention to how it responds. This will give clues as to the locations of the locking devices and if they are engaged. Avoid placing your hand over the end of the tool; a hand injury could result. (Photos by author.)

When shocking, do not place your hand over the head of the halligan; the force may injure your hand. In addition, shock the door while standing in a protected position—ideally to the wall side of the door. Should the door open during this step, a protected position will allow you to roll out of the way of any hazards that may be behind the door until you can close it (methods on controlling the door are discussed below). Some situations, such as dead-end hallways or angled doorframes, may prohibit you from obtaining the “ideal” protected position. In these situations, use caution in positioning yourself, and take extra care to control the door.

Shocking the door provides useful size-up information regarding the strength of the door and locks as well as the location of any locking mechanisms that may not be evident from the locked side, such as a slide bolt or a crossbar. Shocking is necessary because, ultimately, you want to stick some pretty thick parts of the halligan (adz and fork) into a pretty tight space (between the door body and the frame). A good shock, followed by gapping, will loosen the door and begin to provide a purchase point. This will make it easier to set the halligan, especially when operating alone.

Shocking may not be as effective on some “homemade” doors or doors reinforced with additional security such as thick steel or diamond plate. Such doors can be found on commercial occupancies, typically in high-security areas. Identify the presence of such doors during the initial size-up.

 

Step 2: Gap

 

Place the adz between the doorstop and the door body. Place the halligan six inches above or below the lock or between multiple locks. Then exert force in a side-to-side or up-down manner (photo 2). If using an up-down motion, be aware that the pressure exerted to the side of the pick has a tendency to dislodge the adz.

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(2) Doors can be gapped with an up/down or side-to-side motion. On doors of low to moderate security, this step alone may open the door. Be ready to control the door.

On many doors of low to moderate security, this step has a strong likelihood of opening the door, depending on the number and types of locks. If it does not open the door after a few tries, quickly move to the next step. At the very least, you will have continued to widen the gap, allowing for easier “setting” of your fork. If it is necessary to reposition, use a wood chock or the ax blade to maintain the gap.

 

Step 3: Set

 

The fork is the widest part of the halligan; that is intentionally so. Part of its design is to act as a wedge—spreading the door farther from the frame as you drive it in. However, more is not always better here. Some brands of halligans have a fork that is uncurved and excessively wide (photo 3). These halligans often also lack the proper curvature of the fork, which inhibits it from gripping the door properly and reduces leverage. Proper setting of these halligans can be difficult at best. Be sure to do your research and testing when purchasing tools. Little details do make a difference.

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(3) When choosing or purchasing a halligan tool, look for a one-piece forged model. The fork should be narrow and beveled to grip the door or provide additional leverage.

Now that you have created a start by shocking and gapping, you will set the fork and force the door. The fork of a halligan is beveled (curved) to provide additional leverage. Putting the outside of the bevel against the body of the door will allow for maximum leverage. However, in a lone-firefighter situation, setting the halligan in this manner may prove difficult. Setting the halligan with the bevel to the door may be easier, but it will come at the cost of leverage and perhaps a loss of time; but working alone, this may be necessary to create an additional gap that allows the halligan to be set bevel-to-the-door.

On steel doors, placing the bevel to the frame will also help prevent the fork from penetrating the frame. Once you have created a small gap, you can reverse the bevel and place it to the door for additional leverage. The prudent firefighter will need to use experience and size-up of the particular situation to determine when this may be necessary.

After looking at the above-mentioned technique, you may wonder: “How can I strike and set the halligan if I am by myself?” You can do so in several ways. One option, of course, is to hold the halligan in one hand and use the other hand to strike its head with a tool, driving the fork into place (photo 4). Although this is an option, many firefighters will find they cannot get a good “hit” or that it throws them off balance. More importantly, there is a strong possibility of injuring your hand or wrist.

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A simple option involves a minor “in-house” modification to the standard one-piece halligan. Looking at a halligan of one-piece design, the area where the top of the fork meets the shaft is referred to as the “shoulder.” Out of the box, this area is typically rounded. If you attempt to use the stock shoulder as a striking surface, the curvature tends to deflect the striking tool, substantially reducing the force delivered.

If you square off the shoulder with a grinder, you create an additional striking surface (photos 5, 6). One firefighter can now use the squared-off shoulder by holding the ax near the head and sliding down the halligan shaft in a striking motion (photo 7). Two firefighters can now also use this modified shoulder when working in tight quarters such as a narrow or dead-end hallway, where there may not be room for the ax to strike the head.

 

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(5) The stock halligan (left) has a rounded shoulder. When struck, the tool will tend to glance off, reducing the delivered force.
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(6)On the right, “squared” shoulders provide an additional striking surface. Squaring the halligan’s shoulder is easily accomplished with a few minutes on a grinding wheel.
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(7) The lone firefighter steadies the halligan with one hand. The other hand grips the ax firmly near the head and strikes the halligan’s shoulder. As the fork sets deeper, it may be possible to take your hand off the halligan and move to striking the halligan’s head with full-force swings.

OUTWARD-OPENING DOORS

 

Outward-opening doors require a little extra thought. On an inward-opening door, shocking or battering the door as described above helps you begin to get a purchase point. You can sometimes use the same idea on an outward-opening door of metal construction. By battering the body of the door a few inches in from the door edge, the door will buckle, and a gap will appear between the door and the frame. This can serve as a place to get started on an otherwise tightly sealed door.

 

Ax Blade Method

 

Although you usually attack a door between multiple locks, when alone, you may choose to start more distant from a lock, where the door is more “flimsy” or looser. Then as we create a gap, we can work closer toward and ultimately force the locks.

When working alone, approach a locked outward-opening door with a halligan bar and flathead ax. Place the ax blade at the seam between the frame and the door—if a small gap already exists, you may even be able to jam the blade into the gap. Using the flat side (striking surface) of the halligan head, strike the back of the ax to drive the ax blade farther in between the frame and the door (photo 8). This creates a gap above the ax for the halligan’s adz.

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(8) Rest the handle of the ax on the ground, and place the blade into the seam between the door and the frame. Use the head of the halligan to strike the ax, creating a wedge-like effect. If necessary, one hand might have to hold the ax steady while a purchase point is made.

Place the adz into the gap above the ax, as close to the locks as possible. With the adz holding the gap, you can remove the ax to drive the adz deeper, if necessary (photo 9). Now you can begin applying force to break the door, frame, or locks. Moving the halligan up and down, the adz will provide a spreading motion, deforming the door to create an additional gap or ultimately opening the door (photo 10). You may have to simultaneously pry outward.

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(9) Once the ax has created a gap, insert the adz. You can remove the ax and use it to further set the adz, as necessary. Note that this door is recessed in a block wall. It may be necessary to break out some of the blocks so that the halligan has enough lateral movement when you are forcing the door.
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(10) When you are forcing an outward-opening door with the adz, it is often helpful to push the bar down toward the ground while simultaneously pulling outward.

If necessary, repeat these steps until you can set the adz or the fork appropriately to complete forcing the door. Keep in mind that you can use the fork to force the outward-opening door by placing the bevel to the frame (so that the tips of the fork grip the back of the door).

Another option is to use a halligan hook (typically six feet) as a striking tool. For this technique, a halligan hook with a steel shaft will work best; hooks with other handle constructions may crack or break. Brace the base of the hook against your foot, toward the inside of the door, at the same distance from the door as the head of the halligan. If the hook is turned upside down, you can stand on the head to maintain a firm pivot point (photo 11). Grasp the hook below the hook’s head but above the halligan, and use the halligan hook’s shaft to strike (photo 12).

 

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(11) Stand on the head of the halligan hook to brace it.
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 (12) The halligan hook should be the proper distance from the door so that when the shaft is used to strike the halligan, it does so squarely—at a right angle. This ensures maximum delivery of force.

Controlling the Door

 

When we talk about controlling the door, we mean that the firefighter should have control of when and how much the door opens. This is imperative for several reasons: You don’t want the door to close and relock, or the door may be protecting you from a hazard on the other side (fire, animals, for example). Your option should always be to be able to open or close the door. Avoid at all costs forcible entry methods that cause the door to uncontrollably fly open or that may compromise the integrity of the door, such as “mule kicking.”

You can use a variety of methods to control the door:

  • When using the hydraulic spreading tool, loop the strap around the knob.
  • If you are using the irons on an inward-opening door, place some webbing around the knob and stand on it, or have a partner hold it.
  • As you open an outward-opening door, place your foot several inches from the door on the unhinged side (photo 13).

 

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(13) Simply placing your foot a few inches from the door as you force it can control an outward-opening door. However, be careful that you don’t immediately remove the tool as the door opens; the door could close and relatch.

One or two firefighters can use these methods, and others.

 

•••

 

It is important to accept and understand that circumstances may sometimes force you to work alone. The above methods are just a few for using basic tools to perform the critical function of getting you in and out of an area. Although presented for use on the lock side of the door, these principles apply also when forcing the hinge side.

These methods, of course, will be more difficult and slower when working alone than if you had two firefighters. However, when help is not available or is on the way, or when your partner went back for additional equipment, they will allow you to accomplish something—perhaps you will complete the operation and make entry or, at least, make a gap or force one of several locks by the time help arrives.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Technician Sean Sinon and other members of District of Columbia Fire Department Truck 6 for their assistance with this article.

NICHOLAS A. MARTIN is a firefighter with the District of Columbia Fire Department, assigned to Engine Company 11. He has more than 15 years of firefighting experience and has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in public safety management from the Johns Hopkins University. He is a vice president of Traditions Training, LLC and instructs nationally on fire service operations.

 

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