Power Saw Operations: How Proficient Are You?

By Frank Ricci and P.J. Norwood

Ventilating a roof with a power saw WHILE working over hostile conditions demands a level of proficiency that too many firefighters are lacking. When we entered the fire service, the recruit class consisted of instructions on how to cut a hole and work in personal protective gear. Everyone in the class had worked with saws or other tools and had a degree of natural aptitude. Today, as Battalion Chief David Rhodes from the Atlanta (GA) Fire Department has stated, “Most kids haven’t even cut the grass.” Instructors must recognize a need for building block instruction.

Kickback from a cut-off saw causes significant injury to a skilled operator.
(1) Kickback from a cut-off saw causes significant injury to a skilled operator. (Photo by Frank Ricci.)

The power saw is a critical piece of power equipment that we must maintain properly so that it will work as designed when needed. It is one of those tools that can make or break an incident. It can make the difference by allowing firefighters to control the building by facilitating interior operations; however, it can also break an incident by causing an unnecessary injury or failing to start. Saws go well beyond fire ventilation. Power saws have a place in forcible entry and rapid intervention team operations to “soften the building.” A power saw and a skilled team tasked with softening the building can take proactive measures to remove boarded and barred windows before firefighters find themselves trapped. Waiting until a member becomes trapped to start operating may be too late.

We all understand the importance of the saw and how it impacts the job. However, firefighters must recognize that there are more pieces of the puzzle than operations. Sound operations go back to maintenance and proficiency. We must guard against complacency and always respect the saw. Even skilled operators can find themselves in peril. Saw injuries can range from minor to severe. The risk can be minimized with proper respect and training.

When I (P.J. Norwood) first started in my department, I was always told, “Make sure you bring an ax to the roof!” That would be quickly followed up with, “Our saws are afraid of heights; they never start when they reach the roof.” As I sit here today, I have to assume the saws were not afraid of heights. They were probably not maintained and did not receive a daily or weekly drill night check to make sure they were in the ready position. My (Frank Ricci) experience differs. Our truck companies revere their saws; maintenance regimen and pride in tools demand it. Yes, the ax always starts, but nothing is as effective and as efficient as a power saw in the hands of a skilled operator. A saw properly maintained and checked out will not let you down.

firefighter checks chain tension by pulling the chain out of the track and ensuring that it snaps right back in.
(2) A firefighter checks chain tension by pulling the chain out of the track and ensuring that it snaps right back in. (Photo by Justin McCarthy.)


Check power saws daily or weekly in a volunteer department. This daily check is crucial to ensure the saw will work properly when it’s needed. All operators should read and understand the manual for each saw. The following items should be completed during your daily check. Take a few seconds and prevent potential injuries by always using hand, ear, and eye protection during your daily check and any saw operations.

Chain Saw Daily Check

  • Cleanliness and inspection. Saws should be clean and lubricated. Wipe them down with a rag, taking care to inspect the saw for broken, chipped, or cracked pieces and missing or loose screws, bolts, and nuts.
  • Chain inspection. Remove the chain sleeve protector and disengage the chain break. Check chain tension and the teeth for sharpness and damage. If three or more are missing, take the chain out of service. If two or more teeth in a row are broken, replace the chain or remove the saw from service. After use or when cleaning, remove the bar and wipe it down. Check for damage or excessive wear. Place the chain and bar back on; make sure the chain can move freely in both directions. Make sure the chain is on and is traveling in the cutting direction. Tighten the chain to the proper tension. This is accomplished by keeping both nuts loose, then manipulating the tension screw until you reach the desired tension. Tighten both nuts, ensuring that the flat washer side of the nut sits up against the saw housing.
  • Fuel and bar oil. They should both be full.

Departments should refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations for fuel type, mixtures, and storage.

  • Air filter. Check its condition. Wipe down the housing and blow it out if necessary. Always refer to the operator’s manual for cleaning and replacing instructions.
  • Start and run the saw. We recommend that the saw run until the saw’s engine has warmed up. This can take several minutes. Engage the chain brake on the chain saw and slowly bring up the revolutions per minute (rpm). The chain should not rotate. Disengage the chain brake and run the saw at full speed for 15 to 20 seconds. Then idle the saw for 15 to 20 seconds. When a saw is at idle, the chain should not move. If the chain is moving, the saw’s idle needs to be adjusted. Repeat this procedure of idle and full speed operation several times. During one of the sequences, engage the chain brake to ensure it is working properly.
  • Shut-down procedures. Shut down the saw by using the off switch. Turn the switch back on after the saw is completely off. Make sure the chain brake is not engaged. Allow the saw to cool down; then wipe it down.
  • Refueling and adding bar oil. After shaking the fuel can slightly to mix the fuel, add the fuel. When placing the caps back on, ensure they are closed hand tight and are not leaking from around the cap. These caps are not designed to be tightened with a wrench or channel locks. Doing so will overcompress the gasket, reducing its life and potentially causing a leak.
  • Bar oil and the bar. Bar oil allows for a cleaner cut, helps dissipate heat while cutting, and protects the bar from damage. Do not push and run the saw without bar oil. The first point of failure is usually the sprocket at the tip of the bar. The sprocket will seize, causing a dangerous situation. Damage to the bar and chain can also occur when the operator fails to bring the saw to full rpm before having it touch the roof. When cleaning after cutting operations, ensure that the oiling port is open and not clogged so oil can lubricate the bar. Running a screwdriver tip or narrow object through the bar will remove debris before reinstalling the chain on the bar and will permit oil to flow freely in the groove.

Rotary Saw Daily Check

Rotary saws have many names-demo, forcible entry, and cut-off. It is important to understand the nomenclature used in your department. The daily check is similar to checking out a chain saw, with a few exceptions. The rotary saw requires no bar oil and has no built-in brake. The firefighter provides the brake by placing the moving blade on a solid surface to stop it from spinning. The blade should never be higher than six inches from the work product. Best practices dictate that the operators picture a circle of danger around them. Anyone you can reach and touch with the saw (or any tool) is in the circle of danger.

  • Wood blade. Removal of the blade requires the firefighter to depress a stop on the side of some models, holding the blade in place on others, or using a tool to prevent movement while the firefighter unscrews the retaining bolt. Inspect the blade for any uneven or excessive wear. Also inspect the teeth. If more than one tooth is missing or broken, take the blade out of service. Also, ensure that the carbide tips are not worn down to the circumference of the blade. If so, remove the blade from service.When putting the blade back on, ensure that the blade is rotating in the proper direction and the flange washer is set into or onto the spindle properly. These blades are designed to work at full rpm when making contact with the work surface. This will extend the life of the blade and minimize broken teeth.
  • Metal blade (aluminum oxide composite blade). As a general rule, they should be stored in a separate compartment away from hydrocarbons (fuel cans). The vapors can break down the mastic, causing a catastrophic failure. Some manufacturers allow the blades to be in the same compartment if the compartment is vented. Instead, they warn that if the blade becomes soaked with fuel, it should be placed out of service. Blades with chips and gouges should be taken out of service. If the arbor is out of round or if the metal washer in the arbor is missing, do not use the blade. When cutting, start with low rpm to create a groove into the material and then increase to full rpm as you cut through the material. Avoid placing any side pressure or binding on the blade. Pressure placed on the side of the blade can cause a catastrophic failure during operations.
  • Specialty blade. Blade technology has come a long way. We now have multiple-purpose blades, diamond grit blades, and many others. It is critical that you refer to the blade’s instructions for proper care.
  • Blade guard. Inspect the blade guards for damage, and make sure the guard can be adjusted and rotates properly. Wipe down and clean the inside of the blade guard. You may have to run a long screwdriver or chisel inside the guard to remove the buildup of tar.
  • Air filter. Check it and maintain it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Idle/full-speed operation. Start and run the saw for several minutes and then at full speed for 15 to 20 seconds. Then idle the saw for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat this procedure of idle and full-speed operation several times. Notice how long it takes the blade to stop spinning after the trigger is released to check if the belt needs adjustment.
  • Shut-down procedures. Once the blade has stopped spinning, shut it down using the off switch, then turn it on after the saw is completely off.


It is of utmost importance that you start the saw the same way every time. This creates muscle memory in your saw-starting procedures. If you start your saw incorrectly during the daily check, you will start it incorrectly at an incident. Following improper starting procedures can disable your saw when it is needed the most.

Correct Procedure

  1. Place the kill or off switch in the “run” position.
  2. Place the choke in the “on” or “fully out” position.
  3. Push in the decompression switch if the saw has one.
  4. Disengage the chain lock (on chain saws only).
  5. Place the saw on the ground and secure it with your knee (photo 3). Never use the drop start technique. Always secure the saw with your knee or pin it in some fashion (use your boot to stand on the large handle of the saw). Pinning with your knee will ensure the greatest stability.
  6. Slowly pull the cord until you feel tension.
  7. Pull the cord quickly a few times until the saw “catches” or “pops.”
  8. Push the choke all the way in, or turn the choke to the “off” position.
  9. Pull the cord quickly until the saw starts.
  10. Once the saw starts, use the trigger to bring the saw up to power gradually. Revving the engine causes excessive wear of the clutch.
Regardless of the type of saw, secure it with your knee. Never use the drop start technique.
(3) Regardless of the type of saw, secure it with your knee. Never use the drop start technique. (See “Simple Saw Starting” by Michael N. Ciampo, Fire Engineering, July 1998. http://bit.ly/LNcOaw.) (Photo by Justin McCarthy.)


Being comfortable and having good balance will make any operation safer. A boxer stance with your feet 18 to 24 inches apart works best. Work as a team-one member with the saw and the other as the safety firefighter. The old way of communicating with taps may sound good in theory but fails during practical operation. We recommend the hands-on, hands-off method. If the safety firefighter has his hand on your shoulder, back, or the tail of your coat, you are clear to cut; if he removes his hand, stop cutting. This type of cutting operation dictates hand placement, ensuring that the backup firefighter is in a safe location.

Firefighters must be creative. Training props can be built for low, or even no, cost.
Firefighters must be creative. Training props can be built for low, or even no, cost.
(4-5) Firefighters must be creative. Training props can be built for low, or even no, cost. (Photos by P. J. Nowood and Chris Baines, respectively.)


During saw training, it is critical that the operator look, listen, and feel. The operator must be familiar with how the saw sounds and how it feels when cutting and operating during training. This will help the firefighter operate the saw and identify problems during hostile conditions. Training for saw operation can be challenging; however, you can take steps to ensure you and your company or department members are ready for proficient operations when it’s their turn on the roof. Reach out to your town building inspectors and fire marshals. They are in the best position to facilitate acquiring structures for training. Nothing beats cutting on a real roof; but, there are alternatives if you are creative. Many departments don’t have training facilities and do not have a budget to buy materials to build roof props.

Hardware stores, lumberyards, and big box home improvement centers have the supplies you need to build props. Many of these items become damaged goods and cannot be sold to the average consumer. The stores sometimes will donate these damaged items to you and your department. Add these “damaged” goods to pallets from other local businesses, and you will have a flat roof training prop at no cost. Add a low-cost smoke machine under the prop, and you now will have added an increased level of realism to your drill. If a smoke machine is not available, you can place plastic wrap on the outside of the self-contained breathing apparatus mask to decrease the field of vision.

The other type of saw training that is usually missing is “weak-side operations.” We all have a dominant and a weak side. Inherently, we will always gravitate toward our dominant side when performing a skill. However, when operating a saw during an incident, Murphy’s Law often complicates things and you may need to use the saw on your weak side.

After you master your dominant side, practice using the saw on your weak side to avoid incidents such as the one experienced by Clint Smith, Gibbon (NE) Volunteer Fire and Rescue (photo 6). At a fire, conditions dictated that he work off his weak side, something he never trained for.

Firefighter Clint Smith shows the consequence of his not being trained to use his weak side. )
(6) Firefighter Clint Smith shows the consequence of his not being trained to use his weak side. (Photo by Clint Smith.)

He explains: “I will admit, ventilation was not my strongest suit, as I had only performed it once in training.” When he repositioned, he didn’t stop the blade from moving. The blade caught his leg, resulting in a significant laceration. He ended up with 20-plus stitches and a scar that will last forever.

The roof is not a position for on-the-job learning. Firefighters need a solid foundation before they are sent to the roof for the first time.

The roof position has many inherent dangers that are beyond our control. However, we can control how proficient we are with our tools and our understanding of building construction. Training for this position must be thorough and realistic and should build confidence. Your success will be predicated on how you maintain and care for your tools (tool pride), how comfortable you are with your tools, and how much time you have on the saw. When it’s your turn on the roof, nothing beats a power saw with a proficient operator.

Authors’ note: Thanks to Clint Smith and Jim Ricci for their willingness to share their photos to drive home the point of respect and the need for proficiency with power saws. Thanks to John Ricci and Tempest Vent Master Saws for providing manufacturer recommendations.

FRANK RICCI is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering. He is the drillmaster for the New Haven (CT) Fire Department. He cohosts the radio show “Politics & Tactics.” He was a contributing author to the Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and the lead author for the “Tactical Perspectives” DVD series. He has been the lead consultant for several Yale studies. Ricci won a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court and has testified before Congress.

P.J. NORWOOD is a deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department and has served four years with the Connecticut Army National Guard. He has authored Dispatch, Handling the Mayday (Fire Engineering, 2012); coauthored “Tactical Perspectives of Ventilation” and “Mayday” DVDs (2011, 2012); and was a key contributor to the “Tactical Perspectives” DVD series. He is a Fire Engineering University faculty member, co-creator of Fire Engineering’s weekly video blog “The Job,” and host of a Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio show. He is certified to the instructor II, officer III, and paramedic levels.

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