With all the talk around the fire service today about the knowledge and expertise the “old-heads” take with them when they retire, we thought it might be a good idea to pick their brains about little “tricks of the trade” they have learned throughout their careers. Below is a compilation of tricks of the trade, ideas that we have taught to others and practice ourselves. Some of them were homegrown in our departments, and some of them have been passed on to us. Although we may not know whom to credit for some of these ideas, they deserve to be passed along.

Prior to using any of these ideas, make sure they are approved by your department’s administration. Run them by your officer and talk about them around the kitchen table. Also, modifying tools or using them for any purpose for which they are not designed can void the warranty and may expose firefighters to injury.


The pointers below concern operations on the roof or getting to the roof. One of the first things vent team members have to determine is the type of roof on which they are going to work.

Wood frame roof vs. truss roof. A wood frame roof has a ridge board at the top of the roof assembly. Any weight put on the ridge board is transferred to the rafters and down to the top plate (photo 1). On this type of roof, the strongest place to walk is on the ridge board because it distributes the weight of the firefighter among several rafters and then down to the top plate. Remember to use a roof ladder and to work back to your main ladder.

Truss roofs are made of a series of trusses held in place by the decking. During construction, nailing strips hold the trusses in place until the decking is installed. Once the roof is completed, or as the decking is installed, the nailing strips are removed. After these pieces are removed, all of the lateral support is in the decking. Looking at this type of roof, you will notice that there is no ridge board at the top of the trusses. If the firefighter walks on the ridge, there is nothing supporting him between the trusses except the decking (photo 2).

Therefore, on a truss roof, the safest place to walk is at the lowest point near the eaves where the truss intersects the top plate. Travel it until you reach the point in line with where you want to cut the roof. Once there, go up the roof along the truss member, make your cut, and come back down to the lowest portion of the roof assembly.

Using your chain saw as a guide. Most truck companies we have run across use a 16-inch bar on their chain saws. If you look at your saw, there are generally marks on the housing (photo 3). Measuring from the end of the bar of the saw to the mark on the housing will give you the approximate length between the rafters. If your saw doesn’t have marks on the housing, paint a mark on the housing to give you a reference guide.

Using the ladder as a tote. With most companies riding short on staffing, it takes several trips from the apparatus to the fire scene to transport all of the equipment needed to vent the roof. An easy way to get the equipment there is to use the 24- or 28-foot extension ladder as a tote. This technique can be used by one person or two. First, lay the extension ladder on the ground. Next, deploy the hooks on the roof ladder and hook them over one of the rungs of the extension ladder. Then lay your ax, maul, pike pole, and power saw on the ladders. Now two people (one at each end) can pick up the extension ladder and carry everything to the scene (photo 4). If only one person is available, that member can pick up one end of the ladder and drag the entire ensemble to his work area.

Securing roof ladder hooks. Using a roof ladder to spread your weight over a larger area of the roof is a basic practice that adds a degree of safety for firefighters operating on the roof. Most of the time, the roof ladder is pushed up the roof until the hooks go over the ridge, and the operation commences. However, while a firefighter is operating from it, sometimes the roof ladder’s hooks may work themselves up and back over the ridge, sliding down the roof and carrying the firefighters with it. This is especially true on metal, slate, and tile roofs, but it has happened on composition roofs also.

As a precaution, firefighters should take a few seconds to go to the ridge and create two holes with a halligan or pickhead ax for the roof ladder hooks to slide into. This will make the roof ladder more secure and add a significant degree of safety to your roof operations. To remove the roof ladder, the firefighter simply has to push the roof ladder up, turn it onto the beam, and then slide it down the roof (photo 5).

Tying in for extra roof safety. Roofs are generally not the ideal place to work. They may be steep, cut up, and slippery and have marginal footing at best. To offset this, we use roof ladders to help with our footing and to distribute our weight over several rafters or trusses. You can also provide an extra degree of safety by using a pocket rope or webbing to tie yourself to the roof ladder. As discussed above, we made anchor points for the roof ladder hooks to better secure it to the roof. Now, taking a piece of rope or webbing, place it around one of the ladder’s rungs, pass it through the waist strap of your SCBA, and secure the two ends together. One quick way to secure it is to have a carabiner attached to one end of the rope or webbing and a loop in the other. Once it is around the rung and your waist strap, clip the loop into the carabiner. It’s quick, and if you do slip or fall, it will help catch you so you don’t end up in the yard (photo 6).

Making an additional foothold. Sometimes, it is extremely difficult to stay on a roof ladder while cutting the roof. To provide an additional place to put your foot, use the pick of a halligan tool or a pickhead ax to give you a place from which to work. Identify where you need to place your foot, and then drive the pick of either tool into the roof with the tool’s handle pointing down the roof to help stabilize it. This can be used as a temporary place to stand as you work on the farther cuts. You should be working your way back to your ladder, so this is just a temporary measure (photo 7).

Tile roofs. For years, we have been taught to break the tiles on tile roofs with an ax, a maul, or a sledgehammer to get them out of the way so we could cut the decking underneath. This was okay when the roof deck’s construction was a sawn-and-nailed roof with 1 × 4 or 1 × 6 decking.

Given today’s construction practices, these tile roofs are now probably on a truss roof with decking less than a half inch thick. You really don’t want to give that type of roof the repeated impact load from breaking the tiles. First, this is a lightweight roof assembly that can fail between the trusses; second, the repeated impact of breaking those tiles can knock out the gang nail plates (gussets), resulting in rapid truss failure. For these reasons, it is better to pull the tiles up with an all-purpose hook and avoid adding a repeated impact load to the roof assembly.

After the tiles are loose, use a broom or shovel to get the tiles out of your way and provide you with a more secure place to step. The loose roof tiles are very slick, and their smooth and sometimes glazed surfaces may be next to each other. If a firefighter steps on them, he could slip and lose his balance. This is a good way to end up in the front yard. Use the broom or shovel to get them out of your way and then proceed to cut the decking to effect ventilation (photo 8).

It doesn’t need to be sharp to cut the roof. Often, firefighters cutting the roof with an ax struggle as the ax gets stuck or wedged in the cut. This is frustrating and time-consuming and causes the ventilation team to waste much-needed energy. Consider using the flat part of a flathead ax or a maul to cut or break a hole in the roof. Using this technique, you will break the decking along the rafters. This method lets the blunt part of the tool do the work, and it very seldom gets stuck or wedged in the cuts (photo 9).

Know where you’re at. As you are cutting the roof, you’re concentrating on doing just that. But where are you on the roof, and how close to the edge? The firefighter who is supporting you as you cut the roof can help greatly. A good ventilation team should take a pike pole to the roof. As one team member supports and helps stabilize the member doing the cutting, he can use a long pike pole to alert the team to its proximity to the edge of the roof. The supporting firefighter simply holds one end of the pike pole in his hand and allows the other end to rest on the roof’s surface. As the team moves backward, the pike pole will move down the roof with the team. When the pike pole reaches the edge of the roof, the firefighter will feel it change direction as it moves over the edge and friction decreases. This gives the firefighter ample warning so he doesn’t step off the edge (photo 10).

Vent it all. As we said earlier, the ventilation team should have a pike pole on the roof. Once the roof is cut, the pike pole is used to push the ceiling down to ventilate the living space. Cutting the roof ventilates only the attic space. Pushing the ceiling down allows the smoke, heat, and gases to escape from the living areas. This can greatly help the conditions below and let the interior companies advance more quickly and safely. It will also increase the chance for survival for any civilians still inside (photo 11).

STUART GRANT, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Dallas (TX) Fire Rescue, where he has served as academy commander, haz-mat officer, paramedic, and rope rescue team member. He is a certified master firefighter and fire instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He has been a H.O.T. instructor and speaker at FDIC/FDIC West and instructs at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has two associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration.

LES STEPHENS, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with the Garland (TX) Fire Department. He is certified as a master firefighter and an instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He has served as his department’s training instructor and is an instructor at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, at FDIC/FDIC West, and at Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection from Tarrant County Community College.

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