In a blockbuster movie several years ago, the hero of the story faced an ominous sword-wielding villain. He scrambled desperately in a vain attempt to find his favorite tool with which to strike down the villain. The tool he felt most comfortable with was nowhere to be found.

Thinking quickly, our hero reached down and pulled his revolver from his holster and, in one well-placed shot, dropped the bad guy where he stood.

Isn`t it funny how art imitates life? How many times have we in the fire service reached for our favorite tool, only to encounter our sinister enemy and find out too late that our choice of tool was the wrong choice?

In the movies, the director shouts “Cut!” and the actors retire for the day. In the fire service, our director (the incident commander) shouts something else while calling for an ambulance to take you away.

Selecting the right tool for the right job is a very basic principle in our business. Pulling the right sized handline, selecting the right hydrant, throwing the proper length of ladder, and having the right hand tool are critical decisions we make to accomplish any task on the fireground.

Training with hand tools is critical to effective firefighting and especially critical to firefighter safety. Firefighters take their basic hand tools for granted. Many firefighters today have been robbed of the benefits of heavy fire duty to achieve the mastery level of skill needed with firefighting hand tools. With fire responses down, many newer firefighters don`t get a chance to truly learn all they need to know about the tools. A four-hour lecture in recruit school is not even close to being adequate.

Many senior firefighters are leaving the job and not passing their invaluable skills on to the next generation of firefighters. To maintain a high level of proficiency, you must move hand tool training to a higher level of consideration when making out your training schedule.

Let`s consider the tools currently in use in the fire service. There aren`t really that many. The basic tools can be broken down into the following eight categories:

Cutting tools.

Cutting/striking tools.

Striking tools.

Prying tools.


Personal tools.

Several-in-one tools.

Special purpose tools.

Not every firefighting hand tool will fit into a specific category. Grouping tools into categories is a good place to start for recognizing their primary function. By looking at each of the categories of tools, you can find which tools your department uses most often. You`ll be able to determine which tool deserves a higher level of training consideration than it now gets. You`ll also see the need for training on the more obscure tools that firefighters may have never been trained to use or have forgotten how to use.


These tools are designed to do just that, cut. This category of tool includes pickhead axes and bolt cutters. I`ve been told by firefighters that you can strike with the pickhead ax, using the head of the tool like a battering ram or using the flat side of the tool.

Sure, you can strike with a pickhead ax. But are you certain that it has been properly maintained? What about the quality of the handle? Are you sure that your swing won`t develop so much force that the principles of physics shear the head off the tool trying to dissipate the force? Are your wrists strong enough to absorb the force being directed down the handle directly to you? Cutting tools cut. If you need to perform another function, get another tool.


If you need to cut and strike, then select a tool from this category. This category of tools includes the flathead ax and the splitting maul. These tools come in various weights; the eight-pound tool is the optimum for performance (lesser weights are just too light for fire duty).

When fireground tasks require a firefighter to cut material or deliver blows to drive tools or demolish debris, the cutting/striking tool is the tool to select.


Striking tools are big hammers. This category is exclusively sledgehammers. By providing a selection of various weights of sledgehammers, firefighters have a choice of how much force they need to deliver. In one case, moderate force may be needed, but around the back, a situation requiring the 16-pound behemoth may be developing. The proper selection of tools allows for the right tools to be available for all the different scenarios that can crop up on the fireground.


Prying tools constitute a large category of tools. They allow firefighters to use the ancient principle of leverage to apply force. This category of tools includes pry bars, claw tools, halligan-type bars, crowbars, pinch bars, and more.

Training firefighters in the basic principles of leverage and the correct use and application of prying tools will improve fireground tasks such as forcible entry. Well-trained firefighters can defeat even the most complicated locking systems using a good stout prying tool designed with firefighting in mind.


The fire service has many types of poles available. There are several designs of pike pole heads that firefighters can use in hundreds of ways. Pike poles are not prying tools. They are designed as push/pull tools. Some models of poles will allow firefighters some light leverage for prying off trim and baseboards and other overhaul work. Trying to develop too much leverage on a pike pole that is not regularly maintained can cause the handle to snap off.

Firefighters should be familiar not only with the use of the tool but also with what type of situation they may encounter. Familiarity with the buildings in your response area is critical for selecting the right pike pole for the job. Some poles work better in plaster and lath, whereas the same pole is almost useless in gypsum board.

If a firefighter is familiar with building construction techniques used by local builders, he can make a better choice of pike pole for opening up. Pike poles are designated by the tool head. Included in this category are the national hook, New York hook, halligan or multipurpose hook, San Francisco hook, gator-back hook, and others.


Personal tools are actually downsized versions of the original tool. What you make up in convenience you lose in capabilities.

Small halligan bars, officer`s tools, personal hooks, hatchets, and other small tools have their place. They are not substitutes for full-sized tools.

Many officers carry personal tools to use for VES, light forcible entry, inspection holes, and so on. Firefighters must recognize the limitations of these small tools and not become dependent on the officer`s always having the tool with him. Don`t overly depend on the tool`s being able to effectively deliver the force or leverage needed in every situation.

Personal tools are great for light work. Through-the-lock forcible entry, searching, and other tasks are well suited for personal tool use. When in doubt, opt for the full-size tool.


These tools are dangerous. Many marketing people will advertise these tools as “Do-All” tools. This gives firefighters the wrong impression.

Most of the tools that fit this category have points or sharp edges at both ends. They are often too short to be effective and lack proper fulcrum points.

Some tools require that the heavy end of the tool be pulled toward a firefighter`s head when using one end, and, similarly, that a hooked and sharp end move toward their body when using the heavy end. Don`t get caught up in the idea that one tool will replace all tools.


The A tool, J tool, K tool, bam-bam tool, and other similar tools fall into this last category. Special purpose tools are just that. They perform a specific function on the fireground. Once that function has been completed, the tool is no longer valuable in the fight.

For example, the bam-bam tool is a slap hammer used for pulling lock cylinders out of locks for through-the-lock forcible entry. Many locks are now designed to defeat the use of this tool. If the tool were able to pull the lock cylinder, now what? You`ve got a brass lock cylinder on the end of the tool that you can`t get off. You can`t cut with it; you can`t pry with it. So now what?

In the right circumstance, the bam-bam tool is invaluable for forcible entry. However, recognize its limitations. What if you encounter a drop bar? What if you need striking force 15 feet inside the building?

* * *

Tool selection is a critical training issue. Firefighters must be taught to select and use tools based on building construction, forcible entry, tool availability, and tool function. Crucial to performance is the firefighter`s ability to recall tool use and limitations under stress.

At the beginning of the article, we looked at our action hero. His first thought was to reach for his favorite tool to combat his enemy. That wasn`t the tool he needed. He selected the right tool in the nick of time. At your next fire, will you do the same?

How do you use the tool? What are its limitations? What can you make that tool do? If a certain tool is unavailable, what other tool can take its place? Make the proper selection the first time. We don`t get a second chance if we fail to stop our enemy. n

The proper tool enables firefighters to perform fireground functions effectively and safely. Here, a firefighter vents a window in a well-involved structure. By using a pike pole, he can stand out of the way of falling glass and venting fire. (Photos by author.)

(Top left) Overhaul usually calls for the most skillful use of tools. At this stage in the fire, firefighters are at the most risk for injury caused by their exertion during the fire suppression stage. The skillful use of tools facilitates quick and effective overhaul and a rapid return to the fire station. (Top right) Training and drilling with tools are crucial to effective performance. (Bottom left) Matching the tool to the construction type of the fire structure adds to efficiency.

Using tools is not all brute strength. Here, firefighters practice the finer skills of through-the-lock forcible entry.

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