Tips for Improving Effectiveness in Forcible Entry, Part 3


Part 1 was published in the April 2008 issue; Part 2 was published in the June 2008 issue.

When performing forcible entry, you cannot rely on just one technique or depend on the same tools to be successful every time. A company proficient in forcible entry will use a variety of hand and power tools and can recognize those forcible entry challenges that call for the use of power tools or through-the-lock techniques. In many urban areas, residents protect themselves from crime by installing security bars to every door and window. The problem is intensified when doorway gates are equipped with one or more double-cylinder deadbolt locks, which is very common in my company’s district. This effectively locks occupants inside their residence, requiring them to find and use keys to escape a fire. Consequently, each year lives are lost in (relatively small) room-and-contents fires because security bars block the occupant’s means of escape. As with any forcible entry challenge, prefire planning and size-up are the first steps toward success.

Some doorway gates sold at home improvement stores provide only an illusion of security because they are, in fact, fairly weak. They are constructed with lightweight aluminum or tubular steel. A strong, determined firefighter can grasp the bars in the middle of a lightweight gate and pull it open. This is possible because a lightweight gate will bend, allowing latches and dead bolts to pull out of their strike in the frame.

True, old-fashioned security bar gates are constructed with a heavy steel frame and wrought iron bars; they are a formidable barrier for burglars attempting to break in and for firefighters who lack the proper tools and skills.

Begin by sizing up a gate. Gates usually swing outward; thus, hinges will be visible and accessible. Some gates on older homes also serve as a screen door and may be locked by a single-cylinder dead bolt that is unlocked from the inside with a thumb turn instead of a key. If this is the case, punch in the screen, reach in, and operate the thumb turn to unlock the dead bolt. Is the gap between the gate and its frame visible, or is it covered by a metal strip welded to the edge of the gate? If the gap is visible, drive the adz of a halligan between the gate and frame near the locks (photo 1). Security bar gates do not have a rabbet or stop; therefore, you can drive the adz to its maximum depth. Apply downward pressure on the shaft of the halligan. This rotates the adz and spreads the gap between the gate and frame. Now pull the halligan away from the gate; use two firefighters on the tool for additional force. Prying the gate away from its frame exerts considerable stress to a dead bolt, often breaking it away from the lock mechanism and pulling it out of its strike.

(1) Photos by Eric Goodman unless otherwise noted.

If prying a gate near its locks isn’t successful, try again at the top of the gate. Gaining a purchase here is easy because there are no locks at the top of the gate. Again, drive in the adz to its maximum depth and then pry the top of the gate away from its frame (photo 2). Maintain the purchase by inserting an ax blade in the gap directly above the adz. Now, move the adz down a few inches and pry again. With each pry, pull the head of the ax lower in the gap as the adz pries close to the locks (photo 3). Prying with the halligan and taking up space with the ax cause the gate to flex and act as a lever against the locks. Often, gates forced in this manner will fly open when their locks fail, because of the stress exerted on them.




Many gates are equipped with a strip of metal that covers the gap between the gate and its frame. This is intended to discourage a burglar from inserting a pry tool or prevent him from cutting the lock bolt with a hacksaw blade. But it is no impediment to firefighters who know their business.

First, insert the adz behind the strip near the locks and apply downward pressure on the shaft. This is usually not successful, but it takes only a few seconds. It is worth a try (photo 4). If this doesn’t work, immediately move to the top of the gate. Now, firefighters can use that metal strip to their advantage. Insert the adz behind the metal strip at the top of the gate and pull the shaft downward (photo 5). This creates a gap between the gate and frame equal to the width of the adz (photo 6). Once you achieve the initial gap, maintain and expand it by inserting an ax blade and pulling it downward as you pry progressively closer to the locks.




A strong gate secured with strong locks can resist conventional forcible entry techniques and necessitate the use of a metal-cutting power saw, which we will look at later. It can be difficult to conventionally force a gate that is recessed three to four inches in a masonry wall, because it restricts the placement and prying action of a halligan. A substantial gate may be more easy to force by attacking the fasteners that attach the gate and frame assembly to the building.


Security bars and doorway gates are fastened to wood-frame buildings with lag bolts screwed into the wall or carriage bolts that pass through holes drilled in the wall and are secured with a wing nut and large washer on the inside. Bars in brick and concrete block are typically attached with various types of masonry anchors.

When sizing up a gate, step back and see where it is attached to the building. The objective is to attack fasteners on one side of the gate and “hinge” it away from the doorway. For this to work, you may have to also attack fasteners at the top and bottom of the gate.

To force a gate at its fasteners, begin by tapping a flathead ax blade between the flat mounting tab and the wall until the blade is against the bolt or masonry anchor (photo 7). Now, striking the ax with strength and determination will result in shearing the fastener (photo 8) or at least loosening it to the point where you can pull it out of the wall. To do this, drive the fork of a halligan under the flat mounting tab so that the fastener is between both claws of the fork. Make sure that the fork is positioned so that its bevel is against the wall. Now, when the halligan is pushed toward the wall, it will lift the tip of the fork and pull out the fastener. If more leverage is needed, place an ax blade flat between the wall and the fork (photo 9). In photo 10, firefighters who cut the fasteners on one side of a gate swing it out of the doorway. The remaining fasteners on the other side act as a hinge.










Through-the-lock techniques involve two basic steps: (1) Remove the lock cylinder, and (2) operate the lock mechanism by substituting a screwdriver or special key tool for the rotating action of the lock cylinder. A detailed explanation of lock nomenclature and operation is beyond the scope of this article. Two excellent sources of information on all facets of forcible entry are Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics by John Norman (Fire Engineering, 2005) and Truck Company Operations by John Mittendorf (Fire Engineering, 1998). In simple terms, all lock cylinders can be placed in one or two basic categories, depending on how they operate and how they are fastened to the door and lock mechanism. The categories are mortise locks and rim locks.

A mortise lock is installed in a cavity in the door. Mortise lock cylinders are threaded and screw into the lock mechanism through a hole in the face of the door. A mortise lock mechanism is operated by a flat cam at the back of the lock cylinder. A mortise lock cylinder that has been pulled from a door can be identified by the cam and its threads (photo 11). Because a mortise lock cylinder is threaded, it may be possible to unscrew it with locking or slip joint pliers (photo 12). Unscrewing a mortise cylinder is fairly easy, because it is soft brass and held in position by a small set screw. Perhaps, it is too easy; hence, the cylinder on many mortise locks has been fitted with a tapered ring that surrounds the cylinder and prevents pliers from gripping it.




A lock cylinder is most effectively pulled by a device specifically designed for that purpose. As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, my department has issued each company a refined version of an officer’s tool, which we modified by adding a fork and spike.


A pivoting deadbolt is a mortise lock that commonly secures aluminum and glass storefront doors. Pivoting deadbolts commonly project 1½ inches to two inches into a receiver or strike in the doorjamb or adjoining double door. This makes prying an aluminum and glass door an exercise in futility and stupidity. Never attempt to pry an aluminum and glass door locked with a pivoting dead bolt. All you will manage to do is break the glass and destroy the aluminum frame.

The preferred method of forcing storefront doors is definitely “through the lock.” Pull or unscrew the lock cylinder and operate the lock mechanism with a screwdriver or special key tool (photos 13, 14). Look inside the lock cylinder hole. You will see a lever in a slightly diagonal position, with the bottom of the lever at, roughly, a 5 o’clock or 7 o’clock position (photo 15). Insert a screwdriver or key tool and depress a spring in a slot that is at the bottom of the lever that holds the dead bolt in the locked position. Now, shift the bottom of the lever toward the doorjamb.







Firefighters performing this technique for the first time often attempt to move the lever away from the jamb with the intention of sliding the dead bolt out of its strike. They forget that the dead bolt doesn’t slide; it pivots in the opposite direction from the lever. The lever that pivots the dead bolt has a fairly short range of motion—from, roughly, a five o’clock position to a seven o’clock position. Shift a lever locking a storefront door in the five o’clock position to the seven o’clock position. Similarly, shift a lever found in the seven o’clock position to the five o’clock position (photos 16, 17). Pulling a pivoting dead bolt cylinder is easy if you have the right lock-pulling device—and, unfortunately, for burglars who improvise. As a result, many storefront doors are retrofitted with a device that covers the lock cylinder to prevent it from being pulled. Such a device, as noted in the size-up of the door, is a clear signal that through-the-lock techniques will not work and the door would most effectively be forced by cutting the pivoting dead bolt with a rotary saw, which we will examine later.





Some mortise locks have a dead bolt and a doorknob latch. This will necessitate two manipulations of the lock mechanism, one to throw the dead bolt and a second to release the latch. Remember that a doorknob latch is spring-loaded, so keep pressure on the latch mechanism at five or seven o’clock to open the door.


The second basic category of locks is the rim lock, which gets its name from a rim that holds the lock cylinder against the outside of a door. A rim lock does not have a threaded cylinder. Instead, two screws threaded into the back of the outside cylinder in effect squeeze the door between the outside and inside lock cylinder or inside thumb turn. Unlike a mortise lock, a rim lock does not need a large cavity in the door; therefore, it is a lot easier for a homeowner to install as an extra lock.

You can identify a rim lock cylinder that has been pulled from a lock by its screws or screw threads and long tailpiece that transfers the rotating action of the key to the lock mechanism (photo 18). Firefighters performing through-the-lock forcible entry must substitute the tailpiece with a screwdriver or special key tool.


If pulling a lock cylinder that is almost flush with the surface of the door and you find a tailpiece, you are probably dealing with a surface-mounted lock such as a night latch or dead lock (photos 19, 20). If you cannot operate the lock with a screwdriver, insert the spike of a halligan into the cylinder hole and, with an ax or a sledgehammer, drive the lock off the inside of the door (photo 21).







A tubular dead bolt is the most common “add-on” rim lock, because it is relatively inexpensive and easy to install. Most tubular dead bolt locks can be identified by a large lock cylinder, typically two to three inches in diameter. This large profile may be too large for some lock-pulling devices but not for a halligan. Tap the adz of a halligan behind the rim of the cylinder and, with a prying action, attempt to pull the lock cylinder off the door or gate. Then use a screwdriver to operate the lock cylinder (photos 22-24). The success of this technique depends on breaking the two screws that hold the cylinder in place or pulling them out of their threads at the back of the lock cylinder. This is not always possible: Strong, high-quality dead bolts manufactured in the United States may use large, case-hardened screws to secure their cylinders to a door. These locks are designed so that their cylinders cannot be pulled. Even less substantial dead bolts can resist attempts to pull their cylinder. Sometimes the prying action of the lock only bends the screws or crushes the door. If this occurs, try to tap the cylinder downward to create an opening at the top just large enough to get a good view of the lock mechanism and to insert a screwdriver.







The objective is to operate the lever at the top of the lock mechanism that slides the dead bolt in and out of its strike. This lever (photo 25) has a range of motion of, roughly, two o’clock to 10 o’clock or 10 o’clock to two o’clock.


Note: In photo 26, the spike of an officer’s tool is used to operate the mechanism on a stubborn dead bolt. Attempt this variation of the through-the-lock procedure at the first indication that the cylinder-mounting screws are not going to fail. Repeated attempts to pull the lock cylinder can misalign or damage the lock mechanism to a point at which it will not operate.




Ideally, all automatic gates restricting vehicle access at parking lots, commercial properties, and gated communities should be operable by fire department units with a master key, such as the one used to open a lock box containing keys for elevator fire service control. Local codes and city ordinances have mandated this. Similarly, some local governments require that automatic driveway gates operate by sounding a siren of an emergency vehicle.

There are two basic types of automatic gates: swinging and sliding. Swinging gates are typically operated by an arm that transfers the rotational motion of a drive motor to push the gate open and closed. A sliding gate operates by a bicycle-like chain at the bottom of the gate. A drive mechanism consisting of a motor, drive belts, and pulleys turns a sprocket that engages the chain.

Both swinging and sliding driveway gates may have wires imbedded in the pavement that detect the metallic mass of a vehicle. Wires imbedded in the pavement a few feet from the inside of a gate can detect a vehicle attempting to exit and open the gate automatically. If there is an exit gate and an entrance gate, this function will work only for the exit gate. It may be possible to fool some gates by substituting a steel tool or some other metallic object for a vehicle. I’ve heard stories of gates that were so sensitive that they could be opened by a sliding metal clipboard over the wiring imbedded in the pavement a few feet inside the exit gate. This may be true, but it’s definitely not the case in my company’s district, where even a substantial steel tool, such as a halligan, may lack sufficient metallic mass to automatically open a gate.

Say companies respond in the early morning hours to a water-flow alarm. On arrival, they find their access to a large warehouse complex blocked by an automatic driveway gate. No fire, smoke, or water is seen, but companies need to get closer to the building to investigate further. From the street, a company officer uses binoculars to check for water discharging from drains below the building’s sprinkler water motor gong. Water seen dripping from one of the drains and a small puddle below indicate that the alarm was probably activated by a temporary surge in the city’s water pressure. Based on that observation, the officer decides that rapid, destructive forcible entry is not necessary or justified. The firefighters, therefore, tie a small-diameter rope to a halligan and throw the tool over the top of the exit gate. The tool lands about 10 feet inside the gate. The firefighters pull the rope to drag the halligan over the wiring imbedded in the pavement, opening the gate. Tossing a halligan over a gate is an easy way to actuate its exit function; the success of this technique is best determined during prefire planning. It doesn’t always work because concertina wire across the top of the gate or vertical bars at the top of the gate will snag the rope tied to the halligan. Also, the halligan itself may not have the metallic mass to simulate a vehicle.

A ladder company can use one of its long (10- to 14-foot) pike poles to push a large metallic outrigger pad under a gate (photos 27, 28). This technique works very well for my company. How effective it will be in your district can be determined only by your getting out in your district and trying it.





If the preceding techniques fail, it still may be possible to open the gate without damage if a firefighter can get inside the fence. There, he may be able to remove the cover of a sliding gate’s motor and drive mechanism and operate it manually by turning a pulley (photo 29). Some sliding gate mechanisms have a crank (photo 30), located behind a removable panel, that is accessible without removing the entire cover. The crank is intended to open the gate during a power failure. Do not operate an automatic gate without first shutting off its power at a switch located inside or outside the mechanism’s cover. Failure to shut off the power could cause an unexpected operation, resulting in fingers caught in moving parts.





If a sliding gate’s mechanism cannot be operated manually, it may be possible to detach it from its drive chain. When a sliding gate is closed, the short section of chain from the drive mechanism keeps it closed. Unscrewing a nut or turnbuckle securing the chain will allow you to open the gate (photo 31). Similarly, it may be possible to detach the arm connecting a swinging gate to its drive mechanism. Again, this is best determined during prefire planning.


If you cannot gain entry inside the fence, consider using bolt cutters or a rotary saw to cut a small opening in the fence; then reach in and cut the threaded rod or turnbuckle securing the short section of chain to the gate (photo 32).


Firefighters should learn forcible techniques using power tools after they have acquired basic knowledge and skills in conventional and through-the-lock forcible entry. Otherwise, they will become overly reliant on equipment that is subject to mechanical failure. This is not to imply that power tools should be used as a last resort after other methods have failed.

Experienced firefighters can recognize forcible entry challenges that make power tools necessary and not waste their time or strength on other methods.

A rotary saw is, first and foremost, a rescue tool. It rescues civilians and firefighters by cutting locks, bars, and doors that would otherwise trap them in a fire building. Because rescue is a firefighter’s first priority, companies should carry their rotary saw with the metal-cutting blade installed. A saw equipped with a carbide tip blade can also save lives by ventilating a roof of a multiple dwelling—no argument there. That’s why firefighters must practice changing blades until they can perform this task in seconds.

A ventilation chain saw equipped with a carbide chain is no substitute for a rotary saw. A chain saw can be used to cut through wood doors and doors covered with light-gauge sheet metal, but it is incapable of cutting heavy steel, such as dead bolts and burglar bars.

A metal-cutting rotary saw is the most effective and least damaging tool to force heavy steel outward swinging doors secured with one or more high-quality dead bolts. Additionally, cut a pivoting dead bolt locking an aluminum and glass storefront door at the first indication that through-the-lock techniques might not be successful.

The key is to drive an ax blade or halligan adz in between the door and jamb to spread the gap wider than the thickness of the saw blade. Now, the metal-cutting blade can spin freely and cleanly cut the dead bolts without cutting into the edge of the door or jamb (photos 33, 34). This technique also works well for security door gates that are not equipped with a metal strip covering the gap between the gate and its frame (photo 35). As mentioned earlier in this article, doorway bar gates are often equipped with a strip of steel welded to the lock side of the gate. This strip covers the gap between the gate and its frame; consequently, dead bolts and latches will not be visible or readily accessible. This will not deter a skilled saw operator who can plunge cut through the steel strip and then cut the lock bolts and latch. The saw operator must first estimate where the gap is between the gate and its frame and then cut precisely into the steel strip so the blade finds the gap (photo 36). When plunge-cutting steel, begin the cut with the saw’s blade rotating at a low revolution per minute (rpm). This allows the blade to grind or cut a groove before it is brought up to a high speed. Beginning a cut at a high rpm increases the saw’s gyroscopic action, making it difficult to hold the saw steady, which causes the blade to slide across the smooth metal surface.







(36) Photo by P. Quintela.


You can also force outward-swinging doors and doorway gates by cutting hinges (photo 37). Remember, however, that the property owner may have taken measures, explained in Part 2, to secure the hinge side of an expensive door.


If you encounter a pattern of bolt heads on the outside of a door, you will have to contend with a drop bar or some other high-security device on the inside of the door. One option is to cut the bolt heads with a rotary saw (photo 38). Before cutting bolt heads in an inward-swinging door, look for bolt heads in the wall on each side of the door and cut those first. This may release brackets fastened to the wall that hold a drop bar across the door (photo 39). Another option is to cut an opening in the door, reach in, and lift a drop bar out of its bracket (photo 40) or, possibly, operate some type of sliding-bar device. Cutting an opening in a door is also an effective way to release panic hardware (photo 41) or surface-mounted devices, such as barrel bolts (photo 42).











My company recently had an opportunity to practice on several high-security door assemblies after they were rated for wind resistance at a testing facility. The doors are secured by a lock mechanism that extends steel rods that engage both sides, top, and bottom of the doorway. We gained entry by cutting completely through the door and removing the lock assembly. This enabled us to see and withdraw the steel rods securing the door.

Some doors at the rear of commercial occupancies are secured so extensively that nothing less than cutting a man-size opening or cutting the door into pieces will permit entry. This takes time; notify the incident commander of the anticipated delay. Also, extensive cutting may require metal-cutting abrasive disks to be changed during the operation.

Avoid cutting heavy iron bars. It is time-consuming and will rapidly wear abrasive disks. Window bars and doorway gates can be rapidly hinged away from their opening by cutting the flat tabs where the fasteners attach to the wall (photo 43).


A hydraulic forcible entry tool (HFT) is very effective for forcing strong inward-swinging doors. If you must force several doors while searching a multiple dwelling, you will save considerable time, strength, and your SCBA air supply by using an HFT instead of conventional methods. An HFT, however, is not a substitute for basic forcible entry tools and should be taken along with the sledgehammer, halligan, and flathead ax. Do not use an ax or a sledgehammer to drive the jaws of an HFT between a door and jamb. Instead, create a gap for the HFT by inserting the adz of a halligan behind the rabbet and the door, and pry.

A steel door secured with one or more high-quality dead bolts can “blow” open with considerable force when it yields to an HFT. This makes it particularly important to control a door with a rope or strap when using an HFT.

If you encounter an unconscious victim behind a strong inward-swinging door set in a steel jamb, immediately call for an HFT. The objective is to force the door at its hinges to reach the victim (photo 44). If conditions permit the use of a rotary saw, it will greatly speed up the process of “laying the door down.” Use the HFT just enough to expose the hinges and then cut them with a saw (photo 45). Remember to control a heavy door with a rope or strap to keep it from falling on the victim.





According to a manufacturer of HFTs, the leading cause for tool failure is lack of use. “Exercise” your HFTs at least weekly by repeatedly operating them and then lubricating the hydraulic ram, pump cylinder, and release lever according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

• • •

A fire company serious about forcible entry will take care of its forcible entry tools and store them on the apparatus with careful consideration as to which tools are used together. A company proficient in forcible entry will take the right tools for the job. This is determined during prefire planning and specified by assigning tools to each riding position on the apparatus. This is especially important for a company operating a quint and that performs engine and ladder company functions depending on the order of arrival and engine companies that occasionally perform forcible entry.

BILL GUSTIN, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department’s officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Gustin is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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