Tips for Improving Effectiveness in Forcible Entry


Firefighters do their best work inside a fire building; that’s where they can most effectively save civilian lives and stop fire from taking possession of a structure. Unfortunately, fear or crime has made the firefighter’s job of getting inside buildings increasingly more difficult. Today, rural and suburban firefighters face forcible entry challenges that were encountered predominantly in big cities just a few years ago.


Following are some fundamental rules that will enhance firefighters’ effectiveness and safety when performing forcible entry operations.

Preplan forcible entry challenges.

Don’t wait until it is 0300 hours with smoke pushing from a building to try to figure out how to force a door or gate assembly you have never seen before. Effective forcible entry begins with prefire planning. In today’s fire service, many fire companies conduct most of their preplanning informally while on medical calls. For example, a member of my company noticed while on an EMS run an unfamiliar pattern of bolt heads in a heavy steel door at the rear of a liquor store. Once we released the patient to the ambulance, we asked the proprietor if we could see how this door was secured on the inside. There, we became familiar with a new security device. Further, we noted the brand name of the device and consulted with a local locksmith on the most effective way to defeat this assembly. The locksmith said he had installed dozens of these new devices in our response area and that although it looked intimidating—with steel bars that slide into each side of the doorjamb—it is operated by a fairly simple mechanism. The locksmith suggested we force the device “through the lock,” by removing a protective shroud covering the lock cylinder, pulling the cylinder with our lock-pulling tool, and unlocking the device with a screwdriver.

Never pass up an opportunity to familiarize yourself with security installations in your area. Devise the most effective method of forcing a lock, door, or gate before you encounter it at a fire.

(1) In prefire planning, firefighters become familiar with security devices and devise techniques for forcing them. (Photos by Eric Goodman.)

Get off the apparatus with the right tools for the job. You may carry a wide assortment of forcible entry tools but not have staffing necessary to bring every tool to the fire building. Therefore, you must choose which tools to take, depending on what you expect to force. From prefire planning, we learn that similar occupancies tend to be secured in similar ways. For example, panic hardware on double-exit doors in schools are often chained together after school hours and secured with a padlock. Similarly, doors in rooming houses in my district are commonly secured with a chain through the hole in the door where the knob used to be and a hole punched in the wall. If operating in a rooming house or a school when it is not in session, bring bolt cutters to cut the chains securing the doors.

You can easily force, without causing damage, double aluminum-glass doors at the entrances of stores, schools, and offices if they meet in the middle without a center astragal or jamb. If you expect to force double doors, bring a hook fashioned from a welding rod, an automobile antenna, or other ridged wire (photo 2). Insert the hook between the doors and then rotate to exert a pull on the panic bar or latch paddle. A member of my company suggested that we try a paint roller for this purpose (photos 3-4), and we have had excellent results.

(2) A hook fashioned from ridged wire opens double doors.




(3-4) A paint roller inserted between double doors actuates panic hardware.



If you are ordered to open the rear of a commercial building, expect to cut heavy steel doors with a rotary saw. If you use abrasive metal-cutting disks instead of a metal-cutting diamond blade, bring extra blades, because abrasive disks wear rapidly when cutting steel.

Secure any overhead door that has been raised under fire conditions in the open position with at least one pike pole. If you intend to cut and open overhead doors in a commercial building, take long—at least 10-foot—pike poles to brace the doors open. Long pike poles are necessary to reduce or, preferably, eliminate the space for potential freefall between the bottom of the door and the head of the pike pole. Out of habit, firefighters most often take six-foot hooks with them. The hooks, however, are too short to stop a 10-foot overhead door from crashing down, trapping them inside a fire building.

Doors to apartments and hotel rooms usually open inwardly, away from firefighters performing forcible entry. Accordingly, a company ordered to force doors in a multiple dwelling should take its hydraulic forcible entry tool. This tool, however, may be of less value at fires in commercial occupancies, which typically have outward-swinging doors.

Size up before forcing entry.

A proficient forcible entry team sizes up its obstacle to entry and fire conditions before going to work. Information learned in a size-up can indicate the most effective method for gaining entry, which tools to use, and how much property damage is acceptable. Following are some factors to consider in a forcible entry size-up:

  • How is the door constructed, and how strong is it?
  • How are the door frame and adjoining wall constructed? How strong are they? Look beyond the door. Wall construction determines how much a jamb can flex away from the door. A size-up may indicate that it would be faster and easier to breach a wall than to struggle with a difficult door.
  • Does the door open toward or away from the forcible entry team?
  • What are the lock’s strength, design, and operating characteristics? Would it be most effectively defeated by “through-the-lock” forcible entry techniques?
  • What is the lock’s brand name? A brand name can tell much about a lock—its strength, design, and resistance to force. If you recognize the brand name of a high-security lock, you can immediately call for power tools and not waste your time or strength attempting conventional forcible entry.
  • Does the door have bolt heads? The presence of four bolt heads at waist level is a strong indication that a drop bar is across the inside of the door or that the door is secured with some type of high-security lock assembly. Bolt heads located in the top and bottom of a door may indicate that the door is secured with surface-mounted locks, such as slide latches or barrel bolts. A pattern of bolt heads in a heavy steel door should be like a large flashing neon sign that says, “Go get the saw!”
  • Is there a lock cylinder in an unusual location, such as in the middle of the door? This typically indicates a lock with sliding bars that engage each side of the doorjamb and possibly the top of the doorjamb and a strike or receiver in the floor as well.
  • Look for the weakest component. Does a door have a glass, wood, or sheet metal panel that you can easily and inexpensively break to be able to reach in and unlock it?
  • Is the door hot? Check the door and the knob with the back of your hand. You can rapidly scan with a thermal imaging camera several doors in a strip shopping center or warehouse complex. A hot door may indicate a fire is close inside. It is also a sign that you should use caution, because opening the door will allow oxygen entering the building to intensify the fire or, in a worst-case scenario, precipitate a backdraft.

Change techniques if they are not working.

A company officer directing a forcible entry operation must judge the effectiveness of his firefighters’ efforts and devise alternate techniques if they are not making progress. A company officer must project strong leadership over aggressive firefighters who are physically engaged and mentally focused on high-intensity forcible entry. At times, I have been so determined to get through a difficult door that I was reluctant to stop what I was doing and try a different technique. Fortunately, I worked for some good company officers who would stop me when it was time to try something different.

A company officer must also watch his crew for signs of fatigue. As firefighters tire, their effectiveness and safety diminish rapidly. But, don’t expect a fatigued firefighter to stop working on his own and to hand over his tool to someone else.

A company officer cannot effectively supervise his company if he is physically engaged in the forcible entry operation. An officer with a tool in his hands will naturally narrow his focus to the working end of the tools. Consequently, he can lose sight of the overall operation, the condition of his firefighters, and the effectiveness of their efforts.

Communicate delays and difficulties.

A company officer who anticipates or experiences a delay in forcing entry should notify the incident commander (IC) immediately. Whether it is ego or pride, firefighters (myself included) can be reluctant to admit that they are not being successful at a task. Consequently, they may fail to notify the IC of their difficulties until it is too late. The success of an IC’s strategy, however, may depend on his company’s implementation of tactics, such as forcible entry, in a timely fashion.

As an example, the chief’s strategy may be to stop the horizontal spread of fire in a common cockloft in a strip shopping center. He knows that he must get ahead of the fire by forcing into adjoining stores, pulling ceilings, and operating hose streams into the overhead. The chief knows this will take time and that the fire will continue to spread to adjoining occupancies while his companies get into position. Anticipating the spread of fire, he directs his companies to exposure D-3, three stores to the right of the original fire occupancy, and exposure B-3, three stores to the left of the fire. His strategy to confine the fire depends on getting into exposures D-3 and B-3 before fire passes overhead. Now, let’s say that firefighters forcing entry into exposure D-3 encounter an extremely difficult door and anticipate a delay in getting in. The company officer directing the forcible entry should immediately notify the chief. That information may influence the chief to change his plan: write off exposures D-1, D-2, and D-3 to give his companies time to force entry and make a stand in exposure D-4.

Firefighter safety takes precedence over rapid forcible entry.

Just before dawn, a police officer reports a fire at a steak house that has been closed for several hours. First-arriving companies find smoke showing from the front doors and from ventilation equipment on the roof above the kitchen. An officer conducting a 360-degree size-up notes aluminum and glass doors at the main entrance in the front and substantial steel doors in the rear. On further investigation, he notices a pattern of bolt heads on the rear doors; the doors are hot when he touches them with the back of his hand. Which door should be forced first? Which door should be used to advance a hoseline into the steak house? At first glance, the aluminum and glass doors, the front entrance doors, look like the best choice, because they are fast and easy to force. But, firefighters who choose the front doors for their hose advance are in for a slow, difficult, and personnel-intensive job.

On entering the front, firefighters advancing the hoseline will encounter multiple obstacles and corners that will slow their advance and necessitate additional firefighters. More firefighters must be positioned along the hoseline to keep it moving around the hostess counter, through the cocktail lounge, and past tables and chairs in the dining area.

Fire officers directing companies into a commercial building with no civilian life hazard must understand the risks: The deeper they penetrate into a hostile environment, the farther they will be from their means of escape and the greater the danger of being lost, disoriented, running out of air, being caught in a collapse, or trapped with fire over their heads.

Firefighters who choose to advance through the rear doors face a difficult and time-consuming forcible entry that necessitates extensive use of a metal-cutting rotary saw. But, consider the benefits: The back door leads directly to the kitchen, where most restaurant fires begin. Remember that the rear door was hot, indicating that firefighters operating a 2½-inch handline or portable master stream device from the doorway stand a good chance of reaching the fire with their stream.

Now, consider that the front of many restaurants has a very high parapet or large façade to conceal the ventilation and exhaust equipment on the roof. It is prone to sudden, early collapse. Firefighters operating at the front doors of a restaurant often position themselves under a facade or within the collapse zone of a parapet.

A basic tenet of forcible entry is to force the door that the occupant uses to enter. This is a good rule, because doors can be heavily secured on the inside with steel drop bars or chained panic hardware. Shelving may block a door the occupant never uses. There is, however, one door in a building that cannot be locked or blocked on the inside—the door occupants use to enter the building. That is the door that will be the fastest and easiest to force. But remember, firefighter safety takes precedence over rapid forcible entry.

Consider a fire in a strip warehouse in the early morning hours. Strip warehouses are typically constructed with concrete block, concrete tilt-up, or metal frame walls and roofs of lightweight steel or wood trusses. Strip warehouses are becoming very common throughout the country, because they can be rapidly constructed and divided to accommodate a wide variety of commercial occupancies. Each unit or “bay” will have one or more swinging and overhead doors. Firefighters attempting to gain entry into a strip warehouse occupancy will have to decide whether to force a swinging or an overhead door. If speed is the primary consideration, naturally, they will choose a swinging door, because the occupant uses it to enter his business. Hence, it can’t be locked on the inside.

Conversely, overhead doors are typically locked on the inside by sliding “L” bolts or hoisting chains secured with padlocks. But, speed should not be the firefighters’ first priority, especially in a business locked up after hours. Where does a swinging door in many strip warehouse occupancies lead? There is a good chance that it leads to an office or sales area the occupant built without a permit after passing a Building Department inspection and receiving his occupancy license. Consequently, these illegal structures, built at night and on weekends, are nothing more than poorly constructed wood-frame shacks and a “maze” of counters, stock, and furniture. The top of these structures, which is several feet below the warehouse roof, makes a convenient storage loft for literally tons of auto parts, building materials, or other heavy stock.

Firefighters entering a strip warehouse through a swinging door may find their thermal imaging camera to be almost useless because a ceiling conceals fire conditions in the warehouse and the effect on its truss roof construction (photo 5).

(5) Fire showing from a swing door in this strip warehouse occupancy, a paint and body shop. Firefighters attacked fire from this doorway but did not make entry because it leads to a dangerous, poorly constructed office. The overhead door, behind the auto, was chosen as the point of entry.

Now, consider the overhead doors. True, it may take longer to gain entry, but it leads directly into the warehouse and opens to a main aisle, if there is rack storage.

An overhead doorway provides a large means of access, egress, and ventilation. Additionally, an overhead doorway allows for the most effective operation of 2½-inch handlines or portable master stream devices.

Consider forcible exit options.

When civilian lives are not threatened, you should be more concerned with how fast you can exit a building should you get into trouble than how fast you can enter a building to fight a fire. Rapid intervention teams (RITs) should be proactive in making the fire building safe for firefighters operating inside; they should not just stand by awaiting a Mayday. Vital functions of the RITs should include forcing doors, especially in the rear, and raising ladders to upper floors to provide alternate means of egress. Similarly, firefighters must quickly perform “forcible exit” at the rear of commercial occupancies when a fire occurs during business hours. Customers and employees can escape through the front doors of a business, but they can be trapped at rear doors that are illegally locked, blocked, or barred (photo 6).

(6) A rear door illegally locked during business hours can trap occupants, necessitating prompt “forcible exit” at the rear of commercial occupancies.


Justify the damage forcible entry causes by the urgency of the situation.

An engine company is dispatched to an automatic fire alarm activated in a single-family residence. On arrival, no smoke is visible; but on further investigation, firefighters smell a faint, familiar odor of food burning on the stove. The company officer decides not to force the front door, which disappoints his probationary firefighters, who are anxious to practice the forcible entry skills they learned in the fire academy. The company proceeds to the rear of the house, where a smoking pot of food on the stove can be seen through a kitchen window. The officer orders his firefighters to examine each side of the house for a window that could possibly be unlatched. He orders that a ladder be raised to second-floor windows, because they are more likely to be unlatched than those on the first floor. He also considers shutting off gas to the house, if it has a gas stove, or electricity, if it has an electric stove. The officer examines each exterior door to determine which one could be forced with the least property damage. Perhaps one of them could be opened by pulling the hinge pins. This situation does not need or justify rapid, aggressive forcible entry. Firefighters have the time to be meticulous, causing as little damage as possible.

My company frequently responds to medical alarms for elderly people who have fallen and cannot get to the door to unlock it. We choose the method of forcible entry after we make contact with the patient to determine his condition.

Firefighters should not hesitate to rapidly force entry when lives could be in danger or fire threatens to spread. Conduct forcible entry in accordance with tactical priorities—life, of course, takes precedence over property. If life or property is not threatened, then property conservation should be the priority. In this case, firefighters should keep the damage caused by forcing entry from exceeding the damage caused by the fire.

Basic Forcible Entry Tools

Take to every forcible entry operation the following basic tools: a halligan, a flathead ax, a sledgehammer with at least a 10-pound head, and a lock cylinder-pulling device. Additionally, carry in the pockets of your protective clothing a screwdriver with multiple, interchangeable heads; adjustable or locking pliers; and cutters to free yourself if you should become entangled in wire from the inner helix of flexible ventilation ductwork or telecommunication cables above a hanging ceiling.

(1) Carry wedges and hinge devices to hold doors open. Notice nails are positioned to avoid catching on things.

Every firefighter should have two types of devices to hold doors in the open position. I prefer a device that hooks over a door hinge instead of a wedge; wedges tend to get knocked out of place. However, wedges are still necessary for certain doors where a hinge device will not work. Aluminum and glass storefront doors, for example, do not have hinges. They swing on “pivots” located at the top and bottom of the door.

(2) A hinge device holds a door open.

Finally, carry a four- to six-foot section of rope or nylon webbing, fashioned with a loop on one end and a strong snap link or carabiner on the other end. This has a multitude of uses, including controlling the opening of an inward-swinging door. An inward-swinging door forced by any technique can swing uncontrollably and strike a person lying within the range of its swing. But, there is a greater danger: Firefighters forcing a door to a unit in a multiple dwelling could be seriously burned if the door opens uncontrollably, allowing fire within the unit to “blowtorch” into the public hallway. The danger is greatly intensified when firefighters encounter a wind-driven fire in a high-rise building.

(3) A strap controls the opening of this inward-swinging door being forced with a hydraulic forcible entry tool.

When forcing an inward-swinging door, restrain it by attaching the short rope or strap to the doorknob. A few years ago, firefighters in South Florida responded to a fire in a large, nonsprinklered high-rise condominium facing the Atlantic Ocean. On forcing the door to the fire occupancy, the strong sea breeze blew fire over their heads and down the hallway. Fortunately, the firefighters had control over this inward-swinging door with a short nylon strap, which enabled them to slam the door closed, regroup, and advance their hoseline into an adjoining condominium unit. There, they breached the wall between residences and operated their stream into the fire unit until the intensity of the wind-driven fire was decreased.

(4) An ax blade acts as a chisel and shears masonry anchor.

In my company, the firefighter responsible for the flathead ax and halligan has standing orders to always take a sledgehammer along with the “irons.” You may ask the same question that firefighters temporarily detailed to my company often ask, “Why do you need both a sledgehammer and an ax, especially if you have an eight-pound ax?” Some techniques for forcing doors and doorway bar gates necessitate the use of all three tools: the sledgehammer, the flathead ax, and the halligan. The ax is used for cutting wood and laminated impact-resistant glass. The ax blade can be a powerful chisel for cutting fasteners or sheet metal when it is driven with a sledgehammer (photo 4).

The ax blade, when driven between an outward-swinging door and its jamb, acts as a wedge, widening the gap, allowing easier insertion of the halligan fork or adz. Widening this gap with an ax blade also allows a metal-cutting rotary saw blade to spin freely, directly cutting lock bolts and latches without unnecessarily cutting the jamb and the edge of the door.

(5) An ax blade, positioned behind a halligan, acts as a fulcrum when prying the right side door of these double doors.

The ax blade also serves as a wedge to maintain the gap pried between a door or gate and its jamb. Position the ax blade flat between a door or wall to act as a fulcrum, increasing leverage of the halligan. Placing an ax blade behind a halligan provides additional surface when an adz or spike would otherwise penetrate a wood or light metal-covered door. A sledgehammer is superior to an ax as a striking tool, because it is heavier, thus exerting more force, and has no sharp edges to cut a firefighter accidentally struck by the tool. Force an inward-swinging door by striking it with a sledgehammer near its locks or hinges. Striking an inward-swinging door may be effective alone or in conjunction with the prying action of a halligan. Doors that are recessed in a masonry wall can be difficult to force, because the swing of a sledgehammer driving a halligan and the halligan’s range of motion when using the fork is restricted (photo 6). Use a sledgehammer to break brick or concrete block out of the doorway so you have enough room to work with the tools.

(6) A recessed doorway restricts the swing of the sledgehammer.

If you are serious about forcible entry, your company should have a halligan tool similar to the one in photo 7. Notice that the adz, spike, shaft, and fork are all one solid piece of forged steel. This is a “true” halligan, with an adz that has a slight downward curve and a slender, tapered fork beveled to act as a fulcrum to increase the force exerted on a door. The halligan in photo 7 is 30 inches long, which may not seem long enough if you consider, theoretically, that a longer tool would apply more leverage. But, firefighters deal in reality, where a longer halligan may be too long to work with in a recessed doorway or other small space.

(7) A “true” halligan.

To increase grip, one of my company members wraps the shaft of the tool with small-diameter rope and hockey stick tape. Marks painted on the adz and fork indicate the depth of the tool’s penetration in relation to the thickness of a door.

Unfortunately, some fire departments still use those chrome-plated “fake” halligans with a straight adz and a big thick fork attached to the shaft with drive pins. The large fork on these tools makes it extremely difficult to drive it between a door and jamb and around the edge of the door.

Include a device that pulls lock cylinders with the standard complement of tools. The fire service has been using the K-tool to pull lock cylinders for years. It is an excellent forcible entry tool, but it will not work in every situation. For example, a doorjamb that projects beyond the surface of a door or steel mesh covering glass can prevent a K-tool from getting a “bite” on a lock cylinder. My department has replaced the K-tool with a refined version of an “officer tool” with a specially designed lock-pulling head (photo 8). Some of our personnel have purchased their own officer tools and had the manufacturer modify them by adding a spike and a fork. Members of Florida Task Force One used our “little halligan” in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina. Members searching flooded residences used the tools to force hundreds of doors and security gates.

(8) This “officer tool” with a refined lock-pulling head has been modified by the addition of a spike and fork.

You can tell much about a fire company’s commitment to forcible entry by the location and condition of its tools. A company that keeps its halligan in the left front compartment and its ax in the right rear compartment can’t give much thought to forcible entry. Store prying tools, such as the halligan, and striking tools, such as the ax and sledgehammer, in the same compartment. Aggressive fire companies may keep their most frequently used forcible entry tools in the cab. Keep tools stored in the cab restrained in brackets specifically designed to prevent them from becoming missiles should there be an accident.

Finally, a company that takes pride in its forcible entry tools cleans and maintains them by removing rust and rough edges with a wire wheel and grinder. Strip metal surfaces or tools of the paint applied at the factory, and protect them against rust with a thin coat of oil. It is a good idea to distinguish a company’s tools with a stripe of distinctive paint. My company’s tools have a stripe of Chevrolet Engine Block Orange; the rescue squad company in our fire station identifies its tools with a stripe of Ford Engine Block Blue.

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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