Hand tools are simple, easy to use, and easy to maintain. They are relatively inexpensive and useful in many fire department emergency operations as well as nonemergency situations requiring fire department service. They are also needed for various vehicle and station maintenance and repairs. Proficiency and competence are not guaranteed. Training and practice are required to attain and maintain capabilities.
Hand tools, for the purpose of this article, are simple tools available for use by the fire service and may be powered manually, with batteries or electricity, or liquid fuel (gasoline). This includes simple tools like screwdrivers and wrenches, fire-department-specific tools such as pike poles and halligan bars, axes and pry bars, and power tools such as chain saws. Because these tools are perceived to be mainstream and simple, organizations may not regularly review operations and uses for the tools. With the time constraints facing many departments, preparation and core skills maintenance for using hand tools often take a back seat. Further complicating this is the reality that some people entering the fire service have limited exposure to tool usage. Many have not used tools prior to entering the fire service and have had minimal training and possibly less practice. Neglect in this area will mean that firefighters do not have all of their “tools” at their disposal.
Manually operated tools are essential because they might be the only solution to a problem. During emergencies, power may not be available, or a malfunction could render power tools inoperable. Power tools aren’t right for every situation. It is important to have the right tool for the job. Some members of an organization may be very comfortable using tools, while others, due to a lack of use, may not have the necessary confidence. Departments should schedule regular reviews including hands-on practice, and training officers must evaluate proficiency.
Practicing with tools is not always easy because appropriate props are not readily available. Practicing with a pry bar or an ax requires actually using the tool to not only improve competence but learn the capabilities of each tool.
Firefighters need to know what they can and can’t do. There are limitations, as anyone who has wielded an ax with full turnout gear will attest. Balance and endurance are two things to consider.
There are not many opportunities to practice work with pike poles on real plaster or drywall. Depending on a department’s run volume and number of working fires, actual use of tools such as pike poles could be very limited. Organizations are challenged to get creative in their training, not just talking about how things work but actually using the tools. Developing training props and acquiring structures scheduled for demolition could be helpful. The one caveat with this is to consider environmental issues such as asbestos in the structure.
Power tools also require use to establish and maintain the right level of competence. These tools need to be “touched” by everyone who might be asked to use them and operated to the point that they are comfortable with them. I recently watched an episode of “Undercover Boss” on television and the boss was asked to use a drill motor to help hang drywall. It was obvious that he did not know what he was doing and one might question whether or not this individual had ever used this tool. I hope no one in the fire service would be this challenged, but the point is that unless people actually use something, they are not going to be proficient. Should the need to use a particular tool arise at an emergency scene, fire service leaders expect competence. Failure in this instance would not only be embarrassing but could affect the incident’s outcome.
As with manually operated tools, power tools-gasoline or electric-require practice, and finding the opportunities can be challenging. There is value in starting and holding the tools regularly to gain comfort. Investing in training props will help and does not necessarily need to be expensive. Last, there may be opportunities to use tools as part of routine maintenance or repairs around the station. If this is the case, don’t always rely on the same person to do the work. Spread the jobs around and consider it another opportunity to train.
Safety is another consideration when using hand tools. I must admit I do not routinely follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding safety when using tools at home. Though it is hard to defend, it is what it is. But, this approach cannot be used at work. All safety procedures for equipment must be followed every time. There is no acceptable excuse, and the policies and procedures of your department must reflect this. This means that eye protection is in place prior to any work beginning. Safety gloves, special protective clothing, or other items recommended by the manufacturer, your department’s regulations, or standards must be used. This is during any training or practice session, as part of routine maintenance, or at an emergency scene.
The simplicity of hand tools makes most maintenance relatively easy and simple. For the tools powered by humans, it is as simple as keeping the tools clean and sharp (where applicable). Sharpen or replace dull cutting blades. Lubricate moving parts where the manufacturer recommends.
The same applies for power tools. They need to be kept clean and sharp. Regularly check and maintain the power units for the tools. Charge the batteries used to power tools and replace them when it is no longer feasible to keep them charged to the manufacturer’s specifications. Finding out that the batteries are dead at an incident is too late. Tools with cords must also be maintained. Do not risk injury to personnel from a poorly maintained or improper cord. Finally, if your tools require gasoline, make sure the tanks are full and you have extra fuel. To that end, know your fuel mixtures. Clearly mark your tools if they need special ratios of gas and oil, and also mark your fuel containers. Using the wrong fuel can ruin the tool and be costly. Don’t forget to keep the motors tuned so they start easily and run efficiently.
Hand tools can be neglected for various reasons. Some think that everyone is capable of using them. Some think that their simplicity makes them easy to use. In other situations, already limited training time is spent on other aspects of the job. Regardless, realize the importance of hand tools and make sure to maintain them to ensure reliability and competence. Don’t assume everyone has the same skillset. Those assumptions may not be true and could become an issue if the right tool for the right job is not used properly during an emergency.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.