By Raul A. Angulo
Two of my most memorable calls are not as spectacular as you would think.
When I was a young firefighter working a shift at Engine 16 in the Greenlake District of Seattle, Washington, my wife came in to make the crew her excellent chicken-big shell pasta dish with broccoli covered in a creamy Alfredo mushroom sauce-one of my favorite dishes to date. Just as we sat down for dinner, the bell hit for a full response and we never got a chance to eat it-maybe that is why it’s memorable. The Masonic Temple was just two blocks away from the station, and I knew we would be first in. When we pulled up, flames were blowing out a second-story window in the alley.
The driver hooked up to the hydrant, the officer did a radio size-up, and I pulled the attack line. I knew the building was dark, so I also grabbed a pickhead ax. I was all by myself. Back in 1985, we didn’t have any real training in forcible entry. You just forced entry the best way you could and used whatever it took. We had pry bars, but the halligan and the K-tools didn’t show up in Seattle until about 1996. The A-tool or officer’s tool showed up two years ago.
The front door to the Masonic Temple was an old, arch-shaped, ornate wooden door. It looked like it came from an ancient gothic church. Not knowing any better at the time, I knew I had to “chop” my way through this door and I was going right through the middle. After about five heavy duty whacks, the door flung open. I remember thinking, “Wow! That was cool-just like in the movies.” In reality, the lock probably just gave way because I had no idea what I was doing. I needlessly destroyed a beautiful piece of wood. But I advanced the line up the stairs and put out the kitchen fire in the auditorium before anyone else backed me up. I’ve put out a lot of fires over the years, but damaging that door unnecessarily still bothers me to this day.
Another memorable door breach was when I working on Engine 13 in the Beacon Hill District. We were dispatched to a suicide. As I led my crew up the stairs to the front porch, we could see the patient through the window. The adrenalin kicked in, and since I was leading the charge, I decided to be John Wayne and kick the front door in without missing a step. Whatever locking mechanism they had in place ricocheted me off the door and almost off the front porch! I told my three gargantuans to break the door down and they knocked in the entire door frame. We forced entry but we were too late.
Both of these stories have stayed with me because there are better, more professional techniques to force entry with minimal damage. We just hadn’t been taught. Today, it’s different. The halligan and the flathead ax, traditionally known as “the irons,” are married together and carried on every fire apparatus. Training on forcible entry techniques is taken more seriously in our department and included as a component of our annual performance evaluations. The incident priority acronym-RECEO/VS: Rescue, Exposures, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul/Ventilation, and Salvage-can’t even begin until you gain access to the occupancy.
Once you size the W-Tool to the horizontal width of the door,
One of the coolest tools I’ve seen at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) is the W-Tool by the Weddle Tool Company of Bunker Hill, West Virginia. The founder, inventor, and CEO is Dave Weddle, who brought on Captain Dan Corder, Charles Brown, Joe Habib, and Jack Harding in 2008. Between them, they bring more than 100 years of firefighting experience coming up with tools for firefighters, by firefighters.
The W-Tool is a nondestructive forcible entry tool that is actually a hydraulic spreader designed to provide multiple forcible entry solutions. It doesn’t require cords, hoses, a power source, or fuel. Unlike a Rabbit tool and the irons, the W-Tool is a one-person operation-its greatest advantage. The W-Tool is basically a 25-pound hydraulic jack with 6,000 pounds of spreading (or lifting) force. When placed horizontally at the nine-o’clock and three-o’clock positions of a door frame, hydraulic pressure is applied against the frame, spreading it apart past the locking mechanism and the strike plate. Once the latch and dead bolt clear the door jamb and the strike plate, the door opens. You’re essentially widening the opening beyond the edges of the door, so there is minimal to no destruction in most cases. The W-Tool works on most residential and commercial doors.
By pumping the handle with your dominant hand, the hydraulic
The NonDestructive Evolution
When it’s determined a door needs to be forced, one firefighter can grab the W-Tool. Remember to “try before you pry.” Place the tool at the base of the door to size it. Once you extend it to the width of the door, the power head control valve is engaged for the hydraulic fluid. Raise the W-Tool to a horizontal position near the strongest part of the door in close proximity to the strongest lock or dead bolt. Pump the handle until the W-Tool is firmly wedged against the door frame. Keep your dominant hand on the handle. Place the other hand on the doorknob to control the door. As the firefighter pumps the lever, steady pressure is applied to the door jamb.
The speed of the spreader depends on how fast you pump the handle. Since most residential door frames are wood, slow, steady pressure is best to allow time for the wood to give. Even solid wood has some flexibility under pressure. As the door jamb spreads apart, more of the locking bolt is exposed. As the firefighter leans into the door, the edge of the dead bolt slips out of the strike plate and the door is freed. The firefighter doesn’t need to worry about the W-Tool falling on his foot. The pressure is exerted against the frame, not the door. The tool stays in place until the operator releases hydraulic pressure with the power head control valve. If need be, the tool is heavy enough to be used as a door chock to keep the door open.
With heavier commercial doors, there is definitely less give, but 6,000 pounds is a lot of pressure. That is usually enough pressure to at least expose the locking bolts. A rescue saw or a Sawzall with a metal cutting blade can be inserted into the gap to cut the bolts. The same evolution would be applied to doors with multiple locks. The W-Tool can spread the door jamb, exposing the locking bolts. It can be left in place without losing the applied hydraulic pressure so it is hands-free. Again, you can insert a rescue saw or Sawzall with a metal cutting blade into the space to cut through the bolts, freeing the door.
When quick forcible entry is required and causing property
The Destructive Evolution
When time is critical and rapid entry is required without regard for destroying property, the W-Tool can be used as a highly effective, 25-pound battering ram. The blunt force from a high-impact swing can quickly defeat multiple locks on most common doors. To operate the W-Tool like a battering ram, the firefighter uses the heavy duty strap over the dominant shoulder and adjusts the height to align with the target. The strap balances and carries the weight of the W-Tool, leaving the hands and arms free to swing the tool and deliver heavy striking blows.
The W-Tool can spread a door jamb apart slowly or quickly. The
Drawbacks to the Irons
Traditional forcible entry techniques with the irons are effective but require training and practice to be good at them. We all know the merits of an experienced forcible entry team, but let’s look at some of the drawbacks and hazards associated with the irons. First, it’s a two-person operation. The firefighter with the halligan needs to place the tool in the right spot; otherwise, if the door can’t be forced, the bar needs to be repositioned. It’s possible to get the curve of the fork backward-limiting your leverage. The firefighter using the flathead ax will need to forcefully strike the halligan numerous times to drive the tool into the door frame. If he misses, he runs the risk of striking his partner in the hand or in the head.
Visualize a narrow exterior stairway down to a basement door that needs to be breached. Good luck trying to fit two planet-size firefighters with bunker gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) at the base of the stairs, much less having the clearance to swing a flathead ax onto a halligan. That becomes a saw operation. This scenario is challenging enough-now add smoke with limited or zero visibility, and the evolution becomes downright dangerous.
Once the halligan is properly set, the firefighter has to use brute strength to leverage and force the door. This action requires pushing, pulling, and twisting of the upper torso. There have been numerous back and muscle injuries associated with this job hazard. The fulcrum of the halligan increases the leverage and force a firefighter can apply to a door, but it won’t be 6,000 pounds worth.
The W-Tool can overcome all of these challenges. It’s a self-contained, one-person, door-breaching forcible entry tool that requires very little training and practice to become an expert. The tool does all the work so personal injury is greatly reduced. There’s even a mounted LED light to illuminate the target area.
The W-Tool can apply up to 6,000 pounds of pressure to most
In addition to the horizontal uses, the W-Tool is fully functional in the vertical position so it has other tactical applications. For example, it can be used like a jack in vehicle stabilization, a rescue strut, a structural support of collapsed or compromised buildings, and confined space and trench rescues. There’s also a kit with straps so it can be placed high in the doorway to hang a smoke ejector or a fan. The applications are really subject to the imagination.
The W-Tool has numerous interchangeable heads for various applications but comes with the flat breaching head. The accessory Quick-Change Tip Kit is extra and comes with a “V” block rescue head, a multipurpose head, a joint and joist support head, a chisel point, a spear point, a 45-degree cutting point, and a chain purchase point.
The W-Tool is an excellent tool for emergency medical services companies as well. When we go on “check the welfare” calls and the automatic medical alert calls where the patient has fallen and just needs help getting off the floor, we don’t need to cause unnecessary damage to their residence.
On heavier commercial doors where firefighters
I wish I could have had the W-Tool the night of the Masonic Temple fire; they’d still have a door. Since then, they’ve made the A-tool, the K-tool, the halligan, and the Rabbit tool. I guess I just had to wait until they got to the Ws!
RAUL A. ANGULO, a veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.