By Raul A. Angulo
My favorite tool is the pickhead ax not only because it can cause major damage but because, along with the fire helmet, it’s the most recognized iconic symbol of our profession. However, after 35 years on the job, whether I’m on an engine or a ladder company, if I had to choose between grabbing the ax or a D-handle pike pole, I’d choose the pike pole. I’m not saying this is the only tool we need, but I am saying if you’re on an engine or a truck, someone on your crew should have a pike pole as part of the tool complement they’re carrying in and here’s the reason: In addition to the hoseline and the thermal imaging camera, the crew usually carries the irons (a halligan tool and a flathead ax), an A tool, or a pickhead ax. All these tools are fine and may even be necessary, but after forcible entry is made, they lack the reach that’s provided by the pike pole. Once your crew is inside the structure, there are numerous scenarios that require extra reach that are difficult to accomplish with regular forcible entry tools.
|(1) During a vertical ventilation operation, it is essential that the team has a pike pole of sufficient reach to punch through the ceiling below. Even during this drill on an acquired structure, the pike pole is too short to punch through the ceiling. Notice how the firefighter’s face and torso are directly over the vent hole. His entire arm is reaching through the attic space to reach the ceiling. This is a very dangerous position. When hot fire gases and smoke flash during vertical ventilation, it happens with lightning speed. There would be no time for this firefighter to react. He would be engulfed in smoke, heat, and flame. Having a 12-foot pike pole would allow the firefighter to stand windward, away from the vent hole, and still accomplish the objective. (Photos by author.)|
The pike pole is a simple design-it’s just a pointed hook at the end of a stick-but it’s uniquely versatile for the many tasks crews may have to perform on the fireground. Let’s look at the general sequence of some realistic fire attack scenarios where the pike pole is invaluable. All references will imply using a D-handle pike pole.
First is access and forcible entry. Say you come across any variety of wooden fences. A pike pole can easily pull slats from the stringers or maybe even pull down an entire section of fence. I’ve done it. The D-handle can also be used to punch the slats away from the horizontal cross members, creating a passageway through the fence.
|(2) Leader-North America’s telescopic pike pole weighs six and a half pounds. Retracted, it measures seven feet, two inches. Fully extended, it measures 12 feet, three inches. It has a carbon steel head and insulates up to 20,000 volts of electricity, a comforting safety feature. The black center easy-twist mechanism locks the pike pole at the desired length.|
A pike pole can be used to help pry and lift up a garage door or a roll-up door. It can also be used to wedge such a door in the up position, preventing it from accidentally closing on the entry team or compressing the charged hoseline. This situation has trapped and killed more than one firefighter. Once the door is opened and the hook is in place, consider placing a vise grip onto the track rail or even replace your hook with a small A-frame ladder to hold the door open so you still have your tool for firefighting activities. Consider the height advantage of wedging the garage door with a pike pole vs. an ax or a halligan.
What about a heavily locked entry door? If there is a glass panel within the door, the pike pole can punch through the glass and make a hole large enough for a gloved hand to reach in and simply unlock and open the door-whether it is a door handle or panic hardware.
Perhaps there is a window next to the door. The pike pole can punch out the glass so the firefighter can simply reach through and open the door. If the window is a little farther away, the pike pole can give you the reach to hook the door handle (obviously not a knob) or strike the panic hardware bar.
Take a window that is slightly open but out of reach for the firefighter. The pike pole can give you the reach to slide the window completely open. Use the hook to catch the sill (taking a bite). The D- handle can serve as a stirrup, giving the firefighter the necessary boost to crawl through the window and open the door for the rest of the crew. If you don’t have a ladder, this technique can save you the time it would take for a crew member to go back to the rig to get one.
Obviously, the pike pole can extend your reach during a search or help you control the door to the fire room. Finally, you’re going to need it right after the fire is knocked down to open up walls to check for extension. Remember, on your initial purchase into the ceiling or wall, hold onto the shaft of the tool. If you were holding the D-handle and you struck a ceiling joist or wall stud while attempting to penetrate the lathe and plaster or drywall, you could jam your wrist and cause an injury.
|(3-4) The seven-foot pike pole is a popular length but, depending on the terrain, it may be too short to vent a second-floor window. With this telescoping pike pole, a seven footer can quickly extend to 12 feet. In the second photo, the tip now extends well beyond the second-loor window. This dramatic increase in length and reach can make all the difference in rooftop vertical ventilation operations. Part of the roof size-up is choosing the right size pike pole. This telescopic pike pole takes all the guesswork out and gives you options. Eliminating the surprise of coming up short makes this a valuable tool.|
Using the Pike Pole for Critical Tasks
But, there are other tasks that are very important for an engine officer to prepare for that can best be accomplished with a six-foot pike pole. The first and most important task for the engine officer on the attack line is checking the ceiling space above the entry team for fire. The nozzle position sounds the floor. Whether it’s gypsum board or ceiling panels, you need to pop a hole. If there is fire above your heads, you do not want to deliberately keep advancing forward into the structure. Not only is the space burning above you-which will only end up in a ceiling or roof collapse-but unchecked, the fire can get behind you. If a fiery ceiling collapse happens behind you, it will block your exit and bury or burn your hoseline. Things will continue to get ugly from there. The key here is reach. The typical forcible entry tools do not have the reach to check the ceiling space. You need a pike pole.
One of the hardest interior jobs for an engine company is operating a 2½-inch hoseline. The pike pole can be used to anchor a 2½-inch line using a variety of positions. By placing the pike pole perpendicular to the hoseline (making a T), the hose can be tied to the pike pole. As firefighters brace themselves against the pike pole, the nozzle reaction and kickback from the hose are eliminated because the force is transferred to the pike pole. This allows the nozzle position to operate effortlessly for an extended period of time without becoming fatigued, even when operating a straight stream. This is useful during defensive operations because once the line is tied off, it will be difficult to advance.
Finally, with all the fancy rescue drags and carries using knots, webbing, carabiners, and slings, I’ve found nothing works faster than hooking the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) of a down firefighter with a D-handle pike pole and dragging him out. There is usually an opening on the backpack bracket above the bottle where you can hook the firefighter without stabbing him with the point. Then drag the firefighter out like you’re pulling a wagon. The rigid pike pole transfers all your energy to the dead weight, making it easy to drag even the heaviest firefighter. Try it. It’s more difficult using a straight end pike pole because you simply don’t have the best position for grip strength. The D-handle makes all the difference in the world.
|(5) Part of the PPV evolution is to create an exit point for heat and smoke. Often a fire officer will create the exit point during the 360-degree recon survey. This student stands six feet, four inches and even with a seven-foot pike pole he is unable to vent the second-floor window of the training tower. Notice his left arm is fully extended.|
For truck companies, there are several scenarios where the pike pole is essential. First, positive pressure ventilation (PPV) is becoming more widely accepted. A key function of PPV is to create an exit hole for the fire. This exit hole will determine the direction you want the fire to go by creating the path of least resistance. Locating the fire and determining the best place for an exit hole are often accomplished by the company officer performing the 360-degree size-up. If equipped with the right size pike pole, the company officer can ventilate the window, creating the exit point for positive pressure attack or PPV.
A critical task for completing a vertical ventilation cut is punching through the attic space or ceiling below to vent the fire. The newer rubbish or roof hooks are excellent for this job-if they can reach. They’re usually between six and eight feet long. Sometimes they are too short to punch through a ceiling when you’re on a high-pitched roof. It’s also hard to accomplish when there’s high radiant heat or flames coming through the vent hole. The 12- to 14-foot pike poles are better suited for this job because they give the firefighter deeper reach without being right over the vent hole. It’s critical to have the right size pike pole. Remember, we like to punch these ceilings down with the D-handle. If we use the hook’s head, it often gets caught up on wires, ductwork, or even a joist. The D-handle will also push more material down instead of the small tip of the hook.
If a firefighter begins to fall through a hole in the roof, one self-arrest technique is to quickly position the pike pole perpendicular to the rafters, horizontally at the nine and three o’clock positions. If the pike pole is long enough to span the hole, it can provide a bar for the firefighter to hold onto so his entire torso does not go through the roof. This can allow time for other firefighters to grab him and he can help boost himself out of the hole.
For rescuing a firefighter who has fallen through a floor or a roof, the D- handle can be lowered to the fallen firefighter while hooking onto a structural anchor point. Provided he isn’t injured, the firefighter now has a stirrup and a pole to assist in his ascent.
As with any training evolution or self-rescue technique, you need to practice these scenarios in full gear using the pike pole. The two factors that rob or limit the pike pole of its effectiveness are having one too short or too long. A four-foot pike pole won’t allow you to check the ceiling space, break out a second-story window, or vent a roof. A 12-foot pike pole is impossible for interior close quarter work. It may get caught up in fences, bushes, and trees when there is a narrow perimeter between the fire building and the exposure building. A worst-case scenario is if you snag an electrical power line coming into the house-look out.
|(6) By extending the pike pole to its full 12 feet, the student is easily able to reach the second-floor window of the training tower. Notice the position of his arms. They are closer to his body and he has much more control of the pike pole. He can still extend his arms if he needs extra reach. You can imagine the additional reach if the firefighter was inserting the pike pole into an attic space.|
The Right Length
The key is choosing the right length pike pole for the job. Unfortunately, we don’t know what we’re going to encounter when we show up to a fire. One product I have seen is Leader-North America’s telescopic-expanding length-pike pole.
This telescopic pike pole starts with a heavy-duty, carbon steel head with a pike and a hook. The yellow fiberglass pole measures 1½ inches in diameter. Retracted, the pike pole measures seven feet, two inches. It will extend to 12 feet, three inches. It weighs six and one half pounds. The pike pole can lock at any length between seven and 12 feet by twisting the center locking mechanism clockwise to lock and counterclockwise to release. It’s also insulated to resist 20,000 volts of electricity, a comforting safety feature.
This concept isn’t new. Window washers have been using telescopic wands for years, and we’re comfortable using ground extension ladders. While attending live fire training at the Texas A&M TEEX facility, I accidentally stumbled onto this tool and immediately saw its various benefits and possible applications.
|(7) With the ability to extend the pike pole from seven to 12 feet, the firefighter can move around tight, narrow perimeters and extend the pike pole when needed. Having the extra reach allows the firefighter to work more safely. Notice that the student has a better visual vantage point to see what he’s doing. Also, if this were a glass window, a shorter pike pole would require the firefighter to stand closer to the building and underneath the window. Extended to 12 feet, the firefighter is farther away from the building and off to the side, protecting him from falling glass.|
I had an opportunity to put this pike pole to the test and liked everything about it except for one thing-it doesn’t come with a D-handle. Also, after expanding the pike pole to the desired length, you have to make sure the locking mechanism is tight. Otherwise, when you’re pushing or pulling, the sections may loosen and slide. Tightening the two sections takes some deliberate force; however, once I got it tight, I did not experience the pike pole loosening up or slipping.
Leader-North America currently does not offer a D-handle model, but I would strongly suggest that it make one available; it’s an easy fix. If someone could also come up with a “quick-twist” locking mechanism that solidly locks the two sections every time, without extra effort, they’d have the perfect tool.
Expandable tools-as long as they remain strong and effective for their designed use-maximize apparatus storage space and have financial benefits for fire departments on tight budgets.
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.