WEBBING IN THE FIRE SERVICE. If you carry anything other than gloves and a hood in your pockets, there’s a better-than-average chance that you’re carrying some webbing in one form or another. This is the first segment of a series on the uses and overall value of webbing in the fire and emergency services. Webbing isn’t anything new– it’s been in popular use since at least the early ’70s. I’m sure many (most?) readers will have had lots of experience using it in their emergency service work. But, what doesn’t seem so widely available is an attempt to catalog common day-to-day uses of the stuff and encourage its creative application in unusual situations. That’s the goal of this piece. The intended emphasis will be on 1″ tubular webbing. However, unique uses of other types will be tagged in the concluding segment.
BROWN & FULKERSON’S “UTILITY STRAP.” My own exposure to webbing came via a pamphlet summarizing a product that was marketed by two Yuba City, CA firefighters, Terry Brown and Jerry Fulkerson, based on 1″ webbing. The pamphlet was published in 1978. At the time, their 1″ nylon tubular webbing was already fairly widely available. What Brown and Fulkerson (B&F) brought to the product was the addition of an 18″ loop (sewn by a certified parachute harness fabricator) at each end of a 12′ piece of webbing. This resulted in a finished strap 9′ in overall length. It’s not that you couldn’t do the same things by tying a piece of webbing, as a situation dictated. But, as illustrated by their pamphlet, simply adding a permanent, large loop to each end contributed immeasurably to the speed, convenience, and versatile use of the finished “tool.”
But, B&F’s pamplet is worth more than a million words, so we’ll let that serve, alone, as the first installment in this series. Its pages are presented in left to right, top to bottom chronological order.
By now, B&F’s pamplet is over 40 years old; many of the uses and practices it shows have been upstaed by new, high tech alternatives, better “best practices,” obsolete equipment. Neverthless, a quick review of their work is clear evidence of how wildly functional tubular has proven to be, how functional a simple tool can be, and, for many of us will get the creative juices flowing on expanding the use of our current favorite tool(s).
MOBILIZING B&F’S “UTILITY STRAP.”The next installment of this retrospective on webbing in the fire service will look at B&F’s utility strap as part of a system and discuss ways of optimizing its application in the field. Then, we’ll start reviewing specific applications. Contributions and links to contributions by others will be welcome, So, start collecting your thoughts on the past 40 (or whatever) years of experience and experimentation with webbing.
PERSONAL HAND TOOLS IN A DEPARTMENTAL TOOL CACHE. This is a long short-story. The details may vary, but the general plotline will be familiar to a lot of firefighters– finding the “perfect” personal handtool(s) and integrating it/them into day-to-day local fire operations. This particular chapter deals with my flirtation with “sledgehammers.” It’s not an account that’s going to be of much general interest. It merely summarizes experiences that led to adoption of Indianapolis fire officer Nick Childers’ “Fire Hammer” as my personal tool of choice.
My first fire department was located in a heavily wooded region of the Northeast. This was a woodburning area and our call volume included lots of fire suppression. However, in a district where even the major highways were narrow and winding, with mature trees right up to the edge of the roadway, motor vehicle collisions were our primary activity. This launched my interest in handtools, but primarily in terms of extrication and technical rescue.
Ironically, my interest in firefighting handtools actually began in a department that didn’t have many. Fire suppression was practiced primarily in terms of water application– “tools,” other than a hoseline and nozzle, were more-or-less an after-thought. In some respects, departments that don’t devote much attention to tools can be a perfect place for an individual who does. In my case, members understood the potential value of tools for certain jobs. The department just didn’t have many. I could acquire and carry just about anything I wanted because ultimately most people agreed– anything was better than nothing. So, what to acquire with this newly recognized freedom of tool choice?
WHICH “ANYTHING?” Initially, I focused on overhaul. That was clearly a tool-oriented set of tasks and we did a lot of it. Of course, we did, in fact, carry a couple of pickhead axes. We also had a few long hooks– the generic, fat-handled, pike poles that somehow seem to show up, automatically, with each new apparatus delivery (if you’re not paying attention). The thin blades of the pike poles did more slicing through materials than pulling. They would suffice for leisurely late-stage overhaul and mop-up but were virtually worthless for the more hectic work of finding fire during active fire attack. I started looking for something to fill in the blanks. It would need to be beefy (but not awkward), multi-functional, and shorter than normal (to work in tight-quarters alongside an attack line). And, probably because I was accustomed to using one of the department’s pickhead axes for overhaul, I had decided that any personal tool that I adopted (especially one tailored for overhaul) needed to be good for chopping.
THE FIRST STEP: AN ODDBALL “CLOSET AXE?” For quite a while, I approached my goal pretty informally– I was going to build it myself. What I ended up with can best be described as a D-handled pickhead axe. The D-handle provided a firm, slip-resistant grip and amplified the pulling force when the pick of the axe was used as a closet hook, of sorts. I had learned from my earlier experiences using pickheads for overhaul that they have a tendency to get jammed up in their work. So, in addition to the wierdo D-handle, I gave the blade of the axe a radically curved profile, inspired by U.S. Air Force crash axes of the post Korean War era. This worked beautifully in preventing the blade from getting stuck in solid wood, plywood, gypsum board, lath & plaster, etc. The end-product was an ugly duckling, for sure. And, it was considerably shorter than would eventually be my preferred length for interior hooks– but, I didn’t know that yet. In a very short time, I sacrificed a couple of cheap D-handles to battering ram duty before switching to cast aluminum (much later). Still, other than that and its too-short length, it was durable and reliable. On balance, I thought it was OK and it was about the only tool I used for well quite a while.
Post Korean War U.S. Air Force crash axe; the radiused blade designed to pull easily out of cuts in aluminum air frames.
Inspired by the crash axe, this adaptation of the pickhead axe to overhaul was a first response to the search for an interior attack tool.
Although pictured on the roof, here, the usefulness of this tool was strictly limited to interior operations.
While my hook/axe seemed pretty practical to me, its nerdy, home-handyman look turned everyone else’s stomach. Nobody wanted to be seen near it, nevermind using it. I had hoped that my personal tools would help pave the way for development of a more functional departmental inventory. But, instead, it looked like the closet axe was scaring them off. DOA.
For those unfamiliar with the “Rube Goldberg” reference, he was a cartoonist of the early 20th Century, made famous by is cartoons of crazy assemblages of mismatched parts to perform otherwise simple functions.
Some might (and did) see similarities y between Goldberg’s contraptions and my “closet axe” (a comparison to the so-called “closet hook”)?
SOMETHING MORE WIDELY ACCEPTABLE: THE CLEMENS HOOK. But, having met Richie Clemens, the creator of the Clemens Hook (“Wrecking Tool”) at Hyattsville, my sights were already being realigned toward his tool as a replacement for my “Rube Goldberg” concoction. Several things favored the Clemens Hook. It had a thin chisel point to improve piercing of wall and ceiling materials, its heft and transverse (crosswise) blade made it a pretty decent chopping tool (a continued personal priority), and it was commercially available– not some Rube Goldberg concoction. So, I purchased a 48″ version from Richie and moved the _whatever-you-call-it_ tool home.
My original Clemens hook, with the D-handle realigned.
Vertical alignment of the D-handle to facilitate use for chopping (and everything else).
Right out of the box, I did make an important modification to my new hook. As mentioned earlier, I considered chopping a minimum expectation of a good overhaul tool. The basic design of Richie’s hook was well suited to chopping. However, I had concluded that in order to optimize chopping a tool’s D-handle needed to be aligned with the axis of the swing (see sequence above, right). Clemens Hooks were shipped with the D-handle oriented horizontally, perpendicular to the arc of the swing. So, my handle was chopped off so that the handle could be appropriately rotated 90°, during which process the length was reduced from 48″ to 42″. Perfect.
SEA-CHANGE: ESTABLISHING A BASIC DEPARTMENTAL SET OF TOOLS. As a personal tool, my new Clemens Hook went everywhere– local fire calls and training and mutual aid calls, of course. But, we also gave it a lot of fire service exposure at regional training sessions, state fire schools, and a couple of FDICs. Because it was always in my vehicle, it was also pulled out for spontaneous hands-on reviews at the random in=state and out-of-state departments that I visited. It even flew along for use at a training class in Monterrey, Mexico. It was always greeted with a good deal of interest.
Of significance here, the Clemens also contributed to the long-awaited sea-change in my local department– a trend toward greater formal integration of fire tools into our operations. Local firefighters saw it used and used it themselves. It proved itself valuable and popular enough that gradually the department added them, mounted near riding positions in all its front-line apparatus; two engines, a ladder truck and a heavy rescue each had a Clemens assigned to the person filling its primary “back-up” riding position, working inside. At present each front-line piece still has 2-4 Clemens Hooks onboard.
Simultaneously, due to an ever-stronger affiliation with Iowa-American Firefighting Equipment (IA-AM), we also switched out all of our all-star team of longer conventional pike poles for New York Pikes (good weight, good balance, good choppers) and added multiple IA-AM versions of Halligan bars and flathead axes, near the “floater” riding positions, nominally part of a unit’s outside crew. This was an era of major progress in operational procedures and associated riding position equipping. But, with these tools becoming more or less assigned to certain jobs and the number and variety of departmental tools greatly expanded, it was also, of necessity, time to reexamine the role and nature of my own personal tool(s).
SLEDGEHAMMER? Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century: for the past several years, I’ve been functioning as a volunteer assistant chief, in charge of training. In that capacity, I typically respond to fires as an engine/truck officer or serve as “back-up” for my unit’s primary responsibility, whatever that happens to be. It has now been over two decades since my current department adopted the above riding position-oriented approach to preliminary operations. It was immediately clear that with all of the department’s own Clemens Hooks available, mine was more than redundant. So, what personal tool(s), if any, should I acquire to address my current role and complement the department’s more-or-less standardized departmental position responsibilities. My conclusion: I needed to start carrying a “sledgehammer.”
SLEDGEHAMMER VS. FLAT-AXE.Come on; everybody knows how cool sledgehammers are. In photos, in movies, and in life, the term “sledgehammer” is code for “getting in,” and “wrecking stuff.” But, when you start thinking seriously about your fire department EDC (every day carry)– personal favorites you’d like to carry or have assigned on a regular basis– sledgehammers are a tough sell. As evidence, look for pics of firefighters using them in your favorite online photo bank. Despite their cool, about the only thing you’ll find is shots of troops working out or participating in a Firefighter Combat Challenge or occasionally roughing up a masonry wall– there’s virtually nothing else. But, I don’t need to argue against my own preference sledgehammers. Instead, I’ll defer to a great 2008 web post by Nick Martin of Traditions Training, titled Sledgehammer vs. Flat-Axe (https://traditionstraining.wordpress.com/2008/11/21/fe-sledgehammer-vs-flat-axe/). He doesn’t appear to be a big fan of the sledgehammer. While I agree with virtually every point he makes– I just arrived at a different personal conclusion.
SLEDGEHAMMERS. So, why sledgehammers? Several things, including:
Entry— By itself, it provides quick, one-piece, one-person forcible entry– with pin-point precision– into a high percentage of the occupancies we (my fire department) runs.
Search— Many (or most?) fire tool alternatives are double-ended with sharp, potentially injurious metal ends. This limits their utility as a means of expanding search reach. By contrast, the sledgehammer’s handle is less hazardous, expands access under beds, behind sofas, etc., gives good, reliable feedback, and seldom gets caught on or in furniture and contents. The head of the tool itself generally provides an easily gripped, snag-free “brick” that helps its user slid unimpeded along the floor.
Overhaul— While we tend to imagine overhaul in terms of hooks pulling things apart, for surfaces and assemblies at chest level or below, the sledgehammer often does it more easily and just as well by caving things in. Want to get to a stove fire that’s spread behind a kitchen base cabinet? You can laboriously peel apart the cabinet with a hook or have it in pieces almost instantly with a hammer. Want to disassemble a burnt sofa to move it out a window? Hook or sledge?
Routine Maneuvering— Sledgehammers tend to have relatively simple, clean surfaces, which makes it easy to slide in or out of an SCBA waist belt and minimizes the probability of it snagging somebody or something, in use or in motion.
Striking— In general, this is the sledgehammer’s functional strength. Firefighting has lots of situations that call for breaking things, (parts, connections, materials, and assemblies), driving things (entry bars, picketts), and knocking things out of the way (displaced or distorted materials and assemblies). The broad surface area typical of sledgehammers reduces misstrikes. It should be noted, however, that this also makes them less effective as tools for driving Halligan forks with square shoulders.
Breaching— Breaching walls is generally just another type of striking. But, think for a minute about trying to get in, out, or through a wall, the first thing that comes to mind is a sledgehammer, right?
Sounding— Sounding is still another type striking, but an important one. The sledge works well in this capacity, especially when the striking is done with the end of the handle, rather than the head. The handle concentrates more of the tool’s weight on the contact point and will give sound feedback from a variety of angles.
Routine Maneuvering— It tends to have relatively simple, clean surfaces, which makes it easy to slide in or out of an SCBA waist belt. It also minimizes the probability of it getting caught on somebody or something, in use or in motion.
Etcetera— Every serious firefighter I’ve known has had enough creativity to double the length of this list.
I carried a short sledgehammer of some sort as my primary personal tool, off-and-on, for several years, primarily for interior operations. Within a short time, I settled on a 28″ handle length. It always seemed just right for tight quarters. At one point, I bought a used 16 pound head on eBay and experimented with that a bit. Not a great idea, for me– it was a humbling reminder of my strength limitations and never went on a run. I worked with a couple different weights, but for most of my time working with them, I used a 6 pounder (if that’s considered a sledgehammer?). I loved it. For the entry challenges we encountered, and for overhauling floors and walls at head level or below– even for pulling normal ceilings, in a pinch– it was great. Most of the time, for pulling surfacing materials, it was a matter of making a couple of battering ram-like strikes, rotating the head 90°, and pulling off big slabs of material.
I liked the short 6-pounder a lot. It seemed to fill the gap between various departmental tools quite well. In the end, the decision to move on to something else was more philosophical than practical; I felt that an optimal overhaul tool had to be a good chopper. Despite its other merits, the sledgehammer wasn’t a chopper.
NEXT STOP: THE SPLITTING MAUL. Having lived in Connecticut for 8 years, heating with wood, I lots of experience with splitting mauls and had periodically considered the splitting maul as a replacement for my sledgehammer. In the early teens, I made the switch. Having been happy with the 28″ handle length on the sledgehammers, I started there with the mauls I tried (again, though, the length was configured for interior work and wasn’t all that practical for any exterior functions). As with the sledge, my body told me the heavier tools weren’t for me. Consequently, while I again played around with heavier heads, most of my experience was with a 6-pounder.
On first consideration, it seemed like the maul would be an obvious improvement over the sledgehammer. It could perform all the driving, breaking, and sounding chores every bit as well as the sledge. And, where the breaking needed to be more controlled and linear (splitting wood along the grain, breaking cabinetry and other assemblies along their joints, etc.) or breaking room and cabinet doors off their mounts, the addition of an axe-like blade seemed like a sure winner.
But, for me, it wasn’t. First of all, what I had expected to find was a sledgehammer-like tool that could also cut. However, the blade didn’t provide the “axe-like” cutting edge I’d imagined. Instead of the narrow, keen, cutting edge of an axe, the blade was more like a [poorly] sharpened hammer head– it could break things but couldn’t really cut or pry much of anything (what was I thinking– it’s a splitting maul!). Secondly, since I’d been using a sledge for a long time, I was still thinking of it as a striking tool. However, the blade of the maul is heavier than the hammer and hangs down. The net result was that it felt out-of-balance, more awkward to carry and, in my opinion, a much less efficient striking, driving and breaching tool (again, what did I expect– its a flippin’ splitting maul!). Finally, the extra length of the maul’s head also tended to reduce its effectiveness when pulling interior (or exterior) wall materials– it couldn’t seem to comfortably perform the “Ram, Rotate (90°), ‘n Pull” maneuver in structural voids that made the sledge such a surprisingly efficient overhaul tool.
I found one splitting maul to be about the same as any other. But, although I didn’t end up using it much, one maul– an 8-pounder with a 32″ handle by Fire Hooks Unlimited–had me taking notes of ideas to explore if I ever started messing around with mauls again. First, its striking head was more square in cross-section (rather than roundish). This could have made it adaptable for striking and driving the squared-off shoulders found on some modern Halligan bar forks. In this case, it’s actual performance was marginal because of excessively rounded edges. But, I noted it as a function worth looking for in my “ideal” personal striking tool. The FHU maul also had a “C”-shaped piece of steel strap welded onto its front edge, presumabley to facilitate nesting with a Halligan. In concept, it provided a level striking surface on the front edge for use as a sort of “battering ram.” However, in my short experimentation with it, it didn’t hold up well and needed a “tune-up,” after every couple of strikes). Hmmm: 1) a squared off striking surface for close-quarters striking, and 2) a flush front surface for “battering ram” service– things to consider in the future.
Over the years that I carried sledgehammers, they always seemed to get the job done. But, my experimentation with mauls was a disappointment. I didn’t actually mess work with the mauls very long, but, when I did, I never felt like I was carrying the right tool for the job.
A PROMISING NEW DIRECTION: THE “BREACHING SLEDGE.”. At this point, I would probably have gone back to the 6-pound sledge had I not stumbled across a tool I had never seen before– the “Breaching Sledge.” The first version of the tool was distributed by Council Tools, a mass marketer of basic fire service axes, sledgehammers, and other hand tools. It was a hefty 12-pound tool with a 36″ poly-over-fiberglass handle and a wide, thick, and disproportionately long adze extending from its 10-pound sledgehammer face. Its massive adze threw the tool way out of balance and made using it for striking a forbidable battle against gravity. In other words, it was a three-dimensional encyclopedia of the negative features I’d experienced with earlier tools.
BUT,… the idea of a transverse blade was intriguing.
Fortunately, I didn’t see this long-handled version until much later. Instead, my first glimpse of a Breaching Sledge was of a substantially revised model marketed by Blackhawk. This 2nd generation version (2nd from left, in photo below) initially caught my attention because of its short handle, bold ergonomic grip, and unique transverse adze. Although I didn’t know it at the time (since I hadn’t seen Council’s original), the handle of the tool I was using had been shortened significantly (down to 22″ from Council’s original 36″).
The length of the adze on the 2nd version had also been reduced by close to 50%– I would have been amazed if I had known that because even in its new, “trimmed down” form, the proportions of the adze seemed ill-fitted to fireground functions. Nevertheless, the transverse adze idea seemed to hold real promise. So, despite its apparent shortcomings, I cut short my trials and frustrations with the maul, and immediately invested in a Breaching Sledge.
Of course, it had some short-comings of its own. Like the mauls, it’s cutting edge was heavy, hung down and seemed awkwardly out-of-balance. And, as expected, the thick proportions of the adze limited its ability to get into gaps and sacrificed leverage when using it to pry inward swinging doors using the “lever” method. What I hadn’t noticed in the literature and didn’t really expect was its chubby 11-1/2 pound weight. Whew. Still, rather inexplicably, it felt and performed significantly better than any of the mauls and kept my interest.
I used the chunky 2nd generation Breaching Sledge for a year or so. By that time Blackhawk seemed to have reached some of the same conclusions I had and introduced yet another model. But this was no half-hearted effort– it included several substantial and valuable refinements (second from the right in the above photo). Blackhawk described the revised tool, as follows:
“The Breaching Sledge brings together the best of both worlds: the strike face of a sledge hammer and the prying wedge of a Halligan tool, all in one revolutionary, compact, lightweight tool.”
Specific improvements? The new Breaching Sledge was considerably lighter than its precedessor– 9 pounds for the new model versus 11-1/2 pounds for the previous version. But, most of the change involved its adze. It was about 30% narrower (about the same width as the hammer head), roughly 30% thinner, and maybe 30-40% shorter. Thin horizontal ribs were added to the upper half of both the inner and outer surfaces to help hold its “bite” when prying. The striking head now hung downward. The previously used ergonomic handle was left unchanged. It felt good.
REFINING A GOOD THING. In the several years that I used the lighter, 3rd generation Breaching Sledge, it came closer than anything to filling my preferences for a personal everyday carry tool. Still a few standard additions were made right away. I added one of our standard departmental “fruit loops” (a loop of 8mm cord) to enhance carrying and hoisting the tool and securing it on the tip of a roof or ground ladder. It also got the multi-color reflective-tape bands we use to mark tools for different units (2-color) or individuals (generally 3-color).
I soon made a couple of minor functional modifications to the adze, as well. First, as designed, the fulcrum of the adze was the hammer head at the other end– 3:1 isn’t a lot of mechanical advantage in a prying tool. Since I generally used my tool for prying, I shortened it 5/8″; I might have gotten a minicule improvement in leverage? The balance seemed a little better? In any case, I had made a compromise– I lost a little surface area that might otherwise have been useful in pulling wall materials, especially lathe and plaster. Secondly, part of the appeal of the adze, for me, was its application to forcible entry. So, the bevel (angle) on the end of the adze was reversed to provide more surface area against the door stop when using the “lever” method of forcing inward swinging doors. The photos below (“as delivered” on the left; “as modified” on the right) provide a before-and-after comparison of these modifications.
THE BREACHING SLEDGE. So, what’s the bottom line? The 3rd version of the Breaching Sledge held down the day-to-day favorite role for 5 or 6 years, not including the first year or so with the beefy 2nd generation model. It comfortably met or exceeded all the performances that I listed much earlier for the sledgehammer. And, it satisfied my certainty that I needed a chopping tool.
Improvements? Well, I always regretted the 22″ handle (as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I had long preferred a 28-incher). And, the handle was a little chunkier than I liked. If it had been a big deal, I could always have switched it out with one of my favorite Nupla handles, which I always had on hand. I didn’t. This 3rd generation Breaching Sledge seemed like it came as close to a perfect fit, for me, as I’d ever find. I fully expected to be using it for the rest of my fire service career.
NEXT STEP: A WELL-KEPT SECRET. But, then I’m looking at Andrew Brassard’s forcethedoor Instagram post and find myself thinking, “Hey, that guy’s got one, too!” I was looking at an Indianapolis firefighter gazing down from a roof, holding one of Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledges. Or, so it seemed. I even wrote a quick post broadcasting my sighting. But, a friend quickly responded that it wasn’t a Blackhawk– it was a different tool. “Really,” my friend said, “I just bought one from the guy in the pic.” He provided me with a phone number.
I called Nick Childers, the Indianapolis Lieutenant who artfully crafts each tool individually. He agreed to make one of his “Fire Hammer” heads for me to mount on my own Nupla Ergo handle. Despite some standing orders, he had it out to me in no-time.
The source of the Fire Hammer’s mechanical advantage in prying is evident in this profile comparison.
The ergonomic heritage of the Breaching Sledge’s modern polypropylene over fiberglass handle is clear when viewed next to one of Nupla’s vintage solid fiberglass Ergo handles.
Why all the fuss? Well, the Fire Hammer certainly wasn’t a Breaching Sledge. It was similar, but Nick has added in some valuable missing ingredients. First, my only real complaint about the Breaching Sledge had been that, with the adze being straight, it had very little leverage and the tool fell short of its potential as a prying tool. Nick’s adze curves back slightly, creating a shorter, more progressive fulcrum. And, in the process, it forms a hook-shape for firmer pulling surfacing materials. The way he shapes the tool also adds a function that I’d more or less given up on– its very angular geometry results in some nice, square corners that can be used to drive modern Halligan forks at their squared-of shoulders. The Fire Hammer performs this particularly well when slid longitudinally to strike the forks with its (previously, only Lone Star Axe’s “Pig” and “Piglet” seemed to truly satisfy that application– but, that’s a different story). This reminded me of thoughts I’d had about future design details after using the FHU maul. And, like that maul, the Fire Hammer gives a wide (but, not too wide) blunt front face that works really well as a battering ram. But, this one doesn’t have to go to the body shop after every slam.
There’s a new tool hanging out on the rack.
A new look to everyday carry.
For the first time in a long time, I feel like all the functions of my ideal EDC have come together in one tool. The Fire Hammer (hammer) is virtually the same size as the mauls and Breaching Sledges I’d used previously. Still, with the hammer, I’m carrying a tool that feels perfectly balanced and natural, for the first time since I gave up the 6 pound sledgehammer. As an officer or line back-up tool it works beautifully. It can easily handle most of our local entry chores. And, its easy to carry– grasped comfortably in one hand along with a box light or, quickly slid into the SCBA waist belt to free up both hands. Functionally, the hammer, seems to be a perfect fit for filling the gap between our department’s standard cache of married sets, 4-foot Hawk/Raptor hooks and longer 6′ pike poles and hooks. In some respects its a bit of a downer that my search for “that” tools seems to have come to an end. But, I look forward to the fun-in-use that this tool seems to promise.
IN REMEMBRANCE: ALAN SONDEJ, L.O.D.D., MARCH 16, 1988.As a footnote, in writing reminiscences of sledgehammers, I was taken back to fond memories of Hyattsville VFD and time spent in discussion and en route with the “Monster Man,” Firefighter Alan Sondej (pronounced “Sunday”). Al was a graduate student at the University of Maryland and an ultra-dedicated and accomplished Hyattsville volunteer. He was the first person to explain to me the then-revolutionary idea of riding position-based job assignments and equipping. He, himself, was long involved in developing riding position recommendations for HVFD, but seemed to be stalled on one position, the “Monster Man” position– his position. Its most distinguishing characteristic was its equipping– one 16 pound sledgehammer, carried next to his seat, in an open-topped box. A true “Monster” on the fireground, in life he was a kindly giant. devoted to the service of others.
The equipping only a “Monster” could wield– Al’s 16# sledge.
MID-WESTERN PERSONALITY. Oklahoma City, with a population of over 650,000, is the largest city in Oklahoma. In terms of population, it is the 29th largest city in the U.S. But, occupying 621 square miles, it is the 9th largest U.S. city in terms of pure size. So, its population is relatively sparse per unit of land area which, for the fire department, means some long runs and some complex mixes of occupancy types, requiring some unique approaches to fire protection coverage.
The Oklahoma City Fire Department (OKCFD) is focused primarily on fire suppression. Its 900 uniformed firefighters respond to roughly 70,000 calls per year out of 36 Fire Stations and several other special-purpose work sites. Oklahoma City is a prototypical Midwestern city with a diverse mixture of a small collection of modern commercial buildings, a similar array of older– occasionally distinctive– commercial and industrial buildings, a meandering mixture of mixed commercial, struggling industrial and older residential, surrounded by a sea of residential developments and malls.
STATION 22. As a side-trip during a visit to headquarters of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) on the campus of Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, I made a visit to OKCFD’s Station 22.
Station 22 housed two companies– Engine 22 and Rescue-Ladder 22, which operated both a 110′ rear-mount aerial and a light-duty rescue/utility truck.
The kitchen of the contemporary but industrialish building was an airy cathedral-ceiling space…
…flanked by a similarly lofty extension into the dayroom.
O.K.C.F.D. TOOL CULTURE– DENNIS PAIGE. Oklahoma City firefighters have made a significant number of contributions to the “serious” fire service tool market.** That was my principal reason for going to Station 22. I discovered that one such tool designer, Corporal Dennis Paige, was working there on the night I was in town. Dennis (pictured below) was the designer of the “Devil’s Claw” pike pole, one of the firefighter-produced tools marketed by Tim Brozoskie of RAGE.
*NOTE: Here, “serious” is used to distinguish fairly successful commercial tool ventures, from smaller production, virtually one-of-a-kind tools “crafted” tools produced for friends or personal use.
Like many (probably MOST) designers of fire hooks, Dennis was inspired to action by the limitations of the hooks his department provided. In his case, it was the typical flat plate, “boat-hook”-inspired pike pole. He has recounted that at one particularly stressful residential fire, his crew encountered heavy smoke and high heat with a well-involved fire in the attic. His team’s assignment was to pull the ceiling and find the seat of the fire. A traditional pike pole was a typical choice for this task. What they found on the ceiling was sheetrock laid over lath and plaster, a combination that was virtually impenetrable using his standard pike pole. And, when it did enter, its narrow hook brought down little material when it was withdrawn. Fire conditions continued to escalate and Dennis’ crew had to back out of the structure and go defensive because of not being able to access the seat of the fire quickly.
With his Devil’s Claw, Dennis was seeking a design that would break through virtually any materials the firefighter was likely to encounter. He wanted his tool to penetrate, like a harpoon, yet firmly hook itself into walls, ceilings and floors so each pull would pull apart a worthwhile section of material.
In the process, he also developed a note-worthy roof hook. Most pike poles, when used to open or remove cut roof sections, allow pieces to rotate or spin off their single hook. By contrast, the Devil’s Claw’s two hooks work like an “LA Rubbish Hook” to keep cut panels on their original alignment, resulting in more controlled and efficient removal of roof sections– but without the Rubbish Hook’s bulk and awkward imbalance.
MORE O.K.C.F.D. TOOL CULTURE. After some general discussion and a look at variations of the Devil’s Claw, I was given a thorough tour of Station 22’s apparatus floor, accompanied by two of the station’s newer troops. Twenty-two’s ladder truck was interesting from several perspectives. For one thing, like many (if not all) of OKCFD’s other 100′ rear-mount aerials, 22’s Pierce is designated as a “Rescue-Ladder.” That’s not really surprising given that many ladder companies throughout the U.S. have been carrying extrication equipment for years and America’s near wholesale consolidation of rescue squads and pumpers into quasi-rescue (and sometimes fully equipped) “Rescue Engines.” Still, we don’t see many ladders that carry the “Rescue-Ladder” label.
“CRAFTED” TOOLS AND “SERIOUS” TOOLS. In its compartments, Rescue-Ladder 22’s tool cache included a broad range of types and applications worthy of the Rescue-Ladder distinction. Two contrasting pairs of tools (see above photos) were particularly eye-catching. The first pair was comprised of a Kelly bar reproduction and a convincing version of a Hayward Claw Tool. Both of these highly polished retro-classics appeared to have been artfully crafted in using hardened steel bar stock and splitting wedges formed by Quaker City Castings– perhaps in the fire department’s own shops.
And, the “serious” tools? This pair came together when (as shown in the bottom picture, above) each of the young firefighters pulled their personal axes of choice off the rig. The one on the left was an “Iron Fox” Pickhead. The one on the right was a “Wonderboy” Axe, produced by the Best Made Firefighter Tools, Blanchard, OK, a company operated by Oklahoma City Firefighters, featuring tools designed by Oklahoma City Firefighters. Incidentally, they also sell Dennis Paige’s Devil’s Claw.
TRUCKS & TACTICAL RESILIENCE. If you asked a group of citizens to close their eyes and imagine firefighters battling a fire, I’m pretty sure their images would focus on water. And, even in some fire departments (many?) firefighter impressions of fire department operations concentrate almost entirely on water application.
Be that as it may, that’s certainly not the case in Oklahoma City. They’ve had their share of experiences that have underscored the criticality of broadly-based planning, training, and proficiency. One example comes instantly to mind– the bomb blast that swept away one whole side of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building on April 19, 1995. That act, still one of the most deadly acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S., killed 168 men, women and children and physically and emotionally scarred countless others, for life.
In the hours immediately following the blast– before the full strength of the nation’s emergency response network could be mobilized– OKCFD understood the value of tactical resilience. Ladder trucks, rescue units, and ambulances, that normally played what might be considered a supportive role for engine companies at building fires– were elevated to the primary missions of scene stabilization, search, rescue and recovery, while engines picked up supportive roles. Ladder 22 was among the units deployed. Dennis Paige and his mates were among those on the scene.
Some places have ladder trucks, but lack “truckies.” Based on a short visit to OKCFD’s Station 22, there’s good evidence that isn’t a problem in OKC. The traditions of tool proficiency and “truck work” are alive, well, and in good hands.
SOURCES FOR THE DEVIL’S CLAW– THE R.A.G.E. COMPANY. If you’re looking for a source for Dennis Paige’s “Devil’sClaw,” RAGE is always a good place to start. Owner Tim Brozoskie specializes in fire tools and equipment developed and produced by firefighters. Tim is, himself, a career Firefighter/Emergency Vehicle Driver with Baltimore City Fire Department’s very busy Rescue 1, and a volunteer Captain with the Mt. Carmel Area Rescue Squad, Mt. Carmel, PA. He’s a tool guy; he uses the stuff he sells.
THE INCIDENT MANAGEMENT TRIANGLE. Most successful fire department operations require an “Incident Management Triangle” made up of three functions or operations: Coordination, Control, and Support .
“Coordination,” the first side of the Triangle, involves the management and integration of the resources needed to stabilize an incident. This is most often the responsibility of the Fire Chief or other officer, but may, in some cases, have to be done by the senior firefighter on the first unit.
“Control,” the second side, is the action required to handle the major threat to life and/or property. If fire is the major threat, Control generally involves use of water or other extinguishing agent by an engine company; if the threat is a spilled chemical, Control may be confinement, etc. Whatever the major threat, Control crews should be able to devote their undivided attention to its management.
“Support” operations form the third side of the Incident Management Triangle. These are the activities necessary to achieve two important goals:
Assist “Control” Crews— Complete tasks which, make the activities of the control crews safer and more efficient (even if those tasks have no direct effect control of the primary threat(s)).
Handle Secondary Threats— Complete tasks which will control a variety of secondary threats (electrical hazards, traffic, potential collapse or explosion, etc.).
Protect Lives and Property— Perform activities, as necessary, to safeguard people (including firefighters) and property from all kinds of threats.
FIREGROUND SUPPORT OPERATIONS? Even for the most experienced and involved members of the fire service community, the term “fireground support operations” may not be well understood or even familiar. Simply put, it refers to all fireground functions other than incident command and fire suppression, i.e., most of the fireground functions performed by ladder, rescue, and squad companies, other than direct fire attack. It was a title coined by the Fire Safety Group (now Hook and Ladder University) in the early 1980s for their course on truck company operations, targeted at general fire protection audiences, whether they operated a truck company or not. Needless to say, the term evoked a great deal of discussion– some favorable, some highly critical. But, in the end, there was enough positive sentiment to warrant the formation of an Internatioanl Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) committee on the subject and, soon thereafter, a manual published under that title.
As noted earlier, though, historically, these were called the “truck company” functions, because they were normally performed by “Hook & Ladder” or “Truck” company crews. They can be quickly recalled using the traditional acronym “LOVERS PLUS:”
Laddering & Elevated Operations
Salvage (Property Conservation)
Utility & Environmental Control
Special Other Operations
Why not just stick with the title/term fireground “truck company operations” (or “squad company” or “rescue company” operations)? Two reasons are offered in defense. First, support operations is intended to be an umbrella term used to spotlight the commonalities among ladder, truck, squad and rescue operations, without demeaning their unique contributions. It is similar to referring collectively to the functions of a football team’s offensive line, without downplaying the unique identities and contributions of the “center,” “offensive guard,” and “offensive tackle.” Secondly, it is valuable to reinforce the idea that emergency operations of all types will benefit from clearly defined primary and secondary (supportive) crews. Like any refinement in day-to-day functioning, awareness of this division of labor is well served by regular reference to “control” and “support” assignments. Calling these “Support” rather than “Truck Company” functions, acknowledges that departments should be prepared to perform them whether they have a ladder truck or not.
THE SMITHIT CONCEPT.Back in one of the very first posts on this site, in a write-up
entitled “Truck 15’s House– Baltimore,
MD” (under Stations and Places of Note), it was mentioned in passing that when Baltimore City Firefighter Jerry Smith (a very good friend, now with Rescue 1) was riding as acting officer on T15, he would throw a 3# rock hammer into his coat pocket! After a while my curiosity got the best of me and I had to ask why? Well, Balto City truck officers often find themselves responsible for doing forcible entry single-handedly and Jerry thought that if he was going to be doing it solo, he’d rather give up a little striking weight for more precision. Wallah(!): the rock hammer! OK, maybe being a little skeptical, several of us gave it a try– on entry props, car fires (under-hood access), residential calls, etc., and for these and for 90% (or more) of the stuff we do, the results were very impressive:
Tight quarters work is significantly enhanced.
Low to zero visibility work is enhanced (your kinesthetic abilities let you strike on-target with amazing precision and force).**
Reduced weight and bulk = increased agility and mobility.
NOTE** At the very least, most of the people we polled found this method preferable to being hit in the ribs by their “buddy,” flailing away in the dark with a 6-8# axe.
EXPERIMENTATION WITH THE SMITHIT. The small hand sledge did a pretty good job of setting the Halligan adze or fork into the gap. However, during our experimentation, we did some testing comparing the 3# hammer with a 3-3/4# flat-head axe on a short hand sledge handle. Both showed advantages and limitations. Having a slightly wider face, we felt the hand sledge gave slightly more consistent low/zero-visibility striking. It was also better balanced (which may have accounted for more accurate strikes. On the other hand, the flat-head axe provided an ever-present (and pretty effective) wedge. And, if the Halligan has squared off shoulders on the fork end, the narrow width of flat-head privides clear advantages when striking in low or zero-visibility conditions.
The narrow proportions of a short-handled flathead axe (3-1/2-4 pounds) may be the best choice of striking tool if the forks of your favorite Halligan has square shoulders– it will reduce the hand sledge’s tendency to strike off center and deflect off to the side.
For striking the adze end of a Halligan bar, the rounded surface of a hand sledge (rock or blacksmith’s hammer) seems to get the best reviews.
ENHANCING PORTABILITY.Almost immediately we concluded that using a 3-4 pound short-handled “hammer” for striking was a superior way for an individual to perform forcible entry. At this point, several friends use the technique religiously (so to speak). However, everyone has been wondering how best to transport (carry) the small striking tool(s)?
That’s where our earlier blog post rather casually tossed in a couple of photos of methods we use to “marry” a short striking tool to a Halligan. Unfortunately, as noted by one reader– Mitchell Sowers– there wasn’t really enough detail included to be useful. So, the following is an effort to clarify the idea. So far, the best method we’ve found mates the striking to the Halligan’s forks, as shown in the photos below– for implementation, you’ll need:
a) A 3# – 4# striking tool of your choice.
b) The Halligan(s) with the thickest fork (at the crotch or bottom of the fork) that you plan to use with this method.
c) Two fender washers (wide diameter with a much smaller hole) for a 1/4″ bolt.
d) One nut, wing-nut, fiber lock-nut (my preference), or internally threaded handle (shown below) to fit the 1/4″ bolt you plan to use.
e) a light-weight coil spring, approximately 1″ long x 1/2″ diameter– not requiring too much pressure, since its strength doesn’t actually come into play.
A 1/4″ bolt long enough to thread through all of the above– with the nut in place– without compressing the spring much, if at all.
Our local experimentation with Jerry’s original idea took two different directions. The first (the most direct application of his concept) utilized Estwing’s classic “rock hammer,” a small hand sledge. Estwing’s rock hammer has a good feel and balance– and it’s easily one of the coolest tool designs on the planet.
CASE STUDIES.The following photos show some of the variations explored in developing this Halligan/Maul team of entry tools. Users who like Jerry’s original idea will undoubtedly find additional refinements to improve their compatibility.
WORK WITH IT– MAKE IT WORK. Even if you’re a forcible entry purist, he bottom line is that, if you: 1) regularly find yourself responsible for forcible entry on your own and/or 2) carry a hook or some other non-striking tool with your Halligan, you should give the lighter-weight rook hammer or hand axe a try. And, if fact, Jerry’s original method of stuffing the rock hammer in his coat pocket works pretty well, as is. I think the Estwing version is one of the coolest designs on the planet. But, Jerry’s 3# hammer with a wood handle, is a bit lighter and enough shorter that it fits comfortably in most coat pockets. By contrast, the Estwing (also advertised as a 3-pounder) isn’t as pocketable. I find I’m always more conscious of its weight and it is enough longer that some coat pocket flaps won’t close securely around it.
CAPITAL FIRE TRAINING. If you find yourself fightin’ fire and hungry for training in the Northeastern U.S., be sure to take a look at Capital Fire Training’s web sight and schedule of class deliveries. The CFT Instructors have earned a very strong reputation for rigorous training with great attention to detail, especially in the areas of integrated engine/truck operation, up-to-date RIT and personal survival strategies, and fire officer development. Robert James (“RJ”) has been a particularly tireless supporter of our company’s efforts to get on its feet– hope you’ll help us return the favor. Contact: capitolfiretraining.com
A UNIQUE “TRUCK” HOUSE. Everybody’s got special interests in the fire service.” If your’s happens to focus on interesting “Enjine’s,” you’ve got pretty fertile territory; there’s likely to be an engine in virtually every fire station you pass– there’s got to be an interesting one every once in a while? But, those whose preferences stray a little farther afield– say, heavy rescues or squads, hazmat units, trucks, etc.– have to be more patient, occasionally finding one mixed in with one of those ubiquitous pumpers. For me, though, the real finds are those scarce single piece fire stations that house only a single, special service.
In this regard, it’s hard to imagine a better example than Baltimore’s former Truck 15. We were introduced to the station by a then-member of the company, Firefighter Jerry Smith, Jr. Jerry is now assigned to Rescue 1 at the Stedman mega-station. 15’s old house was a long, single-bay, turn-of-the-century station, which was, most recently, occupied by a single Seagrave tractor-drawn aerial– Truck 15. On arrival, you found a wide street, populated by fairly spartan row-houses, a Baltimore staple.
Inside the single door of the two-story station was an equally spare daytime environment. The truck was out when we first arrived. The front 2/3rds of the station which would normally be occupied by the truck was flanked by an array of old and older call-taking equipment (on the driver’s side of the truck) and rows of red-doored lockers, some of them with paneled wood doors, others the more modern louvered steel locker-room type. Hanging on the outside of many of the locker’s were the user’s personal day-to-day hand tool(s).
TOOL PARADE.This should be a tradition– a requirement– for every special ops station. Put your tools out on the table, like wild west gunslingers in a poker game. It gives visitors an immediate lay of the land, and for occupants, an open invitation for continued tall tales, discussion, debate, and ridicule. In old 15’s, for example, there were, among other tools, a Boston Rake, a cane and a so-called “Ringer” Hook from Fire Hooks Unlimited, a combination of a Halligan Hook on one end and a Boston Rake on the other. Looking back on the histories of some of the tools hanging there was probably enough to rekindle memories of many an incident or opinion of the past.
The front of the station was also totally cool in its display/utilization of FD relics. The watch desk is right out there on the floor, a gray metal thing typical of the promise of early modern communications in the 1950s. It had character in its own right but shared the spotlight with older artifacts from the turn of the century: a tally board for keeping a running account of who was out on which boxes, and an alarm gong about the size of cattle trough.
Behind the truck, at the back of the bay, was an informal, open-plan “day room” composed of a mixed bag of lived in, “all-star” furniture. And, along another outside wall, at the base of a spiral stair to the second floor (to keep the horses out of the bunk room) was a one-wall kitchen with a suspended Pompier ladder forming a very classy rack for pots and pans. VERY classy.
TOOL TIPS– A BREACHING PICKHEAD AXE FOR ROOF WORK. You can tell a lot about the culture of a special ops company by looking at their tools and apparatus. After 15’s truck was back in quarters, Jerry brought out a few tools that the company had tweaked-up. First, the tip of the 100′ stick was equipped with a very well-placed, self-leveling 500 Watt flood light, guaranteed to light up not only the contact area of the tip but also the entire roof area beyond. The crew had also machined out a rounded somewhat sharpened cut in the adze of their Halligan for lock-pulling chores– the obvious advantage of their approach was that it left a very robust leading edge on the adz, rather than the pointed “Devil’s ears” of an “A-tool” machined out of the same area– ears that you commonly see that get peened over so quickly and aren’t aligned for lock pulling when you need them. Tools needed by the operator for roof ventilation chores were appropriately mounted at the tip of the aerial fly section.
To me, the simplest, but neatest, tweak was the slightly rounded “breaking” edge (rather than a sharp cutting edge) that Truck 15 had formed on the blade of their ventilation pickhead. Although this visit substantially pre-dated the Iron Fox’s popularization of this kind of striking edge, they were clearly following the same play book.
TOOL TIPS– THE HAND MAUL. As we walked by the lockers, Jerry (at the far right in the photo below) mentioned that, on those occasions when he was riding as acting officer, he carried a 3-pound rock hammer (small, short, hand maul or sledge) in his pocket. Later, as we were about to leave, we had to ask: “Why would anyone carry that small sledge hammer in their pocket?” The explanation actually made lots of sense; in Baltimore, truck officers customary perform forcible entry, by themselves. Rather than awkwardly trying to strike and drive the Halligan bar with an axe, Jerry (and others?) did so with the rock hammer.
Nice idea. We tried it out back home. A car fire and a separate motor vehicle collision were all it took to confirm that the hand maul and Halligan are a great combination. Driving the Halligan, alone, with the hand maul is a pretty precise operation (which is more than most teams can say for the flat-head and Halligan combination). Over time, this idea has generated a lot of discussion and experimentation. So much so that separate running blog post is devoted to the topic. See “Smith-It” under the “Tools” category– we’ve dedicated the concept to Jerry.
TEAMWORK– RIDING ASSIGNMENTS. While some companies divide up chores at roll-call or prefer to do it en route to a call, Many others have chosen to develop more regularly used job descriptions for riding positions. The latter system was in effect at Truck 15, as summarized below. The most common building type in Truck 15’s first due was 2-story row houses, of “ordinary” construction (masonry walls w/ wood, floor and ceiling structure), so the assignments shown below are tailored for them– they might have been markedly different for other categories of emergencies:
The crew had made several tool-related decisions in the interests of maximizing their efficiency, including the following:
Laddering Strategy. On arrival, the “Step” and “Tillerman” work together, as necessary to ladder the building. At 3-story dwellings, 24′ and 35′ ladders are thrown– heaviest first, to use freshness and strength effectively. For 2-story buildings, 16′ and 24′ extensions were sometimes used instead, again with heaviest thrown first. So, ordinarily, the “Step” and “Tiller” threw the heavier ladder together. Then the “Step” climbed to the upper floor, while the “Tiller” threw the second ladder and started V.E.S. on the lower floor.
Pre-Mounted Roof Tools. Roof tools for the “Driver” were pre-mounted on the aerial to save time. The roof saw was secured in a diamond-plate box bolted to the transverse compartment of the tractor. An 8′ fiberglass-handled pike pole and pickhead axe were mounted on the tip of the aerial.
Distributing Other Tools. The “Step” customarily came off the rig with a 5′ Halligan Hook (or NY Roof Hook) and a Halligan Bar (for the officer). So these were within reach of the left (driver) side rear riding position. Hooks for the “Officer” and “Step” positions were laying transversely on the floor of the rear riding compartment, easily removed from either side. The “Tiller’s” Boston Rake was mounted on the upper trailer deck (as can be seen in the right-hand photo of the axe, above).
The “Step” and “Tiller” Positions (V.E.S.): At the scene (on the “A” side for the first due truck), the “Step” dismounts the truck and– if the building isn’t more than a few steps away– quickly tosses a Halligan bar toward the front porch (for the Officer) and their own 5′ Halligan Hook to a spot below or near the area they expect to be laddering. By then, the “Tiller” has dismounted and the two of them work on laddering for V.E.S., starting with the heaviest ladder (while they’re together and freshest) and working down from there. The “Step” generally takes the uppermost window, so on a two-story row house, they’re likely to be using their 5′ Halligan Hook working off of a 24″ extension ladder. In this scenario, the “Tiller” is likely to be using the roof ladder with their Boston Rake already attached, ready for use. Off they go.
The “Officer” Position (Initial Entry & Support of the Interior Team): The “Officer” gets off with a 4′ Halligan Hook, and does a quick size-up of the fire location and probable engine crew interior needs. After using the Halligan Bar, if needed, the Officer takes the Halligan Hook and starts searching and reconnoitering along the most direct route to the principal fire area, supporting the engine crew as necessary. Some officers preferred performing their search with the pickhead axe that was mounted on the right running board of the tractor.
The “Driver” Position (Roof Ventilation): The “Driver” positions the truck’s turntable for optimal access to the roof, then raises and positions the aerial for maximum roof ventilation convenience. A pickhead axe and a pike pole are already mounted at the tip so the “Driver” only has the saw to carry to the roof. If there are skylights, vents and other roof features that can be opened relatively quickly, they will do so with the hand tools, before using the saw, as needed, for larger-surface-area ventilation.
TRAINING TIPS– ON-SITE ENTRY PROPS. Besides an organized plan of action, the presence of training props is a good sign of an active, engaged company– especially those with signs of use. Truck 15’s back yard had a nice multi-purpose forcible entry prop, and stacks of replacement materials for practicing and refining the kinds of entry hurdles they are likely to encounter.
POSTSCRIPT. I visited Truck 15 in February of 2012. At the time, it was the busiest truck in Baltimore. Nevertheless, as a budget-saving measure, the city closed it and demobilized Truck 15, soon after my visit. The most popular explanation for closing that house was that, since it was surrounded by so many other trucks, it had the territory that could be most easily divided up among other companies. But the house wasn’t empty long. It was reopened in July of 2012 by Engine 33 (formerly housed with Truck 5).