A Well-Kept Secret– Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledge

FORCETHEDOOR. If you’re in the fire service, own a cell phone or computer and don’t pay regular attention to Andrew Brassard’s “forcethedoor” posts on Instagram, you’re not taking life seriously (or you’re taking it too seriously– I don’t know). Andrew’s over 3,000 posts read like a post-Doctoral photographic dissertation on fire service anthropology– Dr. Brassard. It is so cool; but, words don’t do it justice. Take a look.

A WELL-KEPT FIRE SERVICE SECRET. The significance of forcethedoor here, is one of his recent photos of an Indianapolis fire officer, Nick Childers, wielding an unusual handtool– a sledge hammer-like tool with a wide adze (instead of a maul’s customary cutting blade, or a typical sledge hammer’s what…spare sledge hammer?). Not surprisingly several people responded with the popular “What’s that tool?” or “I’ve got to have one of those.” I had exactly the same reaction.

Blackhawk Dynamic Breaching Sledge

Everybody knows how cool sledge hammers and mauls are, even if they don’t see one as being part of their own EDCs (everyday carries).  That’s not my problem– in recent times, I’ve seen ’em as being [in many respects] exactly what I need.  Hooks are good– essential. And, “married sets” (or some combination of prying and striking tool(s)) have a proven track record. So, it makes sense for these to be well represented in permanent apparatus tool caches. But, for individual tools, my preference has been to stay on the lookout for that tool or tools that suit my most likely riding position functions (the officer’s seat or backing up the nozzle) and complement the functions of tools in other riding positions (especially 5′ or 6′ hooks and married sets).

For a long time, that meant (for me) a beefy, but short, multi-functional hook with chopping capability– initially a 42″-48″ D-handled Clemens Hook; later a 42″-48″ Hawk Tool with a Raptor handle. .   to the standard, assigned riding position — So, why’s this tool a best kept fire service secret? Because Blackhawk doesn’t devote much marketing to the fire service– just as many fire service suppliers ignore the law enforcement community. But, this one’s a gem. It has been produced in at least three different versions at various times.

The first version I saw was distributed by Council Tools, a mass marketer of basic fire service axes, sledge hammers, Halligan-type bars and other hand tools. This version had a 36″ polyethylene over fiberglass handle with an exaggeratedly wide, thick, and long adze extending from a 10 pound sledge hammer face. The long adze threw off the balance of the tool. It was awkward to use.

Council Tool Breaching Sledge
The original Council Tool Breaching Sledge– too long and ungainly for fire service application. That seemed to be OK– it wasn’t really marketed to the fire service.

Later, it showed up in a second version marketed by Blackhawk. Their version used used a shorter, improved ergonomic handle. More importantly, they shortened the adze which resulted in a far more balanced piece. But, its 10 pounds seemed excessive. And, the adze was still too wide and thick for forcible entry, its intended purpose.

Blackhawk Breaching Sledge Knife Country USA

Blackhawk apparently made the same assessment.  Not long after their first altered version of the Breaching Maul appeared, it was followed by a third version (their second) which featured a usefully narrowed, thinned, and shortened the adze. The flat surfaces of the adze were ribbed which did a great deal to hold the tool in its work. Weight was reduced to 8 pounds. Nice tool.

Blackhawk Old 10# Upper- Newer 8# Lower
The shorter length of Blackhawk’s original version of the Breaching Sledge (top left and in the enlarged photo) was a big improvement. But, at 10 pounds, it was a boat anchor and its adze was overly wide and thick. The [so-far] “final” version (lower left) of the tool trims down every aspect of the head and should make it a fire service classic.
Blackhawk B & L-1
A comparison of light (top) and heavy (bottom) versions of Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledge.
Blackhawk B & L-2
The original The proportions of the adze on the heavy Breaching Sledge (left) made it less efficient for getting into gaps and gave up leverage when using it to pry inward swinging doors using the “lever” method.

BUT, HOW DO YOU GET ONE?  Its a little like legalized gambling. There are lots of suppliers of Blackhawk’s Breaching Sledge, but they all seem to share a bewildering failure to distinguish between the two versions. Most descriptions of the tool show contradictory photos and weights. The model number is generally given as #DE-BS, but, I’ve yet to see conclusively whether its the larger, heavier tool or the smaller one. NOTE: Blackhawk markets Council Tool’s original 36″ handled configuration as the DE-SBS, “Super Breaching Sledge.” Probably the best way of getting what you want is to call one of the many dealers and ask about weight: according to Blackhawk, the larger one weighs in at about 11-1/2 pounds overall weight, the smaller one is around 9 pounds (the DE-SBSd is 12 pounds).

IMPROVING ON A GOOD THING. Having used the lighter version of the Breaching Sledge as a primary personal tool for several years, it has definitely earned personal preference. Immediately upon its arrival, one of our standard departmental “fruit loops” was added with 8mm cord to enhance carrying and hoisting the tool and securing it on the tip of a roof or ground ladder. It also got reflective tape identification.

Two functional modifications were also made to the adze. First, since I planned to use the adze regularly for prying, I shortened it about 5/8″ to improve (slightly) its mechanical advantage and balance– I can see that some people would be reluctant to give up the added surface area for pulling wall materials, especially lathe and plaster. Secondly, since part of the appeal of the adze for me was its application to forcible entry. So, toward that end, 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 provide a before and after comparison of the adze modifications.

Blackhawks Small Compared

AND THE HANDLE? I’m definitely ol’ skool and I one of the first things I do to a new axe, maul, sledge, etc. is exchange its polyethylene over fiberglass handle for a straight Nupla solid fiberglass version. That appears to have been the case in the top photo– hard to tell. But, I have to admit that Im really fond of the stubby stout handle that comes with the Blackhawk Breaching Sledge. Maybe after I loan it out a few times and the handle takes a bath, I’ll change over. But, for now, it seems just right.


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.

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.

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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.

IMG_5190 (Rsq-Lad.22)

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 immediate aftermath of one of America’s most horrible acts of domestic terrorism, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building, reliance on OKCFD’s fleet of ladder trucks was the real option available. AP Photo, Daily Beast.

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.

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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 .

A successful team depends on a clear division of responsibilities.

“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:

  1. 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)).
  2. Handle Secondary Threats— Complete tasks which will control a variety of secondary threats (electrical hazards, traffic, potential collapse or explosion, etc.).
  3. 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
  • Overhaul
  • Ventilation
  • Entry
  • Rescue
  • Salvage (Property Conservation)
  • Power Supply
  • Lighting
  • 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,

Jerry Smith

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.


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.
The basic approach using a rock hammer (in this case, a 3 pound Estwing, which I think is the coolest looking tool on the planet): Here (starting on the opposite side, out of sight), a) the bolt runs through one washer, b) then through the crotch of the Halligan fork, c) then through the hammer, d) then (visible, again) through the spring (“squished” between the hammer and the next washer), then e) through the washer itself (the one shown is standard, not a fender washer), then f) the wing nut is adjusted to the correct tension for gripping the Halligan fork between the far-side washer and the hammer.
The opposite side of the combination shown above.  Once you’ve adjusted the spring tension where you want it, the Halligan can be fairly easily released by tapping the tip of the forks on the ground or reinserted by pushing on the wing-nut end, sliding the Halligan under the fender washer and tapping the horn end of the Halligan on the ground. Little additional adjustment should be needed. Since all my Halligans are the same (we recommend MalvenWorks, right?), I eventually switched to a fiber lock nut instead of a wing-nut; less bulky, stays in adjustment, and less sharp to push on when spreading the washer for returning the Halligan.
A sketched schematic of the parts and assembly outlined above. It also works on the 3-1/2# flat head axe on a short handle over the hammer, which provides an additional wedge and works nicely for striking the squared shoulders provided on some Halligans when working in really tight quarters.

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.

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One of the first people to adopt the Smith-It as “everyday carry” was Captain Chad Cave of the Frederic County (MD) Department of Fire and Rescue Services (top row of photos). Chad joins the Estwing rock hammer to his Pro-Bar using a spring-loaded bolt and washers. The second example (bottom left, above) sandwiches the rock hammer between a Malven Hawk Tool and a Halligan– a knurled knob replaces the wing-nut to facilitate adjustment of the spring tension while wearing gloves.
On a trip to L.A., a visit to L.A. County Fire Station 170 netted yet another variation on this theme of more efficient one-person entry. Their Truck 170 had two sets of midi-irons (photo above), each Halligan had two pins welded to its side and a hand sledge modified to attach to them. At some point the hammers were retained by hitch pins, but they were currently just retained by gravity, as shown in the top set. The screwdriver slid into a sleeve near the head of the bottom hammer and was held by its longer back peg.Enter a caption


Back on the East Coast, Canada’s Andrew Brassard made a September 29 (2019) Facebook post summarizing some highlights of a recent visit to the Boston FD.  Among the photos included was this shot of a well-worn tool team in what appeared to be the “entry” riding position of one of their rigs. Hit it with as much as you can comfortably wield. But, this photo is a reminder that you need to pay as much attention to the grip as you do to the weight and geometry of the striking surface.

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.



RJ Doin FE w: SmithItCAPITAL 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.

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.


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This shot, taken from the spiral stair illustrated above, pretty well summarizes the unique character of Truck 15’s operation. The ultimate “truck cave,” right?
Truck 15’s crew (Jerry Smith at the right), a short while before Truck 15 was taken out of service and the station was closed.

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:


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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).