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, Ben Rackl, quickly responded that it wasn’t a Blackhawk– it was a different tool. “Really,” Ben 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 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. In our experience with it, 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.
Robert James doing some prelim testing of the SmithIt concept. For tight quarters and zero viz, the SmithIt’s hard to beat.
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. NOTE: For fire tool nerds out there, that’s a TICO titanium Halligan bar– a beautiful bar. But, that’s another story for later.
For optimum use, you’ll need to do a little experimentation with the combo. For one thing, while the maul is a good all-around striking tool, when working with a Halligan that has square shoulders at the claw end, for tight space striking, I personally prefer a 3.5#-4# flathead axe with a 12″ handle over the rock hammer or maul. It works pretty well in general, but when sliding/striking, the squared shoulders of squared forks, most of its force is applied to the forks. By contrast, much of the force of the rounder hand sledge, maul or rock hammer’s face will be applied off-center and deflected).
ENHANCING PORTABILITY– A STEEL STIRRUP.Of course, most small, short-handled hammers, axes and mauls don’t exactly invite convenient nesting and/or carry with a Halligan. But, there are some pretty simple remedies. Welding a steel stirrup on the end of the tool (as some producers do with their mauls and sledge hammers), is a pretty practical option– the illustration below shows its application to a full-size sledge, but there’s no reason why it can’t be applied equally to a hand sledge, maul or axe (photos by Driver/Operator Chad Berg from Snohomish County, Washington, Ladder Co. 72; it was posted on the excellent vententersearch web site, http://www.vententersearch.com/tips.htm).
ENHANCING PORTABILITY– SPRING-LOADED RETAINER.In our original introduction to the idea of the Smith-It, we pictured a method of attaching the hammer, maul or axe to the Halligan forks using a spring-loaded bolt. Unfortunately, we failed to explain the bolt mechanism’s construction or operation. So, the following is an effort to clarify the method we prefer for linking the Halligan and a short striking tool. It involves:
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.
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.
TAKING ALONG A “MARRIED SET,” A “TOOL TEAM,” OR THE “FAMILY?” Do you like some versatility in your personal equipping? Apparently a lot of people do, as evidenced by the frequency with which the fabled Halligan (in its various permutations) is cited as a personal favorite tool. That’s also why the term “Married Set” is almost as familiar as the Halligan, itself. However, we’ve enjoyed promoting combination of the Hawk Tool and Halligan bar combination as the “Tool Team,” an equally symbiotic alternative to the married set. The widths of the adze on the Hawk head and the pike on the raptor are sized so that the forks of most modern Halligan bars fit onto them neatly and firmly for convenient carry. As illustrated below, the Hawk/Raptor combination fits the Halligan in two ways.
What’s the next step– should there even BE a next step. Yeah, we think so. As it turns out, when joined together in the bottom configuration, some “Smith-It” configurations fit neatly between the the Hawk and the Halligan forks.
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