Blue Flower

From the early days of our careers we are trained in the fire academies to use a tool while searching. We are usually told that this extends our reach and coverage. But let’s take another look at this approach. Does it really work as advertised? Are there alternatives?

A major problem with using a forcible entry tool as an extension of our arms is not really that it might inadvertently injure an unprotected civilian victim with a sharp and heavy end, although it certainly is a cause for concern.

The major problem is that the tool, while nominally extending our reach, deprives us from tactile sensory input, in other words, in zero visibility we have no idea what we are touching with it.

Why in zero visibility? As I have said many times before, we should be training to work in the worst conditions, which include zero visibility and unfamiliar layout, because it is exactly this combination of conditions that kills firefighters.

I see this regularly in primary search training: a blindfolded firefighter bumps his or her forcible entry tool into a mannequin and keeps going, because when you can’t see and can’t feel with the extension of your arm, you are really not able to tell what you have bumped into – a person, a piece of soft furniture, or even a wall. I have made similar mistakes in training myself.

In other words, using a tool as a probe only gives us a false impression of extension of coverage and pushes us into expanding the width of each pass as we search, which can easily lead to missing a person who happens to be in that gray area between the passes that we think we are covering, while we really don’t cover it.

Another problem with dragging a tool as we search is that it tremendously slows us down – we are basically forced to use only three of our four extremities for moving, while the fourth is busy holding a tool. Why should we be concerned with the speed? Because in primary search speed is a major survival tool for both firefighters conducting a search and civilian victims we are sworn to protect. You see, modern fires are quicker and more toxic than the old fires thanks to the lightweight construction and synthetic materials, so the faster we finish our search and get out of the building, the less of a chance for us to become trapped by an early collapse. Similarly, unprotected civilians don’t have extra time to survive the lethal toxicity of the modern products of combustion. So you don’t want the forcible entry tool to slow you down.

And, as I have mentioned before, a blind swing with a heavy Halligan bar or a flathead axe can seriously injure a civilian, so we should take that into consideration as well.

So what’s the alternative? Well, we could give up on illusionary extension of the reach and search with just our arms and gloved hands. It will give you an excellent ability to feel the environment. With enough training in zero visibility, your brain will start “seeing” using what your hands feel, so you will get a much better “mental picture” of your surroundings. It will allow you to move much faster because now you can use all four extremities. And, because you are more mobile and agile with both of your hands free, with a proper “extended sweep” technique you can actually cover almost as much territory as you were with a tool, and it will be higher quality coverage because you can feel everything. Finally, it will protect civilian victims from injuries.

This is what we call a tool-less search.

Now, does this mean that we no longer carry forcible entry tools with us while conducting a primary search? Absolutely not! You should never be inside of a burning building without tools, especially without forcible entry tools. This is for your own survival – because a Halligan bar and a flathead axe are not so much of the forcible entry tools, they primarily are forcible exit tools that you can use to get out alive should things begin to go wrong inside. Remember, your own safety is the highest priority on the fireground, because if you ignore your safety and get in trouble, you won’t be of any help to the civilian victims anymore and you will divert other firefighters from saving civilians to saving you – and these firefighters will have to risk their lives in the process.

So how do we combine a tool-less search with the need to carry tools? The answer is a “ninja” method. We split the “irons” between the team members and each firefighter places either a Halligan bar or a flathead axe between her or his back and the SCBA frame like a ninja sword. Yeah, I know, it looks pretty cool too.

Now you have your tools with you, but your hands are free to feel the surroundings. If you need a tool, simply fetch it from behind your back and start dealing the damage.

Just one quick note on the Halligan bar placement. Make sure that the pike and adze ends of the tool are facing away from your back so that they can’t poke you. When correctly placed, these sharp ends will be resting on top of the SCBA cylinder.

When you try this technique for the first time, you might feel a bit uncomfortable because as your back will try to assume its regular, slightly bent shape, the shaft of the tool will press on your back. But as you train more, your brain will learn to keep your back straight so that it doesn’t hurt. Hey, it even improves your posture!

Wearing a forcible entry tool between your back and the SCBA frame is the most streamlined method. A common alternative is wearing the tool tucked under the waist strap, but it often leads to the tool constantly getting in your way or falling out as you search.

It would be unfair to end this video without mentioning the drawbacks of the tool-less search. As we know, in zero or reduced visibility we never walk, because walking when we can’t see is both unsafe and slow. So we use other methods of locomotion. Here in the United States we usually crawl on our fours. In some other countries firefighters use “one-leg-first” method. It is not as convenient and fast as crawling on your fours, but it does protect you from sudden falls into elevator shafts and similar vertical traps. This is because you first use your leg as a probe before advancing to the new position. When you crawl on your fours, you don’t have this advantage and so you can easily fall into the shaft because your center of gravity immediately follows your arms – if they fall into the hole, the rest of the body will follow.

The obvious remedy to this would be to push the forcible entry tool in front of you as a probe. Especially the Halligan bar, when pushed with adze and pike ends looking forward is great as a vertical drop probe, because the shaft of the tool will make a contact with remaining flat surface, pinching your hand, as soon as the pike and adze will go over the edge. Unfortunately, in tool-less search we remove this safety advantage. So how can we address that? With two things:

First, use tool-less search on and off. If you are searching inside of an apartment or a house without elevators, go fast with the tool on your back. If you are now searching in the apartment complex hallway, or if you are simply unsure, slow down, pull the tool out and start pushing it in front of you. The team leader, who should be in front of the team, should use a Halligan bar, not the axe, because remember how great of an edge detector the Halligan bar is when you push it with pike and adze looking forward?

Secondly, if you use “extended sweep” technique that I have shown you in the video, you will be spreading yourself farther and this lowers your torso as you reach out and around. Lowering your center of gravity and placing it away from your arms makes you more stable and less prone to uncontrolled fall should you suddenly come across the edge.

So, give the tool-less search a try! Just like with anything else in our business, you should first repeatedly practice in safe training environment in zero visibility before you attempt to use it in real combat.

Stay safe and smart!