Anyone who has ever forced a challenging door in zero visibility knows it can be one of the most difficult forcible entry challenges a crew will ever face, for those of you that have not… This challenge still awaits you.
Weather it is an apartment door on the fire floor of a garden apartment, the illegal basement apartment door in a private dwelling, or the door in a SRO on the floor above the fire the potential to need to force some tough door under arduous conditions is always present. The fact is that we as a fire service typically don't get much practice or direction on forcible entry techniques under favorable conditions let alone under zero or diminished visibility conditions. In this blog we are going to look at several different techniques for forcing entry under zero visibility conditions.
Since we are unable to see size up is going to be tougher and normal and is going to be accomplished primarily by feel, both with your hands and the way the tool reacts on the door.
The first step is to feel the door with a gloved hand for any primary and secondary locks, bolt patterns, heat, etc. This will help establish a game plan of attack on the door. Remember you want to start with the highest lock first and work your way down so any heat or smoke behind the door will vent up and away from you.
After a rapid and thorough size up is complete you can begin forcing the door. You are going to GAP, SET, FORCE just like any other forcible entry operation, the only real difference comes from the setting the tool and more specifically the hitting techniques. We are going to look at 3 different hitting techniques that you can utilize to help you drive the halligan into the SET position.
Double Tap Method
The double tap is more than just Rule 2 in Zombieland, it is a great method for forcing doors in smoky conditions. The double tap method works well in limited visibility situations but it allows a little to much margin of error for zero visibility operations to be an effective option. To perform this technique the axe firefighter lines up the axe with the halligan, he then taps the halligan lightly followed up right after by a more powerful hit. This small tap does a couple of things for both the firefighter holding the halligan and the firefighter hitting. First, it provides a small "practice" swing for the axe firefighter allowing him to build some muscle memory. Second, it gives warning to the firefighter on the halligan not to move because a more powerful hit is coming. Some firefighters like to use the double tap method all the time while forcing doors regardless of the conditions, it really comes down to preference.
Squared Off Shoulder
Most firefighters I talk to about the topic of zero visibility forcible entry say that they square the shoulders on their halligan forks off so that it will provide a striking surface without having the possibility of missing and striking the firefighter who is holding the halligan. This modification is not new to the fire service and I see firefighters modifying their tools like this all over North America, the problem is that if you are going to modify you halligan like this and then not practice the technique often and in realistic conditions then you might as well not even bother performing the modification in the first place. It can be challenging to perform this method and can take a tremendous amount of practice and patience. After the shoulders have been squared off the firefighter with the halligan can place the forks in between the door and the frame, with both hands on the back of the halligan the axe can be placed on the halligan shaft and slide it down to make contact with the squared off shoulder. Ensure that you keep a open palm grip on the back of halligan, if you have a firm grip on the adz or pike and the axe is brought back to far the blade of the axe could severely injury a finger… So keep a open palm grip. I like to keep the squared off shoulders for tight spaces or narrow hallways where you cannot stand behind the halligan to hit it.
One Handed Method
This technique in my opinion is the best method for forcing entry in zero visibility. The halligan firefighter takes their normal stance and hand position on the halligan with the exception of their hand closest to the adz, slide the hand closet to the adz more towards the middle of the halligan. The axe firefighter is going to take a kneeling position behind the halligan firefighter, the bottom hand on the axe is taken off and placed onto the halligan directly behind the adz. This hand is placed on the halligan to provide a point of reference for each swing of the axe. Remember to keep a loose grip on the halligan, your mission is not to impede or steer the halligan but to simple provide that point of reference. The next thing the axe firefighter can do to make life easier for them is to place the butt-end of the axe between their knees, this with help there swings tremendously by making the axe into a large pendulum. This pendulum action will help you deliver even and steady hits on target each time. Sometime with higher locks the firefighter will have to stand to swing the axe, the same steps are repeated with the exception of placing the axe between their knees.
How do you know when the halligan is in the set position? When you can see, we know that you want to drive it in until the crotch of the forks is level with the door stop but when we can't see we have to perform this by feel. An easy way to tell is by placing your thumb on the shoulder of the halligan then place three fingers along the side of the forks, the finger furthest away from your thumb should be level with the door stop. Slide your top finger forward and feel for the halligans orientation to the door stop. Not having the halligan set deep enough before prying is one of the biggest problems I see with zero visibility forcible entry, if the halligan is not driven in far enough it may pop out when it is pushed to the door.
The key to being able to force doors effectively in zero visibility and challenging conditions is to prepare for them through aggressive and realistic training. I recently talked to a close friend from a extremely busy urban department that just experienced a close call at a fire, one of the major problems that they experienced on the fireground was a delay of getting water on the fire due to a drawn out forcible entry operation. Crews were faced with a very difficult door in fairly horrendous smoke and heat conditions. After the fire crews talked about how they had never really been shown how to perform forcible entry operations under such strenuous and difficult conditions, the problem is that lots of firefighters tend to feel they don't need this type of training because they have never needed to force a real tough door under these conditions before. I use the analogy of RIT training, you only ever have to use it once on the fireground to make the training worth while.
I often get asked about injury while performing this type of training. I taught a recruit class for my department recently and I had the 10 recruits force hundreds of doors in zero visibility and in live fire conditions and never once did we even hurt anyones feelings. You need to ask yourself "what is the potential for a fireground injury if we DON'T do this training!"
Till next time stay safe!