Returning to the foundations — forcible entry

CarolinaFireJournal - Mike Coffey
Mike Coffey
04/23/2012 -

Determining just how to get into buildings during off-hours or actual fire or rescue incidents takes knowledge of building construction, door and window construction and complete understanding of the tools involved to perform the task of forcible entry. Not every agency has the tools described, but the general issue here is use what you have available. Knowing the techniques (yes, techniques — not brute force alone) will allow you to be effective in the given task. Delays in gaining entry may have devastating aftereffects.

How Do We Define Forcible Entry?

A definition from IFSTA’s “5th Edition of Essentials of Firefighting” states that forcible entry is a variety of techniques used to gain access into structures where normal means of entry is locked or blocked. What are “normal means of entry”? Doors, halls leading to doors and some styles of windows lend themselves to be entered or exited by people. As times and construction features change, so do security means. If we do not keep up with the security changes, our techniques will no longer be effective.


One rule still applies throughout the entire process — “Try before you pry.” This means try to normally open the door or window through the means presenting to you; if it opens — great; if not — tools and techniques take over.

What Are the Tools Used?

There are several tools spread across four categories:

  • Cutting tools
  • Prying tools
  • Push/pull tools
  • Striking tools

Cutting tools consist of axes, metal cutting devices, handsaws and power saws. Prying tools consist of manual prying tools or hydraulic prying tools — including hydraulic rescue tools for auto extrication and rabbet tools. The push/pull tools include all the different styles of pike poles, trash hooks and truck hooks. Striking tools include sledge hammers and flat-head axes, hammers of all types, punches and chisels.

Combinations of tools that work well together can be “married” and become more efficient than alone. The most common “marriage” of tools is the flat-head axe and Halligan tool (AKA: the “Irons”). A variation of this “marriage” changes out the flat-head axe with a sledge hammer combined with the Halligan tool becomes the “commercial irons” to encounter heavier hazards in commercial occupancy applications.

Tool safety is tops on the list of “to-do’s” in this task. Cheater bars, using tools beyond their capabilities and general misuse of any tool equals undue injury to the tool operators and those around the area.

Storage of abrasive saw blades with hydrocarbon fuels breaks down the adhesive holding those particular blades. That, in turn with the needed high revolutions per minute (RPM) the blade needs to be effective creates a deadly situation as the blade may disintegrate and become shrapnel to the operator and bystanders.

Do let the tool do what it is designed for, don’t allow the tool do things it’s not supposed to do — even if it can and has in the past; let’s just say you’ve been lucky so far.

Care and Maintenance

Care and maintenance is the life of any tool we use. Taking care of the tool and maintaining it means we can depend on it when we need it. Filing axe blades instead of grinding it for sharpness keeps the tool from losing the temper it was made with. Caring for wooden and fiberglass handles keeps them strong and from splintering apart when we use them. Cracks, splinters and burned places weaken the handle.

Stay away from paint and varnishes — they hide deformities and weaknesses. Cleaning tools, heads and handles with mild soap solutions and wiping them dry allows them to be maintained with minimum of work. Previously painted heads or unprotected metal heads can handle a light coating of oil (I prefer 3-in-1 light oil for my personal use tools) to keep them from developing more oxidation (rust) than already accumulated.

Maintaining power tools to manufacturer specifications allows the tool to be ready for use when needed — that means we may want to keep the owner’s manuals for future reference. Keeping fuel fresh and maintaining the built-on guards further reduces chances of injury and increases the tool working correctly.

Doors and Windows

Door and window construction is the next part of the puzzle. Understanding the opening and obstacles involved help determine what tool and technique to use. Doors open four ways: swinging (either inward or outward), sliding, revolving or overhead. “Try before you pry” to see if the door is actually locked. With swinging doors — look for the hinges. Are they visible? If so, the door swings toward you, with options of going through or around the lock or through the hinges — by cutting or removing the hinge pins.

One note here as a general rule — residential doors usually swing inward, with commercial doors swinging outward. The most commonly encountered door construction is still wood solid-core doors with steel and fiberglass very close behind. Some doors have panels built into them that may be removed. The panels can be of wood, steel, fiberglass or Lexan®, which may present its own set of issues.

Commercial applications of solid steel or steel-skinned doors are for security. Locking and other security devices may or may not be visible — therefore may or may not be useful for entry. Preplanning commercial occupancies and noting the locking mechanisms may pay dividends at three a.m. and needing to make entry. Sliding doors do have locking mechanisms, but look for doors being kept shut by some kind of rod in the track. Sliding fire doors are counter-weighted and use fusible-link devices to keep them open. When the link melts and separates — the door slides into place and separates the areas from the fire — and separates firefighters from the way they came in or needing to go out.

Revolving doors have four panels that may collapse upon themselves to open an egress point (older doors may not). Note the construction of the door and the locking mechanism. Overhead doors are counter-balanced with springs or weights. Either can fail under high heat conditions and trap firefighters. Panels may be removable with locking mechanisms involving throws into the tracks of the door. Forcing entry here requires knowledge of how the door is constructed and how it opens (as a slab, sectional or rolling steel). If motors that control the door are attached — forcing the door up may become a problem. Once any door is opened — block it open to keep that door from closing in case the opening device fails and traps firefighters. It also helps rapid intervention teams/crews to get to downed firefighters by not impeding their progress to the firefighter(s).

Windows are usually smaller openings to gain entry, but are useful in certain circumstances. Some may be easier to force than doors. Identification of their construction facilitates what tools and techniques to use. Double-hung (AKA: checkrail) windows, hinged windows, projected (AKA: factory) windows, awning or jalousie windows all have their own issues, locking mechanisms and differ widely in construction materials — wood, aluminum, vinyl and steel. The glazing (glass usually) can be plate glass, tempered glass, multiple panes or layers of glass (because of energy efficiency), high-security or damage-resistant glass, Lexan® or Plexiglas®. These may be broken easily or be a strong deterrent from using that point of entry. Noting these problems on preplanning trips are helpful as well.

Breaching of walls relies heavily on noting type of building construction involved in the fire building. Breaching load-bearing walls should be done with firefighters experienced in building construction and good size-up techniques. Opening these holes in the wrong place may lead to partial or complete structural collapse. Also adding to the problem of where to open are: electrical lines/conduits, plumbing conduits, gas lines (natural and LP). Since we probably don’t know where these are – even more caution needs to be taken in opening that wall. Wood, masonry, gypsum-covered, vinyl-covered and steel exterior walls offer their own problems — some are easier to breach than others.


Floors offer two general materials in their construction — wood or concrete. Concrete floors may offer some structural stability by hiding within them prestressed or poststressed tendons tied into other structural components. Cutting the tendons can create serious structural weaknesses. Wood floors may not hide anything or cover up concrete construction. Residential and commercial construction can be noted on site visits while the building is being put together. It may open up other possibilities as well.


Locking mechanisms have evolved as the criminal element figures out how to get around them. Major types of locks we encounter are: mortise, bored or cylindrical, rim and the padlock. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the types of locks assist in determining tools and techniques used. In the understanding of the locks — the ways to circumvent the lock (forcefully or through-the-lock) depends on each one’s weakness. Effective techniques can be employed to gain entry from understanding what tools are designed to do.

Basically, we separate the locking mechanism from the door jamb or locking mechanism on the window. Through-the-lock methods do less damage to the door itself, but gains access to the locking mechanism through several means to trip the lock and open the door. The best through-the-lock method is using keys provided by the building owner/occupant inside a lock box that only the local fire department can access.

Now that the basics are covered, review and see what’s changed along with the tools and methods to be used. Check your inventory and see what your agency can do. Good luck and stay safe.

Captain Coffey currently serves as one of the training officers of the High Point Fire Department. He has been an instructor with the NC Community College system and the Office of the State Fire Marshal since 1990. He can be reached at [email protected].
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