Tools of the Trade


Since it's inception, the fire service has been a profession reactive in nature. The mere fact that we continue to lose on average a hundred or more firefighters a year reflects a need to change. Many lessons have been learned from our past successes and failures, yet many more lessons continue to be forgotten.

The intent of this series is to focus on fatal incidents of the past and the many lessons to be learned from each of them. Like many publications written in fire service periodicals each month, this series is in no way meant to point blame at any department or individual involved, rather its intended to learn from these events in hopes of preventing similar tragedies.

This series will present old and new concepts, which may or may not be considered usable by all who read this information and view the supporting video segments. I ask you to consider these concepts, ideas, and techniques with an open mind and willingness to change. The effort is quite simple, "PROACTIVE" thinking and modified strategy & tactics can quite possibly prevent death and injury on the fire ground.

As we begin, ask yourself these simple questions:

  1. Are you and the members of your organization truly acting "PROACTIVELY" when you commence to fighting the almighty beast?
  2. Is the fire ground you operate on setup in the safest manner possible?
  3. Is your fire ground set up in a manner that promotes and supports firefighter safety and if the need arises, firefighter rescue?
  4. Are you the "Modern Firefighter" equipped, trained, and ready to perform the assigned task?

To begin this series we will focus on the "Tools of the Trade". This segment will provide a brief overview of these essential tools, their proper operation and possible usage for "self-rescue" and related tasks if the need arises.


The "Tools of the Trade" are simply those tools that are absolutely essential to carryout the task of fire suppression while at the same time providing a safer more effective work environment. These tools to many are very basic in nature, yet oftentimes overlooked by many who take on the task of firefighting on a daily basis.

  • P.P.E. - Personal Protective Clothing (N.F.P.A. Compliant - Including: S.C.B.A., Helmet, Hood, Coat, Gloves, Pants, and Boots)
  • P.A.S.S. - Personal Alert Safety System (integrated or manual)
  • Hand Tools - Halligan (irons preferred - halligan/axe) and one (1) additional tool appropriate for the assigned task (i.e. 6'- 8' pike pole).
  • Hand light (should be hands free operation if possible)
  • Chocks (door wedges and/or sprinkler wedges)
  • Lineman's Pliers
  • Spanner wrench (collapsible preferred)
  • Rope/webbing (multi-purpose use / variable length/diameter)
  • Radio - (Operational with firefighting gloves and emergency alert equipped)

The Greg Fleger video (National Fire Academy Safety & Survival Course) immediately comes to mind as I begin to consider the importance of personal protective clothing and the related "Tools of the Trade". No video I have ever seen reinforces this more. Firefighter Fleger, experienced what no firefighter should ever experience 2nd and 3rd degree burns. Although I've never met Greg, I'm certain he would agree that the need to wear your personal protective clothing correctly cannot be mentioned enough. No matter how simple, how insignificant you may think the call is, WEAR YOUR PPE and WEAR IT RIGHT, NO MATTER WHAT!!!

P.P.E. / P.A.S.S

The value and worthiness of personal protective clothing is about ATTITUDE. The attitude of each and every one of us is what makes this protective clothing worth its weight. We teach the proper method of donning PPE and its related accessories in Rookie/recruit School and for most of us this topic is rarely if ever revisited. Why, - ATTITUDE. Our attitude is, it's too basic. I know how to where my PPE, I've been there done that. I challenge you with this, make every member (Rookie to Senior member) don their PPE including S.C.B.A. and see what you find, the results are ever so embarrassing. Snaps undone, skin exposed, buckles left undone, P.A.S.S. alarms not activated, ? turned cylinder valves, etc. Now, make these members stand still for thirty seconds, what do they do? Do you hear any pre-alerts, what's their reaction, is it appropriate, or is it discus? The false alarms, "cry wolf" syndrome of the modern P.A.S.S. Alarm is not a manufacture defect, it's an ATTITUDE problem.

Firefighters across the country have lost their lives and others will soon follow because of this ATTITUDE. We must make every effort to fix it now. How do we fix it, simple, training and discipline. As we train firefighters we train them in the value of this tool, the importance of this tool and we NEVER allow them to work without this tool in operation whether it's training or on the emergency scene. Secondly, when members hear a pre-alert, we teach them to react in a manner that resets the device (regardless if it's there's). Lastly, when we hear a P.A.S.S. alarm in the full alarm mode, we react to it "IMMEDIATELY".

A good method to remember this by and a good method to teach our fellow firefighters is by using the well-known R.I.T. or R.I.C. acronyms:

R-React, I-Identify, T-Transmit or C-Communicate

I recommend using this simply to instill importance and urgency towards the activation. By teaching your members to REACT (immediately) upon hearing an activation we quickly resolve the issue of the "Cry Wolf" syndrome. This goes for the emergency scene as well as training. The ole saying, "Train as you play" should not be forgotten when it comes to P.A.S.S. alarm activations. Members displaying discuss/frustration upon hearing a P.A.S.S. alarm activation should be reminded of the importance of this tool and the need to react appropriately towards it's activation.

Secondly, by conscientiously identifying the problem we quickly remedy the situation or begin to work on a strategic plan to remove the troubled member. Lastly, we must require members to transmit/communicate there problem to crewmembers and/or the incident commander. This requirement prioritizes the necessity for RIT/RIC team deployments and importance of requesting assistance early.



Although the effectiveness of a hand light is situation dependant, the importance of one cannot be overstressed. To many this is simple; to others it hardly makes sense. The value of a hand light is not only to enhance visibility for the task being performed; it can also be used as a means of signaling for assistance when traditional means of communicating fail.

Fire departments or firefighters purchasing hand lights should make every effort to purchase hand lights that are durable, intrinsically safe and last but certainly not least, hands free. No hand light should be a hindrance to the task being performed. Quite simply, hand lights should be attached to your personal protective ensemble, (yet capable of being removed quickly for remote usage) turned-on, and free from obstruction.



The concept of carrying tools for forcible entry has been taught for many years in the fire service. The concept of carrying tools for "forcible exit" was brought to light by the "Saving Our Own" class over the past couple of years.

I would ask you to look around your fire ground and see how many "empty-handed" firefighters you have working for you. As you access your fire ground listen for the communications of interior crews, inevitably you will hear this, "Attack to command, can you send someone in with a pike pole?" Why is this? If we know we need them going in, why is it we fail to take them in with us on our initial attack? The answer is oh so simple; we want to be the first one to put water on the fire. True, the importance of a quick knockdown cannot be overemphasized, yet the need for essential tools to complete the tasks is of no less importance.

Firefighters today must realize that it is absolutely essential to carry the necessary tools to perform the task at hand. Not only is it important that we consider the task we are assigned and the necessary tools to complete the task, we must also consider what might go wrong in the process. What would happen if during this initial attack our means of egress is cut off, now what do we do? Instinctively, the "Fight or Flight" mindset comes into play, yet we are not adequately equipped to perform the latter of the two. What will you use to force your way out? What will you use to create that alternative means of egress? The answer should be very simple?hand tools, but for whatever reason we have chosen not to bring them along.



Instinctively, we enter a burning building seeking to find the seat of the fire or to rescue potentially trapped victims. How many times in our careers have we passed through a doorway without ensuring that it would not close behind us? We so often times take for granted that a door that is pushed open will stay open, this is not always the case. The chemistry of fire has taught us the power and potential of convective currents yet this and the many other unrecognized actions on the fire ground do not always come to mind when we consider the security of our means of egress.

Graphic footage of firefighters being trapped by closing doors, most notably a garage door (Example: USFA Technical Report 084-Entrapment in Garage Kills One Firefighter) has been shown by numerous Instructors across the fire service, yet we still fail to recognize the importance of chocking/securing doors as a means of egress. The modern firefighter must take nothing for granted; your life depends on your ability to escape.



The potential for entanglement on the fire ground has never been so great. The modern construction materials used to in HV/AC ductwork not to mention cable wires and electrical components present the firefighter with hidden (yet known) hazards on a daily basis. How will you the "modern" firefighter free yourself from this unforgiving entanglement hazard? Please spare me the thought?brut force, NOT! HV/AC spiral ductwork, cable wiring and electrical components have brought many a great firefighter to their knees (Example: 750 Adams - American Heat Video, October 1994). The modern firefighter should be adequately equipped with a quick and simple solution to this well-known hazard.



Yet another tool thought by many to be a minor detail. How do you secure utilities? How do you break that stubborn connection? How do you break that window for ventilation? The spanner wrench has been a tool used by the fire service since it's inception, yet the modern firefighter allows this tool to remain stowed on the apparatus to be used by the chauffer or during post-fire operations only. I for one will not begin to say I can identify all the specified uses of a spanner wrench, but I can say this, the spanner wrench can be used in a variety of ways to assist the modern firefighter in his/her job throughout nearly ever incident.



Talking to firefighters across the country you will undoubtedly hear a variety of ideas and thoughts on lengths, diameters, uses, etc. for personal ropes and/or webbing. Rope/webbing can be used to secure doorways, enhance search patterns and most importantly provide a traceable means of egress. From a survivability standpoint, the concept is quite simple, if you don't have it, you can't use it.

Personal escape ropes or webbing come in a number of lengths as sizes, all of which are good if combined with the proper training in their intended use. ALL members should carry a length of rope or webbing to provide himself/herself the opportunity to rapidly escape an environment that may become untenable. The choice is yours?



At a minimum we need to provide each working crew with a direct means of communication to the outside. Optimally, all crewmembers would be assigned a radio. One thing to keep in mind when issuing these radios; we must also provide these members with the necessary training in their use and the proper steps to follow in case of an emergency (i.e. Mayday policy, Emergency Traffic - request). An outstanding source/guide for solving your communication problems on the fire ground is the recently published SPECIAL REPORT put out by the United States Fire Administration (USFA - Technical Report-099) Improving Firefighter Communications.



The "Tools of the Trade" are nothing more then the bare essentials that every firefighter should have when operating on the fire ground. Through proper discipline and continuous training the many uses of these tools and many more will soon be incorporated as part of your routine actions on the fire ground; although these tools cannot guarantee your safety on the fire ground, the lack of them could certainly prove to be fatal.


As I conclude this article, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Greg Fleger and the brothers and sisters of the San Francisco and Memphis Fire Departments for sharing with us the many lessons learned and the tragic events that led to their injuries and/or loss through the aforementioned videos and investigative reports.

This article is dedicated to ensuring that we the fire service learn from the past in hopes of providing a safer future.

Tim is a 17 - year student and educator of the fire & emergency services, a former Assistant Fire Chief for Missouri City Fire & Rescue Services, Texas and a former Firefighter/Paramedic with the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department. Tim has earned B.S. degrees in Fire Administration, Arson and an A.S. degree in Emergency Medical Care from Eastern Kentucky University. Tim is a contributing editor to numerous publications including the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) monthly publication The Voice and the Fire & Emergency Television Network (FETN) in which he is the writer/developer of the featured "SURVIVAL!" program. You can contact Tim by e-mail at: