The Halligan: Quite Possibly the Most Useful Tool on the Fireground

If you get the truck assignment “irons ” you’re responsible for carrying a Halligan tool and a flat-head axe/maul/splitting maul to the scene. Although there’s usually a lot of talk about the assignment itself there’s not a lot of talk about all the wonderful things a Halligan can do. Let’s change that.

Halligan Basics
Many of you probably know that the Halligan was the brainchild of a Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) deputy fire commissioner named Hugh Halligan. Everyone can easily identify a Halligan and most rigs carry at least one.

In my department every company officer whether engine truck or heavy rescue has a Halligan within reach on every rig. For the past 14 years a Halligan has been tucked into my SCBA strap or spanner belt or in my right hand at every fire I’ve been to. Like a carpenter and his hammer I’ve grown accustomed to the feel and capabilities of this multipurpose tool: prying twisting punching and sticking.

A Halligan is not always called a Halligan. Some manufacturers call it a forcible entry tool and one company labels its tool a Hooligan. The closest version of the original Halligan that I have found is manufactured under the name Pro-Bar Halligan.

Regardless of what we call it this universal tool is really quite simple: a steel fork at one end and an adz (blade) and an awl (tapered pick) at the other end. Although the towering buildings in New York City bear little resemblance to the buildings in my predominantly wood-framed district the Halligan works just as well for me as it does the FDNY crews.

The Halligan’s Design
Although I’ve seen many imitators none of them appear to be a real improvement on the truckies’ perennial favorite: the Halligan. So why has this tool never fallen from favor? Is it for intangible reasons such as the lore of the FDNY where it was born or is it just a great tool? It’s probably a little of both.

For me a good Halligan is a one-piece steel rod that’s 30 inches long and weighs about 9 lbs. Some imitators simply pin the forks adz and awl to a steel rod but I don’t want to carry a tool that has even the slightest chance of coming apart. Others attach the cast steel ends to a rod made of something other than steel. The original works fine for me and I see no need to reinvent the wheel. Mine has never bent broken or failed under extreme conditions so why would I want to mess with the design?

The fork is slightly wedge-shaped slender at the tip and somewhat long so I can shove it into thin places. It has a slight bend which is useful when prying. The space between the fork’s tines is V-shaped and wide enough to get into locks and chains and thin enough to capture thin metal materials and bend them to create a purchase point.

The adz is duckbill-like—wide flat and long—so it can fit into door jambs with a slight assist from a striking tool and it’s strong enough for prying.

The awl is long and slender with a nice sharp point. I’ve seen many that are short and blunt and others that look like they once had a sharp tip that was filed down. I presume this was done for fear of injury. In my years carrying this tool I haven’t lost an eye to the awl or received any puncture wound from it. Bottom line: We need the awl to be pointed to puncture building materials! Whether the cause of the rounded points was an over-zealous finisher at the factory or someone from the department trying to prevent an accident I’ll never know. What I do know is that taking the point off of the Halligan makes the awl practically useless.

I see Halligans of various lengths. Some are very short presumably for convenience of transport; however this job isn’t about convenience. As for very long Halligans: I think the additional length makes the tool awkward and adds unnecessary weight. Anything longer than 3 feet poses a problem for me because when I’m not using my Halligan I place it under my SCBA waist strap or under my spanner belt so I have a free hand. If I carried a longer version it may actually hit the ground. Admittedly the extra length would be useful in reaching up for example to break windows; however there are other tools such as pike poles and hooks which serve this purpose and should be readily available. In the end I recommend Halligans that are 30 inches long—long enough to do what I need to do and not so long that they’re cumbersome.

Other Halligan Tips
The Halligan requires little attention. It’s just there ready to work. No moving parts no gasoline engine no battery. It’s very low maintenance.

Several years ago a detective stopped by my firehouse to return a Halligan to us. Apparently someone had stolen it from us and later used it to dig through asphalt in an attempt to bury a body. The person was caught in the act and our Halligan had been held for evidence. When the trial was over it was returned to us. After a quick inspection I deemed that it was just as it had been when we lost it and placed it back on the rig ready to work.

If your Halligan appears to have corroded there are two possible explanations: 1) You don’t get many fires which is not your fault—you must work in a nice place; or 2) You don’t train enough and that is your fault. So go out and wear the rust off by actually using it.

For my own Halligan I added a coat of bright paint so I can spot it in a burned-out building and so I can identify it if it gets mixed in with others. And around the center I added a section of ridged friction tape to improve my grip on the tool (see “Get a Grip ” March 2007.)

Just below the tape I etched my company number for ease in identifying the true owner in case of a mix up. Don’t think that it matters? A Halligan was recently for sale on eBay—but not just any Halligan. This Halligan had disappeared from FDNY’s Ladder Co. 58 at Ground Zero on Sept. 11. Capt. Joe Principio noticed the number “58” spot-welded on the fork of the tool in the pictures on eBay which ultimately led to the return of the tool to its rightful owner. Not every Halligan has as much emotional value as 58 Truck’s did but what’s ours is ours and marking our tools helps to keep it that way.

Keep your tool where you can get to it quickly. There are many ways to mount it within your grasp in the cab and still meet NFPA guidelines. If an inside mount isn’t possible mount it on the outside where you can easily grab it as you leave the rig.

Until Next Time
The uses for the Halligan are many and varied; in my next column I’ll share some of my favorites. Until then go grab one yourself and see what you can do with it.

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