When tasked with forcing entry into an occupancy with multiple inward- swinging doors, such as a hotel or apartment building, fewer tools will maximize our efficacy at forcing doors than will the hydraulic forcible entry tool. Firefighters who are blessed with a hydraulic forcible entry tool in their arsenal will quickly proclaim the benefits of utilizing such a valuable implement. Not only does this particular tool make quick work of most inward- swinging doors, its use is very advantageous when placed into operation on doors in limited/zero visibility and on doors where access is limited due to construction features or confined door placement, such as a door in an alleyway. Although each firefighter should be well versed in conventional forcible entry techniques with the Irons, utilizing the hydraulic forcible entry tool at incidents where numerous doors must be breached will save time and effort, therefore adding to our work time. Our ability to work in an IDLH environment is limited by the amount of air we carry on our backs and the rate at which we consume it. If we can use tools that will increase our speed and decrease our effort, we are compelled to do such.
While there are numerous designs and manufacturers that offer hydraulic forcible entry tools on the market, I would like to focus on the Hydra-Ram, which is the most popular brand among our ranks. The Hydra-Ram is the lightest and most firefighter-friendly hydraulic forcible entry tool available to us. Fire Hooks Unlimited offers two types: the original Hydra-Ram and the Hydra-Ram II. The main difference is the distance each tool will spread. The Hydra-Ram will spread 4 inches, whereas the Hydra-Ram II will spread 6 inches. The most commonly purchased model is the original Hydra-Ram with the 4-inch spread.
The reason so many firefighters are fond of this particular tool lay in its design and construction. It is a single-piece tool, with the “tips” or “jaws,” hydraulic piston, and pump handle all combined in one unit, whereas other manufacturers’ designs have a pump connected to the piston by means of a hydraulic hose. The hydraulic forcible entry tools that are of 2-piece construction tend to be heavier, more cumbersome, and quite difficult for a single firefighter to operate. The design and durability of the Hydra-Ram causes it to be the most desirable hydraulic forcible entry tool available
Before we get into the body of this piece, it is worth mentioning that we at FSW are diligent about showing our work. The following information about the Hydra-Ram did not come from a tool manual or from various sources on the internet, although there is a lot of great information out there that can be gained through diligent searches. All the facts about this useful and valuable tool came from an outstanding chat on the phone with the man who invented it, Bob Farrell, who is a retired FDNY Battalion Chief and fire service legend whose experience during the “War Years” led him to tweak, modify, and invent tools that firefighters hold dear. Bob is the proprietor of Fire Hooks Unlimited, and unlike many in our business, he not only has the technical knowledge needed to discuss his variety of products, he has put them to the test on the fireground.
The Hydra-Ram was developed and produced to offer firefighters an additional means of forcing entry into burning buildings that is lightweight and able to be used by a single person. The Hydra-Ram is designed to exert 10,000 pounds of force with a spreading distance of 4 inches. The 4 inches of piston travel is achieved by pumping the handle of the tool until the maximum spread is reached.
The handle requires the user to apply 138 pounds of pressure to the handle to activate and extend the piston. While this sounds like a lot, the smallest firefighter in your company should be able to use this tool with relative ease. The amount of distance the tips open depends on the force being overcome by the tool; hence, the Hydra-Ram uses a three stage hydraulic system. From 0-400 pounds, the tool extends 3/4 inch per pump, from 400-1200 pounds, the tool extends 1/4 inch per pump, and for anything above 1200 pounds the tool will extend 1/8 inch per pump. This is important to note because a tougher door requiring more force will take more pumps to achieve maximum spread. The tool works like this: the first pump extends the tips 3/4 of an inch to take up the slack in the door, the second pump applies force to the door face and rabbet of the jamb, and the third pump of the handle begins forcing the door.
Under a light load such as a residential door with no supplemental locks, the Hydra-Ram will extend its full distance in 7 to 8 pumps of the handle. If more resistance is encountered and a greater amount of pressure is required due to sturdier door construction or multiple locks, it may take more pumps of the handle to achieve maximum spread. Training on various door types will acclimate each firefighter to the number of pumps of the handle needed to achieve maximum force. This is important to know so that the firefighter operating the tool is does not think they have extended the Hydra-Ram the entire distance only to find that it has not achieved full extension due to heavy resistance. Also, when applying pressure to the handle, use steady full pumps allowing the handle to travel back to the starting position on its own. Do not “short stroke” the handle, this will cause failure of the piston to fully pressurize. Worth noting is while the tool exerts 10,000 pounds of force, it will generate 30,000 pounds of force before the internal seals will fail. The amount of force generated is also directly tied to the amount of force delivered to the pump handle. The more force you exert on the handle, the greater the amount of pressure generated. It is not uncommon for a Hydra-Ram to lift or spread loads up to 15,000 pounds, however attempting to lift or move a load greater than the tool is designed for can cause failure of the unit. Also important to note is that the Hydra-Ram is intended to supplement conventional forcible entry tactics, not replace them. After all, it is yet another tool, and should you find yourself in a situation where your Hydra-Ram fails, you must be able to rely on good, solid techniques with the Irons.
The device utilizes Propylene Glycol (anti-freeze) instead of hydraulic fluid, and is a self-contained unit. The only maintenance it requires is periodic cleaning, oiling, and a daily inspection to ensure it is ready for use. Since the Hydra-Ram is a sealed and pressurized unit it can be submerged in a bucket of soapy water to be cleaned. Once the unit is clean, periodic oiling is needed to ensure the piston is well lubricated. To oil the device, fully extend the piston, apply 3-in-1 oil to the surface as needed (the oiling is related to the amount of use) and wipe off the excess. The reason for using 3-in-1 oil as opposed to spray lubricant, such as WD-40, is that some lubricants in aerosol form are combined with Toluene, which will rapidly deteriorate the rubber seals on the unit. Should you find any black streaks on the piston itself you need to wipe them off with a rag or gently buff the piston with metal polish to remove them. Once the streaks are removed, a light coat of oil will keep the piston ready for duty.
Worth noting is that the tool should be inspected and worked on a regular basis. Just pumping the handle until maximum spread is reached will not fully work the unit; it must be operated under a load. To do this, take the Hydra-Ram to the dumpster out behind the firehouse or place it under the drink box and pump the handle until the piston is fully extended. The reason the tool requires use under a load is that if you extend it dry the fluid in the piston is not pushed up into the gaskets, and over time the seals can dry rot causing fluid to leak, preventing pressure from being generated. Dry-rotted seals will keep the unit from pressurizing fully and therefore it will be ineffective when needed most. By working the tool under a load, the gaskets are inundated with fluid and remain in a ready state.
The unit features a quarter-turn spring-loaded valve that dumps the pressure out of the piston by means of a ball seat valve allowing the tips to retract. Do not be ginger when releasing the valve; press it fully to allow the piston to fully collapse back into the unit. Furthermore, when you have retracted the Hydra-Ram to its ready state, let the release snap shut to ensure the ball seat in the pressurized chamber totally seals, making the tool ready for operation. On a Hydra-Ram that is in good working condition, the release valve should be in the 10 o’clock to 11 o’clock position. If the pressure release valve is not in the correct position, the ball seat will not completely seal thus preventing the ram from building the proper amount of pressure. Any pressure release valve that is out of adjustment should be removed and recalibrated. The representatives at Fire Hooks Unlimited can walk you through the process.
If you find that the Hydra-Ram does not build pressure sufficiently, you can check to see if the seals are bad by inserting a screwdriver into the end of the piston when the ram is fully extended. Mark the screwdriver and measure the distance. If the screwdriver goes in more than 5 inches, the seals are bad and it should be shipped back to Fire Hooks Unlimited for repair.
Once we have ensured that our unit is clean, oiled, worked, and ready for combat, we can move on to actually utilizing it to force doors! The Hydra-Ram was initially designed for forcing inward-swinging doors; however, the inventive nature of firefighters has shown us that it can be used in a multitude of ways. By nature of its design, it can be used in any position—sideways, diagonally, upside down, or even under water. Bob actually told me a story of some firefighters in a large urban city that stood on the roof of a burning building, tied the Hydra-Ram to a rope and used it from above to break the windows on the fire floor! Although he said the tool was not designed for that, it was very effective! To discuss every way this tool can be utilized would be nearly impossible due to the myriad of situations we encounter. Ultimately, the Hydra-Ram was intended for use on inward-swinging doors, therefore I will focus solely on that tactic. Just realize you are only limited by your imagination, and training for all types of contingencies with this valuable implement will dictate when and how you use it.
Bob Morris, Captain of FDNY’s Rescue Company 1, has stated, “If you don’t know how to use the Irons, don’t grab the Ram.” We could not agree more. Having a solid foundation of forcible entry techniques with the Halligan and Axe are essential should you find yourself with a Hydra-Ram that fails, or completely without one. The Hydra-Ram is meant to be used to supplement the Irons, not replace them! The unit comes from the manufacturer in a carrying bag and is paired with a rubber mallet. This bag is great for storage of the tool, but should stay on the apparatus during incidents. Furthermore, do not bother to take the mallet with the Hydra-Ram when you enter the fire building. Pairing it with a good set of Irons is sufficient. The Hydra-Ram is fitted with a shoulder strap making it easy for the firefighter to carry it along with the Irons around the fireground.
When using the Ram, we must create a gap in which to set the tips. This can be accomplished with the Adze of the Halligan Bar or the Forcible Entry firefighter applying pressure on the door with their shoulder. Furthermore, the tips are made of durable stainless steel with a tensile strength of 220,000 pounds and can withstand being tapped (I repeat, tapped) into place with the axe. To begin forcing the inward-swinging door, we first “try before we pry,” and then size up the door for construction and locking mechanisms. The Hydra-Ram requires a gap of less than ¼” to gain a purchase on the door stop or rabbet. The door stop is the area we are going to “push against” with the tool. We can create the gap by applying force with the Halligan or by applying force on the door with our shoulder. Once our gap is open, set the tips of the tool in the same place you would set the forks of the Halligan bar; within 6 inches of the locking mechanism is a good place to begin.
Important to mention is that the head of the tool should be perpendicular with the face of the door so that the Hydra-Ram generates force directly into the door and not at an angle. Having the tool improperly positioned could cause the tips to slip out of the gap when pressure is applied or cause the device to apply force at an angle diminishing the amount of potential spread. Once the tool is set, begin pumping the handle until the door is breached. Should you find that you need more than 4 inches of spread to force the door, it can be accomplished in the same way as using the axe to add leverage to the Halligan, although spreading the door 4 inches is sufficient to breach almost any locking configuration.
To reset the tool and add the axe for leverage, place a wedge into the gap of the door and release the pressure on the Hydra-Ram allowing the door to rest against the wooden wedge. Place the Axe on the face of the door, and once again employ the use of the Hydra-Ram. The difference this time is that the ram is exerting force on the rabbet and the head of the Axe. The width of the axe will dictate the amount of distance you gain when the tool is fully extended.
The Hydra-Ram is an extremely valuable asset to have in your cache of forcible entry tools. Again, it is a tool and requires periodic care and maintenance. Actually, the more the Hydra-Ram is used, the better it operates. For a company that sees a heavy load of fire duty, frequent use of the tool is not an issue. For the vast majority of the fire service that sees limited fire duty, being diligent about checking, cleaning, oiling, and operating the tool under a load will ensure that it is always in combat condition. After all, the Hydra-Ram is dumb and does not know the difference in the drink machine at the firehouse or a locked door in a burning tenement building. Frequent use under a load combined with a bit of tender love and care will ensure its ready state; and periodic training with the Hydra-Ram will keep your skills and abilities sharp.