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By: Brian Brush

It should be no surprise that firefighters appreciate quality tools. The more we know about the tools of our craft, the greater our ability to leverage our skills and efforts. With that said, there are times when the original tool, regardless of the quality, does not completely meet your needs due to regional differences, manufacturer limitations, or simply a lack of communication between the end user and vendor. With this article, I’d like to provide you an example of and a few options for working through the points where the tool you have is not the tool you want.

Regional Differences

Probably one of the best examples of regional differences can be seen in these two pictures of what we would call a roof man.


Photo by: Lloyd Mitchell

This picture is a FDNY roof man. His tool compliment is highly reflective of the city’s most common assignment: flat roof work on traditional built-up construction of roofs with boards/planking and the lath and plaster ceilings and interiors. The tools assigned are meant for heavy duty: steel construction with prying and leverage as the greatest attribute. Due to the years of experience, size of the department, and influence, the NY Roof Hook has been tailored perfectly for these duties to the point that the design intent was for the Halligan to be married with it in the fashion carried in the picture.

Photo by: Jonathan Hobbs

This picture is a roof man from the Western States. The prevalence of peaked roofs of walkable pitches with lightweight construction has put a greater emphasis on the need for a quality sounding tool in the hands of the roof man. The footprint of a rubbish hook displaces the downward force of sounding across a greater area, making it easier to “read your feet.” This is the sensing of vibration communicated back from the impact of the tool to your feet over open area, or absence of such when absorbed over structural members. The chisel tip of the east coast counterpart focuses that force to a point, causing more roof puncture than roof sounding. The rubbish hook also provides an excellent rake for clearing tile roofs more common in the south west, and once again, the larger footprint serves vertical vent teams well when it comes to punching in drywall from above to open up the modern suburban single-family-dwelling ceiling.

Footing with fiberglass?

The problem is not the difference in tactics, style, or location, it is the tool source. If your tool of choice for the roof is the rubbish hook for the aforementioned reasons, but your tool supplier is in the greater New York area, your “roof hook” will forever be a “trash hook” and your operations will suffer. As long as you are purchasing a trash hook it is being designed to be lightweight for raking trash. You will find that this does not hold up to the beatings of roof work. A fiberglass handle with a 3/8” aluminum rubbish hook simply will not last or provide the hard hit you want to ensure you and your partner are safe over the fire. The only way to change this is to find a supplier who understands the demands your trash hook will see (this may be very difficult due to department contracts, bid processes, etc.) or create your own.

So we begin with option 1: Take an existing design but create your own tool. If you identify the desired feature as the rubbish hook design and you have recognized the limiting factors as the lightweight hook and handle material, then you have written the prescription for the solution and the blue print for your design—steel construction throughout and a larger gauge hook.

Manufacturer Limitations

Some tools are only supplied by a single manufacturer. While you may seek to find alternate versions, there is only one source for the core device and you must make any adjustments from new stock. This brings us to option number 2: Purchase a new item and modify it when it arrives from the manufacturer.

This is by far the most uncomfortable modification for the person writing the checks to absorb. As a tool modifier, there is just something special about cutting up something fresh out of the box; but unfortunately, that same sight can make others feel a little sick. A prime example for this is the Lil Rex Tool. It can be purchased through a variety of vendors, but the only manufacturer is Fire Hooks Unlimited. Stock off the shelf this is a great tool for through-the-lock forcible entry, and in recent years, firefighters across the country are becoming very proficient with this tool borne out of the FDNY. As the tool has seen greater exposure, it has also seen a variety of modifications and alterations.

Currently, the most common modification to the Rex Tool or Lil Rex is the conversion from the shaft or pick to the adze-strap attachment for use with the Halligan tool from Andrew Brassard. He even remounted the pick sleeve back on the tool after the adze strap is added to provide the most versatility. In any matter, a single source product is modified. Those who choose to make changes have found that the manufacturer’s core product is exactly what they want; it is just that the attachment point of the pick only or the shaft construction leave something lacking, be it the ability to apply lateral forces or a greater striking surface. So they make a minor modification to the core device to fit their personal preferences or operations.


Lack of communication between end user and manufacturer

Firefighters’ greatest talent may be the ability to quickly identify and amplify what others are failing to do. Some of our favorite targets are those who are making money off our trade with no connection, understanding, or concern for it. The problem is too often we get caught up in assuming and complaining, yet never take our issues to the source to see if something productive can come from it. In this sense we are our worst enemy in that most vendors and manufacturers operate under the thought that no news is good news.

Recently, I have decided to take advantage of our modern world and use social networking and email to contact source manufacturers and vendors directly with concerns about quality and ideas about products. In the first case, I have yet to receive a response about my concerns despite a variety of attempts, from phone calls to emails and Facebook posts. An unfortunate result; however, I am giving them the holidays benefit of the doubt and hope that I will hear something after the first of the year.

In the second case, I sent an email directly to the owner of the company with detailed explanations of my thoughts and pictures and diagrams of my desired product. A few years ago I would have thought that this was too bold of a move: Just contact an outright legend in our craft with something I want? Fortunately, I have come to realize that there really isn’t anything to loose in trying, and if the person truly cares about the people they provide products to, they will be responsive. That same day I received a phone call from the manufacture, and within a week a hook arrived at my house built to my exact specifications with a note enclosed in the packing slip, which in short stated: try this hook and let me know if it is what you are after. If it is not exactly what you need I will work with you until we get it right.

He got it right—and it is not just about the hook. He responded to my ideas openly, worked quickly, and followed up personally to ensure that the line of communication about his product remained open. The next day the hook was in the hands of our truck companies on the roof of acquired structures, being put through the paces. Following an additional phone call between Bob and our apparatus and equipment engineer, the hook ended up on the new equipment spec list after it was confirmed by the crews to have best met our department’s wants and needs.

Do not take this piece as a green light to plug in the angle grinder and fire up the welder. Work through you department’s policies, procedures, and approval processes so that your idea isn’t killed by a misstep. Use the “try before you pry” approach and start with picking up the phone or drafting an email to a vendor; you may be pleasantly surprised. If you don’t get a response or there just isn’t anyone out there to get your idea rolling, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Remember, we wouldn’t have a Halligan if it wasn’t for an ambitious firefighter named Hugh that decided to make some modifications to a tool.

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