Roof Vent: Fireman’s Axe vs. Flat Axe?

Of course I’m sure most of you are saying “chain”, but we all know there are vertical ventilation situations that require the axe:

  • Saw failure… Out of gas, chain broke, you ripped the start-cord out, whatever.  It won’t start.
  • Smoky conditions.  Like all engines, that saw needs a certain amount of oxygen to run.  If the filter is bad or the smoke is just too nasty, the saw may stall out.
Those are a few of the obvious.  Some will argue that they are faster with a good axe on certain roofs then they would ever be with a saw.  In the right conditions, I can agree with that…
So lets get to the main point… When you choose an axe for roof ventilation, which are you going for?

Click more for video and to participate in our poll…

This topic came up in the comments to Danny Doyle’s previous post about what he takes to the roof.  Like most firemen, I grew up thinking that the pick-axe was the “Fireman’s Axe” and of course the tool for roof operations.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that my shift went to an old abandoned apartment complex in Washington, DC and Dave Pylar (TL-3) showed me a few tricks with the back of an axe.  This video which Brian Minutoli (Baltimore City FD) reminded me of demonstrates the idea nicely:
I quickly learned that, more often than not, you spend more time getting the axe blade out of the roof then you do cutting the hole.  In contrast, the blunt side of a flat-axe (or even a sledgehammer) tends to just disintegrate the roof boards below.  This even works well on new OSB roofs, which are NOTORIOUS for getting the blade of an axe stuck…

Remember… The axe always starts!


A student at one of our Truck Ops classes tries it out.  During our "Box Alarm" drills, a member of Green Ridge, PA makes a quick vent.


4 Responses

  1. I was originally taught that the pick head axe was a ventilation tool but after being taught what to do with a flat head I’m going to pick the flat head.

  2. Combat Ready.

  3. Nick,
    As you will see my response to Danny Doyle’s article “Command to Truck 8………Open the roof” I mention the use of the flat head axe and its ability to open a roof with the butt-end of the head. It is much less fatiguing and allows the member working to move quickly along a roof.
    We can’t forget that a pick head axe has a purpose as well. The pick head axe is/was designed as a ventilation tool and still works well on certain roofs. For instance nothing beats a pick head axe on a flat roof with multiple layers of rock, rubber, felt, foam……..add eight more layers of whatever and you have a typical flat roof on any sixty year old building in any neighborhood. By using the blade end of the axe you can make a cut line around where you want your hole. Take note though this should be about 50% bigger than you want your actual hole because of the natural reduction in area to work. Once you have scored the roof enough to remove the first layer of roofing material you can continue with your cutting and use the pick side of the axe to remove the pieces of roof from your hole as you go.
    I have found this to be useful in the past because it allows you to continue your work with one tool as opposed to dropping your axe and getting a hook and then picking up your axe and repeating the process over and over.
    Let’s face it; axe work is just that………WORK! But if you know how to make the tool work for you as opposed to working the tool you are leaps and bounds above the curve and will be a better firefighter in the long run for it. Power tools are great and they make working a lot easier, but they are mechanical and mechanical things break, stall, run out of fuel, dull, etc. Learn the old school methods because they can save the new school approach in most instances. Just because we do things a certain way now does not mean that the ways of old did not work, it just means we found a way to make it easier. If you always want easy…………..Go work in an office cubical.

  4. I used to think that the Pick head Axe was a “Truckie” Tool. It was something he always took to the roof, this is why most departments with straight stick ladder trucks must carry them, mounted to the stick…right? Oh boy was I wrong. While taking a class with Christiana FC in DE, I saw Inst. Marshall bet someone he could open a roof faster with a flat head vs a saw. Guess what? It was open. Using the blunt end of the flat head won by a mile. Ever since then, that’s what I’ve been using.

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