There are many tools that can be used for investigative purposes. This includes traditional hand tools as well as web based. Proper use and maintenance are crucial to the success of the investigative operation. Characteristics of the various types of barriers that may have to be forced open, such as: doors, floors, walls, fences and windows, are also covered. Before any type of Investigative tool can be used effectively, an Investigator must have a complete working knowledge of the tools available to perform the task. Selection begins by highlighting the various categories of hand tools used in an investigation. Also included in this article is information on the proper use and maintenance of tools, all of which are crucial to the successful investigation.

 Hand Tools

Investigative hand tools can be divided into four basic categories:

  1. Cutting Tools
  2. Prying Tools
  3. Pushing/Pulling Tools
  4. Striking Tools

Cutting Tools

There are many different types of cutting tools, these tools are often specific to the types of materials they can cut and how fast they can cut. There is no such thing as a single cutting tool that will efficiently cut all materials. Using a cutting tool on materials for which it was not designed can destroy the tool and endanger the investigator. Cutting tools may be either manual or powered.

Pick-Headed Axe

The pick-headed axe comes with either a 6 lb. or an 8 lb. head. The handles vary in size according to specifications, but they are made of either wood or fiberglass. This tool is very effective for cutting through wood products or other natural or lightweight materials. The pick end serves to give the investigator an opportunity to make a starting point in which to begin cutting or to pierce materials.

Flat-Headed Axe

Like the pick-headed axe the flat-head comes in either a 6 lb. or and 8 lb. Head weights have either a wood or a fiberglass handle. It also cuts through a variety of natural materials. When paired with a prying tool, the flat-head becomes a vital addition for a forcible entry.


There are times when handsaws become necessary because of a small area to work in. Handsaws that are commonly used by investigators include the Carpenter handsaw, Keyhole saws, Hacksaws and Coping saws. Handsaws by nature are extremely slow. The knowledge of which saw is required for each application is extremely beneficial. Proficient handsaw use will make an investigator efficient when the handsaw is the tool of choice for the job.

Power Saws

Power Saws are the “heavy hitters” of the investigator. These machines make fast and efficient cuts in a variety of materials. However, like any other tool in the toolbox, there are many times when these saws should or should not be used. Power Saws can be divided into several types including: Rotary (circular) Saw, Reciprocating Saw, Chain Saw and the Ventilation Saw.

Rotary Saw

The investigators version of this device is electrical or battery operated and has inter-changeable blades. These blades often spin at more than six thousand rotations per minute (rpm). Blades range from large toothed blades for quick rough cuts to fine teeth for a more precise cut. Carbide tip teeth are available and are far superior to standard blades because they are less prone to dulling with heavy use. Blades specifically designed for cutting metal are also available, and these are the types of blades most commonly used for Fire Investigations.

Reciprocating Saw

The reciprocating saw is a very powerful, versatile, and highly controllable saw. It can use a variety of blades for cutting different materials. This saw has a short, straight blade the moves forward and backward with an action similar to that of a handsaw. It’s major drawback, however, is that most reciprocating saws require electrical power, except for some battery operated units.

Chain Saw

The chain saw has been used in the logging industry for years. This handy, wood cutting saw has found a place not only in the fire service but also in the field of fire investigation. Especially helpful during natural disasters, such as tornadoes and ice storms when trees and limbs must be cleared from the streets and other access routes.

Ventilation Saw

The Ventilation saw is a relative newcomer into the field of Investigation. It sometimes is more efficient than the rotary saw. It is important that the ventilation saw be powerful enough to penetrate dense materials, yet lightweight enough to be easily handled in an awkward position. When equipped with a carbide-tipped chain, depth gauge, and kickback protection, the saw makes fast cuts through natural materials. It should not be used as a metal cutting saw. Lightweight and capable of being held at various angles, the ventilation saw should not be overlooked for investigative purposes.

Metal Cutting Devices

Bolt Cutters are metal cutting devices used in investigations to cut entry into a secure scene. This tool can also be used to cut through iron bars, pins, cables, chains, and some padlocks. Bolt cutters should not be used to cut case-hardened materials found in locks and other security devices.

Prying Tools

Prying tools provide an advantage to the investigator for opening doors, windows, locks and moving heavy objects. There are hand prying tools and hydraulic prying tools. Some prying tools can also be used effectively as striking tools but most cannot. For safe and efficient use of a tool, it should be always used for its intended purpose. Efficiency in the use of a tool relating to investigation is directly affected by the investigators familiarity with the tools’ functions. 

Hand prying tools

 They use the basic principle of the lever to provide a mechanical advantage. This means that when properly using the prying tool, a firefighter is able to generate more force on an object with the tool than without it. Leverage applied incorrectly works against the investigator. The correct tool must be selected first and if an object cannot be forced with one tool, a different tool should be selected. The different types of manual hand tools include the: Crowbar, Halligan type bar, Pry (pinch) bar, Hux bar, Claw bar, Kelly bar, Pry axe, and Flat bar. Investigators need to be familiar with other important aspects of the hand prying tools such as which are prying surfaces etc.

Hydraulic prying tools

These tools can be either powered hydraulic tools or manual hydraulic tools. Powered hydraulic tools receive their power from hydraulic fluid pumped through special high pressure hoses. Although there are a few pumps that are operated by compressed air, most are powered by either electric motors or by two or four cycle gasoline engines. Manual hydraulic tools operate slower than the others and are, as such, very labor-intensive. The hydraulic door opener is operated by transmitting pressure from a manual hydraulic pump through a hydraulic hose to a tool assembly.

Pushing/Pulling Tools

These tools have limited use, however, when articles at the fire scene are required to be moved, this category of tool is extremely valuable. Whether the task being executed requires that specific articles be located or retrieved from the rubble of any fire scene, the investigator must have some sort of push/pull tool available. These tools include the:

  • Standard Pike Pole
  • Clemens Hook
  • Plaster Hook
  • Drywall Hook
  • San Francisco Hook
  • Multipurpose Hook.

Pike poles and hooks also give the investigator a reach advantage, helping to pick articles from debris in an otherwise hard to reach area. Handles of push/pull tools are easily broken by application of inappropriate force such as prying.

Striking Tools

A striking tool is a very basic hand tool consisting of a weighted head attachment to a handle. In certain circumstances, a striking tool is the only tool required. However, in most investigative situations, the striking tool is used in conjunction with another tool to complete the task. As common as they are, striking tools are dangerous when improperly used, carried, or maintained. Striking tools can crush fingers, toes and other bodily parts. Improperly maintained striking surfaces may cause chips or splinters of metal or other material to fly into the air. Proper eye protection must be worn when using any kind of tool. Some examples include the:

  • Sledgehammer
  • Maul
  • Battering Ram
  • Pick
  • Flat-Headed axe
  • Mallet
  • Hammer
  • Punch and Chisel.

Evidence Gathering Tools

In order to successfully gather evidence at any fire scene the investigator requires innovation and understanding of these very intricate tools. Because the fire investigation requires a number of specialized tools in collection of evidence, adaptability in this section is required. Some of the tools include:

  • Scissors
  • Syringes
  • Mason jars
  • Nylon evidence bags
  • metal paint cans
  • colored rolls of electricsl tape
  • colored zap straps
  • colored sharpie markers
  • stick chalk
  • Plastic tape
  • Labels
  • Rulers and perimeter markers
  • Twine
  • Sterile gauze pads
  • Sterile sample vials
  • Corner dust pan
  • Stiff bristle whisk
  • paint brushes
  • linesman pliers
  • razor blade knifes with break off blades
  • Pre-printed Evidence labels
  • compass
  • magnifying glass
  • microscope

 Additional tools of a specific purpose can be used and purchased from your local hardware store. Once tools are designated to be used for investigative purposes it is advised to use them only for that purpose.

Electric Powered Equipment

Because the fire scene may present problems in terms of absence of electricity the use of portable generators gives the investigator the ability to utilize portable electrical power. Fire scenes frequently are dark and require the use of artificial light. The need for electrical power is not only limited to lighting but also extends to power tools, electrical technical devices and pumping equipment. Some of the tools required in order to carry out our Investigations which require electrical power are: 

  • Submersible Pumps
  • Power Saws
  • Power Drills
  • Portable Lighting
  • Staged Lighting
  • Portable Heaters
  • power inverter

The usefulness of a generator or a portable 12 Volt electric power inverter is increasingly more important when at a fire scene in a remote location.   Power inverters typically run off of 12V power supply such as a vehicle battery from a 12 V power outlet and can be used to recharge lights, small power tools, a laptop and camera batteries. 

High Tech Equipment

Fire Investigations may require equipment that is designed to assist the Investigator in their quest to determine origin and cause. Technological advance have resulted in a growing number of tools that can be of assistance to the Investigator. Some tools are useful for gathering evidence while others may assist in identification of items of potential evenidence that should be sampled for further analysis in a laboratory setting. The following are a few examples of equipment that Fire Investigators may use:

  • Portable X-Ray
  • Hydrocarbon Detector
  • Digital Video Recorders
  • Digital Voice Recorder
  • iPad or other Tablets
  • Laptop
  • Smart Phones

The Golden X-Ray device allows the investigator to provide portable x-ray without destroying the article in order to process the evidence further through forensics. The Pragmatic “Trooper” 626 assists in the detection of hydrocarbons at the scene in order to determine if further sample collection may be required. 

With laptop computers, smart phones and tablets fire investigators can use a variety of software ands web based programs to stay in contact with thier clients, head office, and other agencies. Some documentation can be performed on scene Scanning the Internet for referral or information also is performed with relative ease from the investigators vehicle if need be. The laptop, used in conjunction with other tools can become a very powerful tool at most fire scenes. 


The importance of good photograophy equipment cannot be overemphasized in any fire investigation. The investigator must make use of camera and video equipment whenever on scene in order to capture images for the following reasons:

  • Evidence verification
  • Location verification
  • Witness verification
  • Scene verification

All photos, whether they be digital images or video must be analyzed and maintained in a secure storage medium in order to that they can be useful as evidence or for any future reporting needs.