The Punch Technique

The Punch Technique

Overhaul and checking for extension are discussed at great lengths in classrooms and presentations. However, they are probably the two tactics least likely performed during hands-on training.

It isn’t difficult to create a prop that holds pieces of drywall on a wall or ceiling, allowing firefighters to practice overhaul techniques. Unfortunately, purchasing drywall sheets is very expensive and can quickly deplete any training budget.

Some fire academies take students out to buildings slated for demolition and practice their overhauling and opening-up skills. This type of training is realistic, and students can quickly see and learn the tasks that lie ahead of them.

Most firefighting hooks are designed with a sharp edge so they can pierce a wall or ceiling, creating a purchase point. The hook is turned so the tool’s head can grab onto the material. The firefighter then pulls the material down or outward. Firefighters have always been taught to pull and tear open walls and ceilings when checking for fire extension and overhauling. But, is this practical for all situations? When firefighters must open up drywall, the material often breaks into small pieces and chunks using this method. Not only does this increase a firefighter’s workload, but it also allows the fire to rapidly extend behind concealed spaces.


You can easily open up intact drywall ceilings and walls with the punch technique. Using the head of the hook or a hand tool’s sharp or blunt side, you can punch “cut lines” or “relief cuts” through the drywall. Short, moderate force strokes are all that you need and will conserve your energy and stamina.

To perform the technique, cut two vertical lines and one horizontal line across the top, connecting the two vertical lines (photo 1). These lines form an upside-down “U” when made on a wall or a “U” when made on the ceiling. Make these drywall cuts close to each other, but they do not have to overlap.

(1) Make the cut lines or relief cuts into the drywall. (Photos by Nicole Ciampo.)
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Depending on the situation or how large of an area that must be opened up, you can choose how long or wide to make the cut lines. When working on walls, it is often very easy to run the two cut lines down from the ceiling to the floor. Normally, firefighters make cut lines between three or four bays wide on the wall or ceiling. Remember, it is easier to open up walls and ceilings if the two outside cut lines are inside the wall studs or ceiling joist. In this manner, the outside cuts will be free of any attachment points. Note that wall studs and ceiling joist normally run on 16- or 24-inch centers. If the run is on 24-inch centers and you make the cut lines farther apart, the material you pull down will be in larger sections and will be heavy.

Once you have made the drywall cut lines, you can open up the drywall. Take the tool’s head and slowly work along the top cut line, releasing the attachment points (photo 2). It is very important to use some finesse here and not just yank and pull the wall or ceiling open; the drywall could crumble and tear or break into small pieces, creating more work.

(2) Begin to pull open along the top of the cuts, releasing the attachment points.
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Once the top line is released, pull open the wall or ceiling with moderate force. The drywall will begin to break loose of any attachment points and begin to separate from the wall studs or ceiling joists. In both situations, as it is being opened up, the drywall will tear in line with the cut lines or relief cuts and snap downward, coming off in larger pieces (photo 3).

(3) Beginning at the top, release the drywall from its fasteners.
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Remember, when you pull the drywall open and downward, the material will snap and break (photo 4). The material’s weight will help it break free; drywall’s natural tendencies are for it to snap, break, and hinge. Also, when you pull open ceilings, you must maintain a position at the end near the horizontal cut line. This way, when you pull the ceiling, the material will hinge and fall away from you (photo 5).

(4) It is not necessary to make cut lines or relief lines at the bottom. The drywall’s weight will allow it to snap as you pull it down.
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(5) A proper position for standing when pulling ceilings open using this method. Watch out for the material to swing and hinge back toward you when it is released.
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  • Use your tool to knock off any piece of unhinged drywall to the floor or use the tool as a shield to protect yourself from being struck.
  • When drywall is saturated and pliable after a fire, it may fall without warning and in large sections. The punch technique may be helpful in these situations, but use caution. I recommend that you start from under the doorframe and then work into the room. The doorframe will initially act as a safety shield.
  • The punch technique works well in structures with metal wall studs and ceiling joists. Normally, the metal studs and joists flex and twist slightly when drywall is pulled from them. The punch technique allows for bypassing the screws that attach the drywall to the metal.
  • In some cases, drywall is glued over lath and plaster. Use caution when pulling down these ceilings. The added weight coming down can cause a serious injury.
  • Size up the run of the wall studs and ceiling joists and pull in line with the studs or joists. Pulling against the material’s run can cause the tool’s head to get caught or snagged on the studs or joists.
  • When using a “D”-handled hook in the punch technique, use the handle to punch the cut line in the drywall. The handle can make nice drywall perforations, which can also assist in removal operations.
  • Whenever you are going to make a hole or perforation in any wall or ceiling, you must maintain your hand position on the tool’s shaft. If you hold the butt end or the “D” handle and the tool was to initially strike a structural member, you could suffer an impact injury to your hand, wrist, arm, or shoulder (photo 6).
  • When opening up walls below waist level, place the tool’s handle behind the wall and pull it forward. The tool will act as a lever and release the drywall from the attachment points (photos 7, 8).


(6) Maintain your grip on the shaft of your hand tools when driving them into a wall or ceiling to prevent an impact injury.
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(7) Two different types of tool handles are placed behind the wall and pulled forward, opening up the area.
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Editor’s note: For a video demonstration of the punch technique, go to the Training Minutes section of Fire Engineering’s Web site,, where the author and other noted fire service leaders offer additional training demonstrations.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Portable Ladder H.O.T. program and a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board. He is also featured in Training Minutesand has authored the ladder chapter in FE’s Firefighter 1 & 2 textbook.