A “Ringer” for the Iowa-American “Stinger”

LIEUTENANT MICHAEL SKIDMORE, MONTGOMERY COUNTY (MD). A couple of months ago, a friend sent this shot of a day-to-day “worker” tool used by Lieutenant Michael K. Skidmore, Junior of the Montgomery County (MD) Fire & Rescue Services. At the time of the photo, Lt. Skidmore was a fairly recent promotion and was rotating among several different stations. That definitely keeps a new officer hopping. Nevertheless, his tool looks as bright and ready-to-go as the day it was assembled.

MW Hx Skidmore Mont. Co
Lt. Michael Skidmore’s “Stinger” tool. Photo courtesy of Robert “RJ” James.

HAWK TOOLS– OLD AND NEW. But, it’s actually been around awhile. For people who are only familiar with the latest MalvenWorks version of this hook, it probably looks like just another well-personalized example of the Hawk/Raptor combination. But, those who know a little more about its history will recognize right away that this is an earlier example of the tool when it was produced by forerunner Iowa-American Firefighting Equipment (IA-AM). The tip-off is the handle; the yellow solid fiberglass handle stock, orange silicone grip (under a more recent spiral wrap), and the long stainless steel sleeve where the fiberglass connects to the Hawk head, are telltale signs of early IA-AM production. Currently, the most commonly specified handle material is tubular steel (1″ O.D. chrome-molybdenum), normally dark gray in color.

There are also several, more subtle differences between the original Hawk Tool (the Iowa-American “Phase V,” as its been called) and the current MalvenWorks model. Most notably, the actual shape of the Hawk head has undergone some refinement. On the new version: a) the width of the tip and “wedge” is a little larger, b) the curved lower edge, the “longitudinal blade” has a more pronounced curve or “belly,” and c) the steel used is investment cast 17-4 stainless, versus the more malleable, sand-cast 316 stainless used in the originals (see photo comparison, below).

Side-by-side comparison of two 36″ Hawks. The top version is the original “Stinger” tool– both end pieces were silicone-cast stainless, joined by a solid fiberglass handle. The lower tool is the current MalvenWorks version with a tubular chrome-molybdenum handle.

THE “STINGER” TOOL. Lt. Skidmore’s version of the Hawk also has the distinction of being the first model to introduce the “Raptor” tool end (the end that strongly resembles the shape of the Boston Rake tool).  Surprisingly, though, despite their tendency to give seemingly every single prototype step in the development a new tool its own unique name and entry in the catalog, Iowa-American never gave this one any name, at all. Instead, it was simply described, anonymously, as part of the tool they called the “Stinger.”

Stinger End 2
The new unnamed tool end introduced as part of IA-AM’s “Stinger” tool in the late ’80s. The tool didn’t get its own name, “Raptor,” until its reintroduction by Aazel, MalvenWorks’ predecessor, in 2011.

The new part was intended to be an alternative to the D-handle– a sort of “half-D”– that would add prying utility to any of the hooks in IA-AM’s line. At the time, the popularity of the Halligan bar and New York Roof hook (both double-ended tools) was well established. But, this was many months before the avalanche of other double-ended tool combinations started to show up. So, to demonstrate the potential safety, functionality, and appeal of such an option, a mock-up of the newly designed end was assembled with a Hawk Tool head on the other end of a 36″ fiberglass handle.

This complete package was presented, fairly informally, to IA-AM’s owner, Marty Vitale (even though only the new hook end was under consideration). Marty said it reminded him of a scorpion’s tail and suggested calling it the “Stinger.” The resemblance was pretty obvious, so the label seemed like a good fit. When this end option was under development, it was always envisioned as a handle option for all of IA-AM’s hooks (although nobody actually asked). So, it was assumed that Marty’s “Stinger” label applied specifically to the new part. Surprise! The new catalog came out and the Stinger label was applied to the whole tool, describing it vaguely as a combination of a Hawk hook on one end and some anonymous, unnamed thing on the other.

With no part name or number to refer to, it’s no surprise that the new component wasn’t ordered in combination with any hook other than the Hawk. Similarly, even though it was said to be available in “alternate handle lengths to suit your specific needs,” the catalog introduced it as a 36″ tool. With no provision made for specifying another length, virtually all of the Stingers were produced as 36-inchers. It was over 20 years before this “Jake Rake”-like end got its own unique identity (the “Raptor” end), combined use with a variety of other components, and fans of its own.

MW Stinger 2

A RINGER” FOR THE “STINGER.” I’m always happy to see photos of predecessor Iowa-American’s tools, especially my own designs, and particularly those that are still out there in the field, “working.”

But, this one was also a reminder of a funny story related to the introduction of the Stinger. As you can probably imagine, the fire equipment industry has its own share of camaraderie and rivalries amongst its members. Of course, one regular subject of interaction between manufacturers of fire tools is intellectual property– who designed that (is it a copy of something we did?), where did they get the idea (from us?), is it protected by patent or copyright (who owns the rights to it?), is it public domain (can we do something with it?), etc.? Naturally, Iowa-American came in for its share of this kind of scrutiny. One such skirmish occurred shortly after IA-AM’s introduction of the “Stinger.” A short time later, a witty competitor answered with a new product of their own, the “Ringer.”

MW Ringer
Both the Stinger and the Ringer proved to be fairly popular combinations. We’ll leave the Stinger/Ringer comparison to readers. But, a quick check in the dictionary suggests that there’s some interesting karma in play, here.

CONCLUSION. This was an interesting “tipping point” in fire tool design. Before the Stinger, most overhaul tools stuck with a pretty narrow range of end options: a) some of the longer hooks had only their primary tool on one end, with nothing on the other, b) other long-handled tools had ram caps, gas and/or water shut-offs, c) a few– most notably the New York Roof hook– had a prying appendage of some type on the bottom end, and d) a variety of long and short tools could be secured with a D-handle. However, the Stinger and the Ringer, which it inspired, called attention to the potential value of multi-ended tools. The floodgates have opened, greatly expanding the range of multi-functional tools available, and energizing a fresh generation of creative tool designers and innovative new tools.

Iowa-American Phase III Hawk Prototype, Newton (IA) Fire Department

LADDER 56, NEWTON (IA) FD. Tanner Owen (bottom photo, with a new Hawk Tool he got for graduating from his paramedic program) was, for several years, a member of the Nevada Community Fire Department, my long-time affiliation. He is one of a long string of gung-ho Nevada firefighters who have found their way into the career fire service. Soon after his arrival at Newton, he sent several photos of the small, working museum of Iowa-American tools carried on the department’s Ladder 56 (photo below). I’ll address some of the tools at a later time. I’ve written about the beauteous “Chauffeur’s Pike Axe” elsewhere (https://wordpress.com/post/malvenworks.com/4434) and will expand on that topic and others in the future. For now, Ladder 56’s toolbox provides a platform for writing about Iowa-American’s terrific impact on the fire equipment industry. I’ll start here with some attention to the phase III Hawk prototype that’s shown in the top and left bottom photos.

The focus here will be on Newton’s phase III Hawk tool prototype. Judging from the small, raised “IAF” (Iowa-American Foundry) cast into the body of the tool, this would appear to have been produced in the late 1980s or early ’90s. This is also around the time that Iowa-American (IA-AM) introduced its Multi-Length Hook System (MLHS)– parts of which are shown in the photo at the top of the tool compartment.

Among the parts of Newton’s MLHS is their Hawk, phase III prototype. It’s also shown separately. Here, the Hawk Tool design process was at a significant transition point. In one piece, you could clearly see both the initial influences of the Halligan hook and, for the first time, hints of the future Hawk Tool’s own distinct identity. With discovery of the idea of joining a downwardly-curved longitudinal blade with a second, transverse (“cross-cut”) blade, the design of the tool really took off and became its own unique tool.

But, phase III was also a frustrating time for me. I would have liked all the various design steps to stay under wraps, shared only with Iowa-American and the guys that I taught with. Instead, virtually everything that was actually developed to a test-bed prototype was immediately added to the catalog for sale, warts and all. The phase II prototype was named the Multi-Function Hook (Model MHF-1) and entered in the catalog. Virtually overnight, the phase III prototype was also given a name– “Falcon”– and added to the catalog, Model FT-1. Inexplicably, despite their numerous imperfections and functional shortcomings, both remained in the catalog as separate, and distinct offerings until the company’s dissolution in the early 2000s. Frustrating. Yet, all whining aside, it has left behind a terrific physical trail of the Hawk Tool’s history that is fun to talk and write about.

Thanks to the Newton firefighters and Tanner Owen, in particular (who got a Hawk tool for graduating from his paramedic class) for these photos and their long-term commitment to the tools.

Iowa-American “Stinger,” Montgomery Co. (MD)

MICHAEL SKIDMORE, LIEUTENANT, MONTGOMERY CO. (MD) FIRE & RESCUE SERVICES. Robert “RJ” James, a good friend and accomplished spotter of fire antiquities sent in this shot of an apparently long-time “worker” on one of Montgomery Counties rigs, where Lt. Skidmore rides the seat. It looks as bright and ready-to-go as the day it was assembled– if not far more so. Visible are its yellow fiberglass handle and what could be the original orange silicone grip. In any case, it’s finished off with the currently popular spiral wrap. At the time, almost all of Iowa-American’s hooks had fiberglass handles– most of them were solid 1″ round stock. But, a narrower, taller oval-shaped version and the classic (beefy!) Nupla “I-beam” handle were also options.

MW Hx Skidmore Mont. Co

When he first saw the end design now referred to as the Raptor, Iowa-American’s owner Marty Vitale said it reminded him of a scorpion’s tail and wanted to call it the “Stinger.” Seemed OK to me. I expected it to be an additional end option for all of IA-AM’s hooks (the two existing end options being D-handles of two different sizes). But, when it showed up in the catalog, the Stinger designation referred only to the combination of a Hawk head on one end and Stinger on the other– i.e., the whole tool (such as Lt. Skidmore’s, in the photo) was a Stinger, not just the new end part.  As far as I know, IA-AM didn’t end up producing any of their other hooks with what has become the Raptor end.

Iowa-American Hawk Phase II, Frederick (MD)

CITIZENS TRUCK COMPANY NO. 4?  Here’s another of Trevor James’ classic B&W shots of fire action in Frederick, Maryland. We don’t have any background details on this photo, but, given their unique inventory of Hawk Tool prototypes, there’s a high probability the that this phase II Hawk prototype’s off of one of their rigs.

Hawk Hx Phase II Trevor James Time

CITIZENS TRUCK COMPANY NO. 4. On the other hand, there’s not a bit of doubt about the example in the photo below. It was caught during return-to-service activities outside Citizens’ house, after an apartment fire.

Hawk Tools & Mr. Tire

And, finally, even though its been used before, here’s another catch by Trevor that’s the pick of the litter. It not only shows what’s probably the same 15-20 year old tool pictured above, it also catches it going to work on the roof, as though its never going to retire. Keep on truckin.’

Hawk Tool Geneology

IOWA-AMERICAN HERITAGE. Given Iowa-American Firefighting Equipment’s relatively short life, it is surprising how widely distributed their products were. Their forcible entry tools, for example (Halligans, Hayward Claws, San Francisco bars, etc.), show up all along the West Coast, from California to Washington.  And, we’ve run across their well-known 8-pound pick-head axes in places as widely separated as Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, Georgia, and Indianapolis, Indiana. There is even an example of their equally popular 8-pound flathead axe– one found in the devastation of the World Trade Center– on display in the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

Iowa-American (IA-AM) started as one of many producers of common fire service hand tools, primarily those used by the Fire Department of New York– the New York pike pole, the Halligan hook and Halligan bar, plus the previously mentioned flat-head axe. They also offered refined versions of other popular East Coast hooks, including the so-called Universal hook and Sheetrock (or Drywall) hook. Perhaps most notably, they started producing several unique, “signature” tools for individual departments, like Boston’s  “Rake,” San Francisco’s ultra-light hook, and a derivation of the defunct Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol’s “Patrol Bar,” making them accessible to the fire service at large. However, in spite of their broad range of offerings, as they launched an aggressive marketing campaign, it became clear, that Iowa-American had virtually no original, unique new products of its own design.

THE FIRE SAFETY GROUP. During this same period of time period– the early 1980’s– the Fire Safety Group (FSG), an ad hoc group of Iowa firefighters, was delivering a variety of two-day weekend courses aimed at a renewed awareness and expanded application of traditional municipal hook and ladder or “truck company” methods to suburban and rural fire operations (see background on the Fire Safety Group at the Hook + Ladder University website). IA-AM supported the group by providing some of its tools for use in FSG’s courses.  And, in return, FSG instructors provided regular feedback and recommendations concerning those and other IA-AM products.

ORIGINS OF THE HAWK TOOL. Having made extensive use of IA-AM’s version of the Halligan hook in field training and in emergency operations, MalvenWorks founder Fred Malven experienced the tool’s numerous virtues as an overhaul tool. But, he also noted its limitations in performing certain other closely-related “support operations” functions. Having had previous interest, formal training, and experience in product design, he took on development of a tool that addressed these more broadly-based functions, as well. This was the beginning of what was to become the Hawk Tool. Its design followed a fairly normal, step-by-step, phased product development process. Over a period of three years, the project produced a nearly continuous stream of sketches, working drawings, wood study models and working prototypes. The prototypes were intended to be building blocks, steps toward the development of a single new tool. They were never intended for sale. But, with the success of a series of glossy catalogs, Martin Vitale, Iowa-American’s owner, was anxious to get new tools on the market. Consequently, virtually every time a newly revised prototype was prepared for field evaluation, a fair number of them were produced, added to the company’s catalog, and sold, side-by-side with previous prototypes and the company’s other hooks.

Although this rush to market incomplete designs was irritating and frustrating, at this point in time, the move has netted some fortunate outcomes from a historical archival standpoint. First, due to the success of the firm’s catalog marketing, each of the various prototypes enjoyed a surprising volume and geographical distribution of sales. So, there is a good physical record of each phase of the design process. And, since many of them are still in day-to-day use, the effectiveness of early design intentions can be studied through the experience of current users.

As designers and long-time, regular users of the Hawk Tool, we’ve always been interested in finding and documenting early examples of the tool, and even earlier examples of prototypes. And, whenever available, we’ve really relished accounts of user experiences with the tools– good, bad, indifferent; exciting or mundane. Only recently did it occur to us that some of our customers might also be interested in the history of their tools. So, in this section, we will gradually put together an account of significant steps in the development of our tools, starting with influences on the Hawk Tool.

OVERVIEW OF HAWK TOOL DEVELOPMENT. But, first, at the risk of sapping all of the fun of discovery out of the process, we’ll begin with a brief summary of Hawk Tool design process. It began with the goal of creating a multi-purpose “support operations” tool combined some of the best attributes of other tools we’d used. Because of its popularity (and its availability, due to our collaboration with Iowa-American Fire Equipment) much of the early work (especially phases I & II) involved modification of the highly successful Halligan HOOK. Readers will need to remember that this discussion revolves around FDNY Chief Hugh Halligan’s hook design, not his even more famous Halligan BAR.

In general, the design process progressed in five phases:

  • Phase I added width and a sharper, keener edge to the Halligan Hook’s “bottom” (i.e., downward-pointed) blade.
  • Phase II further flattened the downward blade, “corrected” the Halligan’s unnecessarily blunt point, and added some length and angle to the Halligan’s rear-facing “adze.”
  • Phase III (the first significant departure from the Halligan) introduced the first of three distinctive features of the Hawk Tool, the so-called “cross-cut” blades– one downwardly-rounded, longitudinal edge intersecting at 90° with the original downward-pointing, transverse blade.
  • Phase IV introduced the tool’s most distinctive feature   But, for now, suffice it to say that the evolution of the tool can be distilled down to five steps or phases before it reached (much later) its current configuration. The most significant end-products of each phase are summarized below.
MW Vintage Hawk Tools Phases
The early influence of Chief Halligan’s hook on the Hawk design process is clearly visible in the Phase I and II prototypes. Only at Phase III did the tool take on a character of its own. Inspired by Prince Georges County (MD) firefighter Richie Clemens’ Clemens Hook, the new design focused on surpassing the Halligan’s performance, especially in terms of 1) “chopping” ability, 2) ability to penetrate walls, ceilings, and floors, and 3) overall versatility (especially the multi-functionality of its working edges). NOTE: The Phase V Hawk was the final (“finished?”) design offered by Iowa-American for series production. The design underwent significant revisions before being reintroduced as part of the Aazel Corporation’s line, in late 2011, and might be considered a Phase VI Hawk Tool.

In future posts, we will identify and discuss some of our interesting encounters with the Hawk’s ancestors.

Iowa-American Phase II Hawk Prototype, Charlotte (NC) Truck 13

“HOOD ORNAMENTS.”  The tools found on the front bumpers of a rig are an interesting subject in their own right. Other than the make, color, markings, lighting, and maybe the function of a unit’s front end, the tools mounted on the bumper often give a first-time visitor their first impression of a station or department. They’re sometimes a pretty good representation of the character of the crews that staff them. Are they traditionalists or early-adopters of the latest fads? Are the tools clean, dirty, or dusty? Do they look like they’ve been burnished by frequent use or never been used? Are they freshly painted, labeled, claimed by station or department markings, stickers, lettering, or “uglied up” to discourage misappropriation by others? What do they have to say about the people who ride their unit?

It’s hard to imagine all of the reasons why a specific tool (or set of tools) might be selected for this special status. But, a few explanations are:

  • They came mounted there when the unit was delivered.
  • The bumper is the only place they’ll fit or can be removed easily.
  • They are the most frequently used items.
  • They are important “must-have” parts of a set of tools/equipment that deploys from the front.
  • They’re the favorites of a particular station, crew, crew member or officer.
  • They’re scarce examples of “signature” tools that were once hallmarks of local operations but are no longer available.
  • They somehow symbolize the unit or crews mission, objectives, attitudes, identity, shared experiences, etc. and can, in a way, be likened to “hood ornaments” on a car, signaling information about the vehicle, its functions, and its occupants.

In general, the tools found there are selected because they address the highest priorities or most common functions addressed by the crew.  So, in some stations the front-mount tools change every time the crew changes, reflecting individual or group differences. One shift may reflect a group of traditionalists who prefer a few proven, multifunctional “classics.” The next crew– maybe a group of “early adopters”– might switch them out for the latest new tools on the market, and so forth.

But, policies concerning equipping can vary considerably from station-to-station and department-to-department.  So, if a rig’s front bumper arsenal stays the same day-after-day that may indicate that it’s prescribed and regulated by the department. It might indicate that a crew/department has, over time, refined, standardized and policed its equipping. At the other extreme, be a sign of ambivalence. Who knows? But, it can be a source of interesting speculation.

PHASE II HAWK ON CHARLOTTE’S TRUCK 13.  An excellent first example of both front bumper tool loads and vintage Hawk prototypes in the field was found in a photo of Charlotte, North Carolina’s rearmount aerial, Truck 13 (Photos are from Charlotte Fire Department & Station 13 web sites).

As pictured at the time, on their 2004 Spartan/Smeal (in the bottom photo above), Truck Company 13 mounted a six-foot NY Roof Hook and a four-foot Hawk Phase II prototype with a large aluminum D-handle. In comparison to a Halligan/NY Roof Hook’s narrow profile and blunt point, the photo above shows the Phase II Hawk prototype’s sharper, more focused penetrating tip and wider lower “chopping” blade to good advantage. What is particularly eye-catching are the wide, bold color identification markings on the tools and their apparent high maintenance level.

It certainly isn’t clear (or expected) that the Hawk prototype was a standard fixture on Truck 13’s bumper set. On a busy rig, a tool is lucky to get a ride on the front, at all– never mind finding a spot as a regular. In fact, one gets the impression from photos of Truck 13’s 2015 Spartan/Smeal replacement, that tools may no longer be carried on the front bumper. Nevertheless, its a good day for us every time we receive a photo of one of our tools earning a front-row seat.  Greetings and thanks to Charlotte’s Truck 13!