One Tough Door

BY MICHAEL N. CIAMPO

Almost all of us can recall an incident where we encountered a door difficult to force open. For those of you who haven’t, an experience lies ahead of you. During normal conventional forcible entry, most of us are accustomed to using the halligan and ax or sledgehammer combination. In addition to these tools is the trusty hydraulic forcible entry tool as our backup. In most situations, these tools are all that are needed to gain entry into a residential apartment. However, what about those uncommon, unusual, and difficult doors? Will conventional means be enough?

THE INCIDENT

Arriving at the six-story multiple dwelling, members of the Fire Department of New York received a radio transmission from the outside vent firefighter on his perimeter search: “Fire out three windows in the rear, top floor,” which provided valuable information to all the units on-scene. Hearing that news provided us with some insight into the fire: that it was self-vented and perhaps not that difficult to find. Most of us were thinking or hoping this would be one of those so-called “walk in the park” fires. After forcing the door, there would be a foot or two of visibility off the floor, and the search and extinguishment procedures would all go like clockwork. Unfortunately, for most of us, that vision would quickly change once we reached the fire floor and fire apartment’s door.

FORCIBLE ENTRY OPERATIONS

The fire apartment’s door was only a short distance from the two side-by-side, unenclosed marble stairwells in the building. It was easy to identify it by the thick, black smoke puffing from around its frame. Visibility was still fair in the public hallway; and, with our luck, three double-hung windows were about three feet from the door. Also, just above this area was the bulkhead door that would provide additional vertical ventilation.

As the forcible entry team began to work on the door, members attempted to vent the windows in the public hallway by sliding the top sash downward. As luck would have it, the windows had been painted numerous times and were also screwed shut. Because of the increasing smoke level in the hallway, we forcibly removed the top panes. We did not remove the lower panes, because the windows sat low in the wall and exposed a large enclosed shaft. There was the possibility that a firefighter could fall out the window and down six floors. Once the engine company arrived, the firefighter assisting in advancing the hoseline was put in charge of safety for this window location.

In the initial size-up of the fire apartment’s door, it was found to be locked and made of metal. Although it looked like a wood-frame door with the familiar “picture-frame” appearance common in many of the city’s tenements, it wasn’t. Knowing that the inner panel of the door was made of steel, not wood, told us that if all forcible entry tactics were deployed and unsuccessful, going through the center panel was not an option.

The size-up also revealed that the three lock cylinders were protected by an additional security guard plate attached to the door with four bolts. All of these locks were at different locations on the knob side of the door. One was low on the door; the other two were higher. It also showed that a small one- × one-inch angle iron had been installed on all four sides of the door. Normally, this angle iron is seen only on the knob side of the doors in many city tenements, installed for added security to prevent prying or “slim-jim” tool access to the locking devices. Seeing the angle iron on all four sides of the door is more prevalent in commercial occupancies than tenements; but because of previous experience with it, tackling it didn’t raise our concerns (photo 1).


1. The exterior of the apartment door firefighters confronted at this fire. Note the angle iron attached on the door’s four sides and the three locks with security shields bolted over them. Despite the door’s picture-frame appearance, the center panel was not wood but metal. (Photos by Michael F. Schunk.)
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The forcible entry team started its operations on the knob side of the doorway, tackling the two upper locks and angle iron first. Here, the forked end of the tool was driven between the angle iron and the door frame and then pried on to force the locks. After forcing these two locks, the team attempted to slide the halligan tool down to the next lock and force it. They had met some resistance a few times on the way down and had to revert to conventional means of striking and prying. They were doing textbook work, and once or twice the two firefighters had to both pull and push on the halligan tool at the same time. As they continued forcing the door, a quick glance out the public hallway’s windows revealed that the fire was now out two windows in the shaft. In addition, the engine company was now arriving on the fire floor and in position behind the forcible entry team with a hoseline. As the last locks were forced, the door began to swing open.

As the door swung open about six inches, we ran into our next nightmare: three heavy-duty, case-hardened padlocks attached to 3/4-inch steel chains that dangled across this small opening. The smoke now became heavier, making it more difficult to operate in the hallway near the door. Seeing the locks and chains, we immediately radioed an “Urgent” message requesting that a rotary forcible entry saw be brought up to the fire floor immediately. Additionally, the crew discussed the possibility that a victim was trapped inside, since these locks were found in the secured position. A firefighter quickly probed behind the door with his gloved hand and then with the halligan tool; no one seemed to be behind the door. However, the probe revealed a metal security rod wedged up into the door; it was removed. Although we requested the saw, forcible entry tactics were still in full swing while we awaited its arrival.

Quickly, the team decided to put pressure on the door and strike the locks and chains in hopes of pulling the chains’ anchors out of the wall. We thought that the anchor was probably just secured through the lath-and-plaster and into the double 2 × 4 door frame’s wood studs and that it would pull out with a couple of good shots. But after about five to 10 swings with the sledgehammer on two of the three chains, we made no progress, and we quickly switched our efforts to the hinge side of the door.

There we tried to force the hinges with two halligan tools, the hydraulic tool, and even by striking the door near the hinges with the sledgehammer. Again, the door would not budge. None of these techniques were working, and attempting to use a through-the-lock method on the padlocks would take too long and be difficult because of the increasing smoke and decreasing visibility.

At about this time, just a few minutes into the fire, other companies began arriving on the fire floor. They were told that accessing the adjoining apartments on either side of the fire apartment was becoming a priority. Numerous times before, units have had to breach a wall in an adjoining apartment to deploy a hoseline to extinguish a fire. As the second handline arrived on the fire floor, the radio reported that the fire was now burning through the roof over the original fire apartment. The second alarm had been transmitted, and we were now sizing up an attempt to force the anchors out of the wall using the hydraulic tool.

At about just that time, we heard the sounds of the saw start from the floor below, which was a smart move since that floor had less of a smoke condition. The saw was carefully passed up the stairs, and members put pressure on the door to keep the chain taunt so that it would be easier to cut. The saw made light work of the chains and was a welcome relief for the forcible entry team. As the chains fell, the door still wouldn’t move inward. Suspecting that a body may possibly be wedged behind the door, a firefighter first probed behind the door with his hand and then with a halligan. During this evolution, a 2 × 4 was found to be wedged up into the back of the door as another security measure.

After this wedge was removed, the door swung open into the apartment only about 15 to 18 inches. As the forcible entry team entered the apartment, some of them had to use a reduced profile maneuver to fit through the space. Now inside the apartment, one of the team’s main goals was to get this door to open up more to facilitate advancing the hoseline and provide a means of egress. Behind the door, firefighters discovered a few one-gallon paint cans filled with concrete that were used as door stops. They were removed, but because of other clutter in the apartment, the door still didn’t completely open.

The engine company then began its advance into the fire apartment. The truck company assigned to the apartment next door was also finding it difficult to force that occupancy’s door. Luckily, the saw was still on the fire floor, and they used it to cut the bottom of the door horizontally to gain entry into that apartment. This door was secured shut with two metal pipes with metal plates welded onto their ends; they were attached horizontally to the corridor wall studs and mounted on hinges. When they were in the horizontal position, they acted as braces to wedge the door closed. Later, units learned that this apartment had been renovated and this was actually a secondary access door and not used as the main entrance. The door still had an apartment designation marking on its exterior that didn’t match that of the apartment’s main door.

FINDINGS

This fire went to four alarms and involved a large area of the cockloft of a very large and irregularly shaped multiple dwelling. The fire was successfully extinguished with the use of numerous handlines and aggressive company operations. Once the fire was extinguished, critiques began and numerous company drills occurred at this dwelling to review all of the department’s operations and the building’s characteristics. The most sought-after piece of information was how the door was built, installed, and fortified.

THE DOOR

The door was a regular apartment door that had been reinforced several ways. It was set into what appeared to be a metal frame, but the frame was actually made of wood and covered by a light-gauge tin and then lagged into a brick wall, a common installation in many tenements. From the outside of the apartment, you’d never realize exactly what existed on the inside. The only major items visible from the outside were the angle iron installed on all four sides of the door, the carriage bolt heads at various locations, and the three protected lock cylinders.

Seeing all different lock positions on a door isn’t uncommon in a large city. This door incorporated numerous types of locks and locations that weren’t discovered until after the fire. They included mortise-and-rim locks, deadbolts, padlocks, and a night security chain lock. It also used a “police lock” device, a four-foot-long, 1/2-inch-thick common iron rod with receiver holes in the back of the door and in the apartment floor.

The chain system was cleverly installed. Once we examined it, we found the answer to the question of why we couldn’t knock the anchors on the knob out of the wall and the hinge sides of the doorway. Once the doorframe’s trim molding was removed, it was discovered that the anchor rods were placed through holes drilled in the brick wall and that a nut was placed on the anchor’s end on the other side of the wall outside the apartment and then covered by the molding. That answered our question as to why the anchors wouldn’t pull out of the wall so easily (photos 2, 3, 4). The chains were supported by two pieces of steel along the ends of the door so that they would not slide downward. They were also bolted through the door and held in place in the center of the door (photo 5).


2. The heavy chains were attached to the door frame on both sides of the door. On the knob side, the eye hooks to which the chain was attached went through the brick wall.
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3. On the hinge side of the door, the chains were attached to the homemade anchors with a washer-and-nut combination.
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4. Once the door frame’s trim was removed, the anchors were found to be bolted through the brick wall.
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5. The interior side of the heavily reinforced apartment door that had challenged firefighters and their forcible entry methods at this fire.
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The door was also reinforced about every eight to 10 inches along the back side by angle iron running horizontally across the door. In addition, behind these supports were three sheets of 3/16-inch plate steel. Along the lock side of the door, a thin piece of light-gauge steel formed a channel around the door’s edge. The hinges were attached through the frame and into the brick wall with self-tapping screws, not the common smaller and cheaper hinge screws. Finally, the door weighed a couple of hundred pounds; it took four firefighters to carry it.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

  • Fire department policy requires that saws be started at the change of tours, which occurs twice daily. Having a well-maintained saw ready to enter service at a moment’s notice was an important part of the forcible entry operations at this fire.
  • The angle iron on doors normally can be left in position and the fork of the halligan can be driven between the angle iron and frame. The angle iron often helps as an additional fulcrum point when prying the door open.
  • Sometimes the angle iron isn’t so substantial and will fail from the pressure applied to it by the halligan tool. Ripping the angle iron off adds time to an operation; but if it isn’t fully removed, it could get in the way while prying or swinging a tool. Use caution-if it snaps and separates, it could leave a sharp piece of metal exposed, which could cause an injury.
  • In most instances, the angle iron will make placing a hydraulic tool difficult, since the tool’s jaws will not sit flush between the door and the frame. Sometimes the hydraulic tool can pry off the angle iron, but use caution as mentioned above.
  • When faced with the security plates attached over the locks with carriage bolts, you must use caution when forcing these locks. In prior experiences in our department, using the hydraulic forcible entry tool has caused the bolt heads to shear off and become flying projectiles.
  • The through-the-lock method of forcible entry is an essential technique to understand and learn and be able to apply on the variety of padlocks on the market. Unfortunately, at this fire, the smoke, heat, and visibility conditions made this impractical.
  • The “Urgent” radio transmission for the saw at this fire doesn’t fall under our department’s normal radio policy. However, the possibility that victims were behind the heavily chained door prompted this request. Transmitting the “Urgent” message ceased all radio traffic and established direct communication with the incident commander, which enabled him to better understand the extent of abnormal conditions on the fire floor.
  • Using the saw on the fire floor can be a dangerous operation when working in close quarters; firefighters must be aware that this operation is occurring in their area. The saw increases the carbon monoxide levels in the area and needs the proper air/fuel mixture to operate. Luckily, with the windows open in the hallway, sufficient air was available.
  • Not completely knocking out the windows on the top-floor public hallway was an important safety item during this fire. It could have exposed a firefighter to a drop of six stories down the shaft to the ground.
  • It’s very common to find the public hallway windows screwed closed or to find some type of security device on them that restricts their opening capability. Also, the windows may be made with safety glass and wire mesh. All of these things can limit our ventilation efforts.

  • When encountering those cheap night lock security chains attached to the door and strung across to the frame, expect that there is a possibility that occupants are still inside. Finding the heavy-duty chains on this door prompted us to think that a possible “drug den” could be inside the apartment.
  • Initial size-up of the door revealed that it and the inner panel were made of steel. When the operations were at a stalemate awaiting the saw, a few blows to the panel revealed that it wasn’t going to fail and create an opening into the apartment. When units have to rely on taking the inner panel of the door, remember that you’ve lost the door’s integrity. You may have to secure another door over this door to maintain control of the door.
  • The forcible entry operations went rather smoothly despite what the crew was up against. Although it took a few minutes to conquer the door, the crew never gave up, and when one method didn’t work, they quickly resorted to another. Training and experience kept the crew focused on the task at hand, making this another successful entry into a fire apartment.

• • •

There were many more successful actions and operations that went along with the door and forcible entry operations at this fire. All of the units operating at this fire worked together feverishly to control this stubborn fourth alarm.

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 21-year fire service veteran 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 in New York City. He is the lead instructor for FDIC H.O.T. Ground Ladders and an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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