Construction Concerns: Breaching Walls—Frame and Drywall Board

By Gregory Havel

We are taught in Fire Fighter I that, in an emergency, we can break a hole through the drywall board and escape a hazardous condition by crawling between the studs that support the drywall and into the next room. This is done easily with ordinary drywall board and studs on 24-inch centers (and with a little more difficulty if the studs are on 16-inch centers, which are more common); this can be very difficult if the drywall board is one of the impact-resistant varieties as well as time-consuming or impossible in some situations.

Photo 1 shows framing for a curved wall, which will be covered with drywall board on both sides. These studs are on eight-inch centers with about six inches between. It will take too much time to displace enough studs to make a hole wide enough to crawl through, so try a straight wall instead.

(1) Photos by author.

 

Photo 2 shows completed steel stud framing for a straight wall that is ready for drywall board. The horizontal band of wood blocking shown is about 30 inches off the floor (for the attachment of cabinets) and probably would not interfere with breaching the wall, but it would cause a problem if it were lower or if there were cabinets attached to the other side of the wall.

 

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The presence of electrical cables and boxes or plumbing pipes—as on the right of the photo—would make the breach more difficult. The presence of a bank of electrical cables or conduits—as at the left of the photo—or a ventilation duct, would make the breach impossible in that location.

(2)

 

Curved walls are not common in older buildings, but they are quite common in new construction. These can be framed from either wood or steel studs, which will always be much closer together than in a straight wall.

Any house or commercial building of frame construction will have pipes, conduits, cables, and ducts running vertically (and sometimes horizontally) inside some of the walls, which will make these places time-consuming or impossible to breach for an escape. Since we don’t always know for sure what is inside the wall or on the other side, breaching the wall may not solve our problem. It will be of little help if we break through the wallboard and find pipes, cables, ducts, cabinets attached to the wall, or a masonry or reinforced concrete fire division wall (photo 3).

(3)

 

Any time we find ourselves unable to exit a space by the same route we entered, we must call a “Mayday!” and activate our personal alert safety system devices before attempting a self-rescue. This is essential because we might run out of breathing air before we can rescue ourselves and have too little air to last until the rapid intervention team (RIT) arrives.

We could easily open the wall and find situations like the ones shown in photos 2 and 3. Self-rescue attempts prior to calling a Mayday as well as those situations with conditions like those shown in these photos will rapidly expend what breathing air we have left and delay the deployment of the RIT.

 

Download this article as a PDF HERE (378 KB)

 

Gregory HavelGregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.

 

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Author

  • Gregory Havel  was a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; a retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 40-year veteran of the fire service. He was a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel had a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College, had more than 40 years of experience in facilities management and building construction, had a Chief Power Plant Operating Engineer license from the American Society of Power Engineers (ASOPE), and presented classes at FDIC and other venues. He passed away in 2019 .

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