BY SHAWN MILLERICK
In today’s world, forcible entry always presents a problem. As time progresses, we will continue to see higher security features in both homes and businesses. Some of the higher security features we see on doors include stronger screws holding the lock in place, magnetic locks, and an increased use of security screen and metal doors. To increase our effectiveness in the field, we must use a systematic approach to forcing doors. We must enter the structure to mitigate the problem, whether it is during an EMS call or a structure fire. Our tactics will be different when responding to a low-level EMS call than to a fire with trapped victims. This article will discuss how to size up most of the single entry doors you will encounter.
Your tactics will depend on factors such as the size of your crew, tool availability, and experience. Forcible entry is very difficult to learn from a book or even from very basic props. An excellent training tool is a donated structure. You can work with the city, county, or building owner to acquire such structures where you can conduct real drills on forcible entry problems. Also, take advantage of being assigned to the RIC/RIT/FAST; try new techniques when a quick entry is not critical. You gain the most forcible entry knowledge in the streets and in talking about it at the dinner table. An effective forcible entry firefighter must have a few good tricks and a sound size-up up his sleeve.
When you arrive at the firehouse, know where the tools are, and be familiar with their use. If you don’t know, ask someone. Check the tools’ condition and make sure they are ready for use. Confirm with the officer your seat assignment as well as his expectations of you. When the alarm rings, you’ll already know the following information and how it will affect your forcible entry tactics: the time of day, day of the week, type of call, and occupancy type.
The time of day will let you know if you will have a forcible entry challenge with potential victims to consider. A bar at 4 a.m. would probably be empty, as opposed to 9 p.m., when it would be full (photo 1). Also, a bar at 4 a.m. will have all its security features in place.
1. Photos by author.
The day of the week is important to know if we consider an office building. The building is typically full Monday through Friday. The entry point should be unlocked. On weekends it will hold a few workaholics and cleaning people and will probably be secured.
Use the amount of force in direct proportion to the threat to life and property. If it is a nonemergency call, will you be able to secure the structure after the incident? If the call is to assist an elderly individual, do you really want to destroy the door? Always remember customer service. A window may be a good option here.
Occupancy type is a major factor to consider when forcing entry. If you are called to a liquor store, pawn shop, bar, or jewelry store, chances are you will have a serious challenge ahead.
Go out and experience your first-due forcible entry problems before the fire starts. Company inspections and preplans are excellent ways to view these areas. Also, a tour of buildings that are under construction or being remodeled is another great way to educate yourself. You are the expert for your first-due area and for any potential difficult forcible entry problems you might face. At the very least, stop by and take a quick look around.
We have yearly truck company drills in my division during which we walk high-crime (high-security) areas of the city and discuss forcible entry problems in case of an actual incident there. If you feel unsafe in these high-crime areas, you can always conduct your survey from the safety of the rig.
If we go to a stereo supply store in my first-due area and we need to get through the back roll-up door, we have a challenge. The building has a locked rolling steel door, an eight-foot-high scissor gate behind it, and a post that is dropped into the floor at night.
You cannot survey every occupancy, but try to get out there. If you are dispatched to a different part of the city or on a mutual-aid fire, you will have to rely on your experience or knowledge of similar occupancies you have preplanned.
After you arrive on-scene, determine if there is a key lock box on the building. This will hold the keys to the building, thus reducing the forcible entry damage. Confirm your orders, and bring the right tool for the right job. A firefighter can never carry too many tools; this is where experience pays off. If you are not sure, look to the senior members for advice. It is better to ask at the rig than to get to the door unprepared. The tool you may need at that time will be far away at the street. All firefighters assigned forcible entry should know that the basic tools consist of a halligan and striking tool, a hydraulic forcible entry tool, and a rotary saw with the proper blade.
You decide to make entry through a single entry door; but also consider all the entry points into the building, as some will be better than others. If possible, use the door the occupants normally use. If you cannot unlock it from the outside, then this door is probably not normally used. In a fire, most people will try to escape through this door. The door that is not normally used could be heavily barricaded, welded shut, blocked by furniture or boxes, or have walls built behind it. These conditions may exist in residential and commercial settings and make entry virtually impossible.
For example, in my response area, there is an old home improvement warehouse that has become the new home for an indoor swap meet/flea market. The new owner welded several doors shut and built walls behind them on the interior. I informed him of the problem we may face, and he spray painted “Welded Shut” on the doors to help us out. Also, I turned the building’s address over to our fire prevention bureau to check exit requirements and possible code violations.
At this point, you need to address the environment around the door. The door is static and everything around it is fluid, such as fire conditions and the presence of occupants, dogs, and booby traps. How can we tell what the fire conditions are behind the door? If available, thermal imaging cameras could be helpful to see the heat at that opening. There are also some clues you can look for; you need to start at the bottom. If there is a gap under the door, there might be a glow or smoke (photo 2). At the bottom, feel the door for heat with the back of your ungloved hand. Slide your hand up the door to see if there is any change, and check the doorknob, but do not grab the knob with an ungloved hand unless you want a permanent burn.
When you reach the top of the door, push on it to see if it releases any smoke; you can also use a tool for this task. If smoke is present around the door, remember that conditions could be ripe for a flashover or backdraft. You can apply the old adage “Work from the unburned side to the burned side” here if that is an option. Backdrafts have also been witnessed in adjacent apartments; they do not always have to be in the area of origin.
When you open a door with fire behind it, you must control the door. If the door flies open and the hoseline is not ready, you will have a problem. The other reason to control the door is that during an upper-floor fire, the wind could create a tunnel of fire coming at you. In the wildland arena, that is called a “chimney.” Controlling the door also allows other units to get by the fire and go to the floor above for search and to stretch another hoseline.
Be mindful of any people who live in that dwelling and their reaction to your forcible entry. I cannot stress enough the need to make your presence known by being loud, shining flashlights, and announcing your presence. In one incident, a neighboring department responded to an automatic alarm. The engine company went in through a window at night, and the occupant shot the captain in the leg, thinking the captain was a burglar.
Most of us have encountered dogs on calls, and they will usually stay clear of us at a working fire. It is when we are forcing doors for EMS calls or less urgent fire-related calls that we have problems. This is where turnouts will go a long way. A dog bite on a gloved hand or turnout will not do much damage. If you reach through a window or wall, be aware. Control the door if a dog is charging the door. I learned that lesson many years ago as a paperboy. Tools, lights, and noise will make most animals back off. If needed, law enforcement will take the lead for you until animal control arrives.
Depending on where you work, booby traps may also be an issue. They are set because the occupant has had multiple break-ins or is selling illegal items, such as drugs or guns. Booby traps are designed by these unscrupulous occupants and can be creative. Local law enforcement can be a good source of information on your area; if it has a SWAT team, that is a great place to start.
We know where most of this illegal activity is occurring in our first-due area and when to keep our guard up. There are a few items to look for on arrival. If you see a camera by a doorway into the structure or a security screen door with a small hole in the screen (that hole is used to pass drugs through while keeping the door locked) above the handle, be prepared.
You have now chosen the door to enter. Take a good look at it. Remember the golden rule, “Try before you pry.” It sounds simple, but you can overlook it in the heat of the moment. We have a need for speed, and a small waste of time could cost someone on the other side of the door his life; it is much quicker to turn the handle than to force the door. Once you have confirmed the door is locked, you need to get a feel of how locked it is. Push the door with your hand, jiggle the handle, and use a light shoulder against it (I stress light shoulder; you don’t want to go out on an injury). Does the door have any give or is it tight? Now, get systematic. Use the following size-up guide for the door:
- What is the door made of? Wood, metal, glass, or a combination of all three? Can you break the glass or knock out a wood panel?
- What is the jamb made of? Wood or metal? Does it have any give (photo 3)?
- What type of building construction is surrounding the opening? Block, concrete, wood frame, brick, or sheet metal? Can you breach the wall?
- How is it locked? A dead bolt, a rim lock, a mortise lock, padlocks, or homemade devices? Are there bolt heads, weld marks, or rivet heads to indicate an interior drop-in bar or slide bolt (photo 4)?
- How does the door move? Swings out, swings in, slides on a track, folds, or revolves? Can you take advantage of its natural movement?
- What type of hardware allows the movement? Hinges, pins, rollers, or guides? Are they the weak point?
You can perform proper size-up with a trained eye in seconds. After the door size-up, determine the weakest point; this is where you attack the door. After a few minutes or a few tries, if you are not successful, begin a new forcible entry method or tactic. Also, if that entry point is heavily secured, then maybe you need to move to another opening.
Your size-up will help you determine if that door is a “loser” for you. There is no point wasting valuable time on a door that will be extremely difficult to open. Instead, move on to another, if that is an option. This is where working as a team helps.
If you fail to gain entry or there is a long delay in the operation, you must notify the incident commander. A delay could allow the fire to grow and thus result in a change of tactics or loss of the building (photo 5). The success of the fire attack depends on the success of the forcible entry into the building.
Lombardo, Mike, “Forcible Entry Procedures: The Rules,” Fire Nuggets, March 2000, www.firenuggets.com.
SHAWN MILLERICK is a 14-year fire service veteran and a captain with the San Bernardino (CA) County Fire Department. He is a California state certified senior instructor and paramedic and has a bachelor’s degree in history from California State University at Fullerton. He is a lead instructor in forcible entry and RIC tactics at the Crafton Hills Fire Academy in Yucaipa (CA) and a fire safety team member at the California Speedway in Fontana.