BY JEFF CROW
(1) Door gate and window burglar bars. (Photo by author.)
Imagine this scenario: It’s three o’clock in the morning, and you and your fire company are en route to a reported house fire, rolling down the streets with lights and siren. As you don your protective gear, you hear the dispatcher relaying further information: “We’re getting multiple reports of people trapped.” You arrive moments later to find a wood-frame house heavily involved; thick smoke is boiling from one vented bedroom window. Two cars are parked in the driveway, and neighbors are standing next door in their nightclothes, pointing frantically and yelling something about people inside. At the front door you see the first-in engine company working to advance a hoseline into the building. Then you notice that burglar bars cover every window and realize that not only are the lives of the trapped occupants threatened but also the lives of your fellow firefighters. The incident commander (IC) approaches your crew and barks orders, “Get those burglar bars off NOW!” What do you do?
According to data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), at least 25 civilians are killed or injured each year in fires in buildings that have burglar bars.
Recently, in the wake of many tragic, multiple-death house fires, there’s been a push by some cities to pass safe burglar bar legislation. Although some progress has been made, a drive through any low-income, high-crime neighborhood will show that these efforts have been mostly ineffective. In this country, we believe, “A man’s home is his castle,” and people living in high-crime areas think their “castles” must be fortified. To these citizens, fear of home-invasion robberies outweighs the fear of house fires; therefore, many of the homes in these areas are equipped with burglar bars. Compounding this problem for fire departments is the fact that these are the same areas where fires occur with the greatest frequency. So you have more burglar bars, more house fires, more risk to citizens and firefighters.
(2) Arrows indicate weak points for attack. (Photo by author.)
Whether you are an IC making a “go/no-go” decision for an interior attack at a building with burglar bars, a company officer directing your crew to accomplish bar removal, or a firefighter grabbing the tools and taking action to get it done, you must have a thorough understanding of how to quickly remove burglar bars. Like everything else on the fireground, it starts with size-up and the decision-making process.
(3) Bars outside window glass close on flat tab attachments.(Photo by author.)
SIZE-UP, DECISION MAKING
From the IC’s point of view, the size-up and decision-making process at a building equipped with burglar bars should start with a consideration of the risk-reward ratio. One of the basic principles of structural firefighting is that we must have multiple points of egress from a building. When a fireground commander orders his crews to enter buildings “protected” by burglar bars, he is ordering them to enter a building with only a single point of egress. They have one way out-namely, the point where they made entry. Different departments and fireground commanders have different beliefs about aggressiveness and acceptable risk levels, but most would agree that there is no empty building worth dying for. There are people worth dying for, or at least worth risking our lives to try and save, and it is a firefighter’s job sometimes to take these risks when human lives are threatened. So, for instance, at a home with burglar bars at night and good evidence that people are trapped inside, the risk-reward ratio may justify aggressive interior fire attack with search and rescue. On the other hand, at a building with heavy security bars and a low likelihood of victims, such as a commercial occupancy after hours, firefighters probably should not make entry until after burglar bars have been removed. The risk-reward ratio in this case dictates caution.
Another basic part of size-up and decision making for the IC is to determine if enough resources are on hand for the job. Removing burglar bars is a time-, tool-, and labor-intensive operation that can keep truck crews from performing their normal activities of regular forcible entry, search and rescue, and ventilation. To deal with this, the IC has to call for additional units early. Extra crews and even extra full alarms may be needed because of the extra tool and personnel needs. The company officer’s size-up and decision-making process needs to bridge the gap between the IC’s strategic-level decisions and the firefighters’ task-level decisions.
(4-5) Attacking the gate hinge with an air chisel. [Photos 4-11 courtesy of Jacksonville (FL) Fire and Rescue.] (5) Leave hinges attached to the door, not to the frame.
The company officers’ quick size-up should focus on determining the types of burglar bars they’re facing and the tools they have at their disposal to remove them. If first on the scene, company officers should notify incoming units of the presence of burglar bars and make sure their crews bring both a first-choice power tool and a backup set of hand tools for the job. They should monitor radio communications and should try as best they can to keep track of the movement of interior fire crews and the locations of any trapped or fallen victims. These locations should be the basis on which officers decide which bars should be removed and when.
The size-up and decisions made by the firefighters handling the tools can be as important as the decisions made by the IC. For some firefighters relying more on brawn than brains, the decision-making process consists of (1) grab a tool and (2) start banging. Surprisingly, this sometimes works. Using a combination of hand tools and adrenaline, a big strong firefighter can get through many obstacles on the fireground.
But, what if the firefighters aren’t that big and strong? How much energy will they expend in the process? And how useful will they be when called on to do the other dozens of things they must do before their air bottle runs out? Decisions such as whether to direct sledgehammer blows against the bar center or connections, whether to attack the gate at the deadbolt or the hinges, or where to place the business end of the air chisel or halligan can mean the difference between efficient burglar bar removal and pointless pounding, between lives saved and lives lost when seconds count. The principle remains just as valid for rookie firefighters as for veteran officers: Smart size-up and decision making must precede effective action taking on the fireground.
BURGLAR BAR TYPES
Many different types of buildings equipped with various types of burglar bars are scattered throughout our work areas. We drive by these buildings every day, go in and out of them on EMS and service calls, but often don’t take the time to really look at the burglar bars until we’re called to remove them in an emergency. We should pay more attention because we need to have a basic knowledge of the different types of burglar bars we might face. The type of bars dictates the tools and tactics needed to remove them.
(6-9) Maul striking the halligan claw through the hinge. (7) Halligan claw through hinge. (8) Attacking window bar ends with a maul. (9) Using the maul: bending back bars before removing all connections.
Structurally, the two very broad types of burglar bars are the (usually) stationary bars that cover windows and the swinging, gated bars that cover doors. Burglar bars on windows can be attached by lag screws or carriage bolts in wood or being set into mortar or attached to masonry with anchors or even metal rivets. Most have flattened tabs at the bar ends that have holes through which connectors pass. Sometimes the bar ends are simply inserted into holes drilled into the window frame. The points at which the bars are connected to the building are almost always the weakest points and thus should be your first attack point.
Usually, bars on residential structures will be outside of the window glass, and bars on commercial structures will be inside, although there are many exceptions to this general rule. Larger multiunit residential buildings, for example, may have bars inside windows on fire escapes. When working on bars outside of windows, it’s often best, when possible, to leave the glass intact, as it will protect crews from fire and products of combustion.
Although rare in most lower-income areas, another type of window bar you might encounter is the safety burglar bar with quick-release mechanisms. This type of bar can be opened from inside the building by pulling a knob on the wall or kicking a lever near the floor, which pulls a cable and allows the bars to open easily. Some are also connected to smoke detectors, which release them. If this type of bar is used, of course, the risk to trapped occupants is minimized, and the risk to firefighters is greatly reduced.
Burglar bar gates covering doors are usually welded into a metal frame and then attached by hinges to a jamb set in the doorway opening. Like metal doors, they’re often locked with a double-keyed deadbolt mechanism. The lock mechanism is attached to the bars at the gate edge, often with a metal cover over the area where the bolt enters its throw hole. Unlike metal doors, these bar gates usually open outward, and their hinges are exposed. Tactically, the main difference between forcible entry of gates on doors and bars on windows is that door gate removal is often done to allow fire crews to get into the building and window bar removal is done to let those trapped inside get out.
POWER TOOLS FOR BURGLAR BAR REMOVAL
The tools of first choice for removing burglar bars usually are common power tools such as the air chisel and the rotary saw with the metal-cutting blade. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, but when used the right way, they should enable a single firefighter to remove most types of burglar bars quickly and with a minimal expenditure of energy.
• Air chisel. It is particularly well suited to quickly slicing through connection points and hinges. When using this tool to remove the hinges of a bar gate, position the curved cutter bit at the bottom of the hinge and use one short, quick burst to drive the bit into the hinge assembly. Pull the trigger again to cut up through and separate the hinge pin assembly from the jamb.
It is important to cut hinges so that the pin remains affixed to the swinging part of the gate, not the doorframe. The reason for this is that most of these gates are so tightly fitted that if the pin remains attached to the frame it will form an edge that can make it difficult to pull the gate assembly from the frame. When attacking these gate hinges with whatever tool you’re using, cut the bottom hinges first, and work your way up through the others. Attacking the top hinge last allows that hinge to support the door weight and keep it from falling until you’re ready. Although it is usually best to remove all hinges, sometimes cutting only two or three lower hinges will allow you the leverage necessary to bend the free part away from the frame and release the deadbolt or break off the remaining hinge.
The air chisel can be equally effective on some types of commonly used fasteners. Position the chisel cutter bit at the connection point between the burglar bar assembly and the surface to which it’s mounted. Squeeze the trigger once to drive the bit into the gap and then again to cut completely through the fastener. Once again, all of the connection points usually need not be broken. When one side of the bar assembly is loosened, you can then use leverage to break or push the bars back and away from the opening. One disadvantage of the air chisel is that, because it’s used less frequently than some other tools on the fireground, crews may not be as proficient in setting it up and operating it, which makes practice and drilling with it all the more important.
• Rotary gas-powered saw. This commonly used tool, with the aluminum oxide, metal-cutting blade, can be used effectively on most types of burglar bars. Just as with any other tool, this tool has its relative strengths and disadvantages, but its versatility makes it a good choice for removing burglar bars. Because it is used so often on the fireground (for example, with a wood-cutting blade for ventilation) and because it requires no assembly, this saw can often be employed more quickly. And unlike the air chisel, it can also be used to cut the bars themselves.
The rotary saw can be used in a number of ways to defeat security bars on doors. One approach is to remove the moving sections of the hinges by cutting vertically through the edge of the hinge assembly to remove it from the doorframe. Another method is to cut through the deadbolt as you would if you were cutting the deadbolt on metal doors: Position the blade in the gap between the gate edge and the jamb, and cut downward through the bolt. This can be more difficult if the bolt is protected by a metal cover, in which case you must cut through the cover as well as the deadbolt. If a metal cover is present, it is often better to use the saw to cut through the bar segments that support and connect the lock mechanism to the gate. Cutting these bars that support the lock will enable you to displace the lock assembly from the gate. When using the saw to remove burglar bars on windows, cut at the points where the bars are flattened into tabs and attached to the building with connectors, at the weakest link or attachment point.
It usually should be a last resort with a rotary saw to cut through the main part of the bars themselves, but it can be done. Be sure to have other rotary saws and extra blades ready in case the aluminum oxide blade wears down or is destroyed by the metal-cutting effort. Working horizontally with the rotary saw can be very awkward and fatiguing. It’s better to make vertical cuts through horizontal members, whenever possible-in other words, move the saw blade up and down while cutting through horizontal bar members and let the weight of the saw assist with the cutting. Older-model rotary saws can also be awkward and fatiguing to use above eye level, so if you must make higher-level cuts, work from a stable ladder or an elevated platform.
Another point to remember, especially when using the rotary saw to cut metal, is to keep the revolutions per minute (rpm) high. This saw with the aluminum oxide blade is designed to cut most efficiently when it’s being run “wide open.” After making an initial cut for a purchase point, avoid letting the rpm drop, as this may cause the blade to catch and bind.
HAND TOOLS FOR BURGLAR BAR REMOVAL
As most of us know from bitter fireground experience, sometimes power tools don’t work. They flood, they stall, they run out of fuel, or they start on the ground but won’t start again after you’ve hauled them up the ladder to the rooftop. Because removing burglar bars is such a crucial operation, always have basic hand tools as a backup. Simple and effective hand tools always start and never run out of fuel until their user does. That’s why crews assigned to removing burglar bars should bring two types of tools for every task.
• Sledgehammer (maul). The most basic, brute-force tool for removing burglar bars is the 10-pound sledgehammer (maul). It can be used in a couple of different ways. You can strike it at or near where the bars are connected to the building. Repeated sledgehammer blows applied at these points will often break or loosen the connections that attach the bars. If the bars are set in masonry, strike with the sledgehammer directly at the brick or mortar to break away the material into which the bars are set. Another sledgehammer tactic is to strike in the center of the bar. This can bend the middle section inward, thus pulling out and loosening the bar ends at their attachment points. Use caution when using this method to avoid breaking window glass or bending the bars in such a way that they obstruct entry.
• Flathead ax and halligan (irons). In the hands of firefighters who know how to use them, the irons are the “master keys” for all-purpose forcible entry on the fireground. Use the adz end of the halligan driven by the flathead ax as a muscle-powered version of the air chisel to shear off burglar bar hinges or connections. Use the point end of the halligan to attack burglar bar gate hinges. Position the point on the top of the hinge, and use the ax (or maul) to pound the claw point down and split open the hinge assembly. Once again, if the lower and center connections can be broken at two or three points, very often you can bend back the bars from the loosened points and use leverage to either break the remaining connections or move the bars completely out of the way.
(10, 11) Hydraulic forcible entry tool spreading bars away from wall. (11) Using high-lift jack to remove window bars.
You can use the irons on a burglar bar door gate as you would use them on a steel door: Drive the adz end in just above the locking mechanism, and push the opposite end down to twist the adz and disengage the deadbolt, or push toward the door to pop the lock assembly. You can also drive the adz, fork, or point end of the halligan in behind attachment points and then pull back the other end to loosen fasteners. You can also use the maul to drive the flathead ax in the same way you would drive the halligan. In doing this, drive the blade of the ax in with the maul to loosen and break the connections as you drive the adz end of the halligan by the flathead ax.
OTHER TOOLS AND TACTICS
In addition to the above, the following tools can be used to remove burglar bars. If these tools are not carried on your first-alarm units, they must be supplied by other apparatus, such as heavy rescue squads, that may not respond on the original alarm. This is another good reason to summon extra help to the fireground early for a building with burglar bars.
• Hydraulic forcible entry tool (Rabbit tool). Its most common use is to force inward-opening metal doors, but it can also be used to remove burglar bars. This little dynamo has a five-inch jaw spread and an 8,000- to 10,000-pound working pressure that can separate bars from just about any mounting surface. Insert the jaws between the surface of the building and the bars at their attachment point, and pump the hand lever to spread the jaws apart and break the connection.
• Powered hydraulic rescue tool. Its spreaders can be used to separate the bars from their connections, and its cutters can be used to cut right through them. Generating more than 22,000 pounds of pressure, this tool should be able to easily separate or cut through bars of any thickness. In a similar vein, a large bolt cutter can also be used to cut through smaller-gauge (1⁄4 -to 1⁄2-inch) bars.
• High-lift vehicle jack. The Jacksonville (FL) Fire and Rescue Department uses this tool to remove burglar bars. A single user can position a high-lift jack with its base on the windowsill and its lift arm under a horizontal burglar bar member. Then, as the firefighter pumps the jack handle to raise the lift arm (as when jacking up a car to change a tire), the bars are lifted and the ends are pulled from their connection points.
• Torches. Oxyacetylene, exothermic, and other types of torches can quickly cut through bars of almost any thickness, and they can be used above eye level and with just one hand, if necessary. The drawbacks of torches are that they are not carried on every apparatus, and they are used so infrequently by first-line fire crews that few members are proficient in their use.
Firefighters can have all the tools and equipment in the world, but none would be effective without preplanning, preparation, and training. Ride your territory, and notice those buildings that have burglar bars. Be aware of the types of bars common to your area. Keep your eyes open and your imagination active, and consider all the “what ifs” you might face. What if that house with burglar bars catches fire? What if people are trapped at those barred windows? What if we have to breach those heavy-duty bars at the back of that warehouse? Contact the owners of buildings with burglar bars scheduled for demolition and ask for permission to drill with the above-mentioned tools until their use becomes second nature.
We began with an imaginary scenario of an early-morning house fire with occupants trapped by burglar bars. That scenario was all too real this past September 26 when, in one of the most horrific house fires in recent memory, six people, among them an 11-year old child and three teenagers, died in an Oklahoma City house fire. According to one local TV station, “Neighbors first tried to get the victims, then firefighters. But they say burglar bars designed to keep thieves out kept rescuers out until it was too late. Neighbors say they’re forever haunted by the screams of those children trapped inside.”1
Let us hope you never hear those screams; but let us also hope that if you ever do, you would have the knowledge, the mastery of the tools and techniques for removing the burglar bars, and the presence of mind to use them. ■
1. www.kotv.com, accessed Sept. 26, 2004.
Thanks to Captain Richard Lundy and the Jacksonville (FL) Fire and Rescue Department for their invaluable assistance. A video on this topic produced by Jacksonville Fire and Rescue is available; contact Lt. Mike Peery at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
■ JEFF CROW is a 22-year veteran of the Houston (TX) Fire Department, where he is a district chief responsible for the downtown fire district. He is a Texas state-certified fire training instructor. He has instructed in the fire service and for private industry and has written on EMS education.