FORCING OVERHEAD SECTIONAL DOORS

BY BILL GUSTIN

Sectional doors are the most common type of overhead door found in commercial buildings and residential garages. They can also be one of the most difficult overhead doors to force when they are designed to meet new standards for wind resistance (photo 1).

Sectional doors consist of hinged panels that travel on rollers in guide tracks fastened to the sides of the doorway. Older, conventional sectional doors have wood or sheet metal panels that attach to vertical reinforcing members called “stiles.” Stiles give the door panels strength and serve as a fastening point for hinges and rollers. Conventional sectional doors may also have wood 2-inch by 4-inch or steel channel fastened horizontally across the stiles for added strength and wind resistance. Conventional sectional doors, as measured from the outside skin of the panels to the inside of their reinforcing framework, generally have a thickness of less than five inches. This makes it possible to cut completely through these doors with a rotary saw equipped with a 14-inch-diameter blade.


(1) Heavy hurricane-resistant sectional door. Note the massive torsion springs necessary to counterbalance this heavy door and large “C” channel horizontal wind bracing. (Photo by Lazaro Acosta.)

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(2) Firefighters raising the overhead sectional garage door. The pike pole must be used to brace the door in the open position. (Photo by Mike Heller, 911 Pictures.)

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Modern commercial and residential sectional doors designed to withstand hurricane force winds are fortified by a framework of heavy-gauge steel stiles, spaced as close as 24 inches apart, and large horizontal/”C” channel wind bracing. A strong, wind-resistant door can be more than six inches in overall thickness, which exceeds the maximum depth of cut possible with a 14-inch rotary saw.

RULES FOR FORCING SECTIONAL DOORS

Following are general rules that pertain to residential garage and commercial overhead sectional doors.

1. When conditions permit, try to gain entry though a swinging door and raise sectional doors from inside the building. This permits the door to be raised without damage, and a fully opened door provides the largest possible opening for access, egress, and ventilation. A company assigned to this task should equip itself with bolt cutters to cut padlocks that commonly secure latch assemblies in the roller tracks. If opening sectional doors from inside a building is not possible or successful, refer to Rule 2.

2. Cut small openings in panels to reach and release latches or linkage to an automatic garage door opener. Doing this allows a sectional door to be completely opened with a minimum of cutting. If you are successful in raising a door by any method, you must follow Rule 3.

3. When an overhead door of any style is raised in fire conditions, it must be braced open. This is most effectively accomplished by standing a pike pole in the door’s roller track. Use a pike pole of sufficient length to reach as close as possible to the bottom of the door. This will minimize a door’s “free fall” before the door is restrained by the pike pole. As additional safeguards, clamp vise grips as high as possible on the door’s roller track and wedge a halligan vertically in the track at the bottom of the doorway. This will give firefighters just enough room to crawl under the door if the pike pole and vise grips should fail.

Bracing overhead doors in the open position is critical because many of them are counter-balanced by powerful torsion springs. Torsion springs make it possible to raise and lower a door weighing several hundred pounds by hand or with the power of a small electric motor. Tension in the springs is adjusted to a specific weight—a substantial weight for doors built to new standards of wind resistance.


(3-6) Cutting a triangular opening in the second panel from the bottom allows the firefighter to reach in and throw the sliding latch bolt. (Photos by Steve English.)

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The location of torsion springs, above the doorway header, makes them particularly vulnerable to heat. Springs exposed to heat can rapidly lose their tension, in which case the balance of door weight/ spring tension will shift in favor of the door, causing it to close unexpectedly behind firefighters. Firefighters have lost their lives when a falling overhead door trapped them inside a fire building. An overhead door exposed to high temperatures can be too heavy to raise manually (without its spring tension) and can warp and jam in its roller tracks. This can make it very difficult to rescue firefighters trapped behind the door (photo 2).

I have experienced the awesome force of a falling overhead door. A few years ago, my company responded to a fire in a warehouse storing extremely large spools of monofilament fishing line. On arrival we encountered an intense fire fueled by the plastic fishing line and a stream of burning melted plastic running out of an open overhead doorway. As my company advanced a 21/2-inch hoseline toward the doorway, a heavy sectional door suddenly fell like a guillotine and broke apart with a thundering crash. Evidently, the cables that tied the bottom of the door to the torsion springs failed because of exposure to the fire. I am confident that we would have been severely injured or killed if we had been struck or trapped by that falling overhead door.

Failure of torsion springs is not the only cause of an overhead door’s closing unexpectedly. A short circuit or an errant remote-control radio signal can cause an automatic garage door opener to close and trap firefighters. If firefighters are unsuccessful in raising an overhead door, they should follow Rule 4.


(7) Opening expanded to allow the use of bolt cutters to cut padlock securing the latch. (Photo by Lazaro Acosta.)

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(8) Firefighters cut a “teepee” or inverted “V” in this overhead sectional door. Note that the rotary saw lacked sufficient depth to cut the horizontal wind bracing. (Photo by Mike Heller, 911 Pictures.)

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4. If you must cut an opening in an overhead door to gain entry into a fire building, make sure it is large enough to allow firefighters to rapidly escape. As a young firefighter, I remember crawling through a small triangular opening we would cut in the bottom of overhead doors to quickly get inside fire buildings. Years ago, we, admittedly, were overly aggressive. We prided ourselves on rapid forcible entry but thought nothing of the need for forcible exit. Consider that auto repair and paint and body shops and the average American’s garage are filled with flammables that can rapidly intensify a fire and necessitate a hasty retreat. Firefighters escaping from a fire building should not be delayed because they must wait their turn to crawl out of a small opening cut in an overhead door.


Cutting a “door within a door.” (9) Begin by making a vertical cut down one end of the door. (Photos by Steve English.)

Now that we have examined some general features of sectional door construction and addressed some rules for forcible entry, let’s look at some specific methods and techniques pertaining to commercial and residential doors.


(10-11) Cutting a small triangle allows room to insert the blade guard. This may be necessary to cut through the very bottom of the door.

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FORCING COMMERCIAL SECTIONAL DOORS


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Sectional doors in commercial occupancies are usually devoid of any lock or latch mechanism on the outside of the door. Commercial sectional doors are usually locked by latch bolts or L-bars that slide into holes in the guide tracks. Latch assemblies are fastened to the door’s stiles with sheet metal screws and are usually located on both ends of the second-from-the-bottom panel. To force a commercial sectional door, begin by cutting triangular openings in each end of the door’s second section. The openings should be large enough to enable you to reach in and throw the latches. Then, raise the door and brace it in the open position. Cut only the sheet metal panel; avoid the framework. If the latches are padlocked in the tracks, expand the openings to cut the padlocks with bolt cutters. If accessing the latches isn’t successful, you haven’t wasted your time. Cutting the triangular openings in the door will allow you to determine the size and location of the door’s reinforcing framework—key information when you must cut a large entrance/exit opening in the door (photos 3-7).


(12) The halligan is used as a fulcrum for the roof hook to raise the bottom of the door above the raised floor slab.

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(13) Horizontal cut across the door.

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CUT A “DOOR WITHIN A DOOR”

Firefighters, including those in my department, have traditionally cut a triangle, inverted “V “or “tepee” cut in overhead doors (photo 8). A triangular opening usually works, no argument there, but it has some drawbacks. First, these cuts tend to be small, which can delay emergency exit and limit the size of the ventilation opening. Second, firefighters seldom cut the very bottom of the door.

Consequently, once a hoseline is advanced through the opening, it keeps the door from being raised. Third, making diagonal cuts through a door’s sheet metal skin and inside framework is not easy. A rotary saw has a gyroscopic effect, which tends to pull it into a straight horizontal or vertical position. Diagonal cuts through layers of metal tend to bind a rotary saw blade.


(14-15) “Hinging” the door open on the uncut end. (Photos by Steve English.)

I learned how to cut a “door” within a sectional door from Chief John Mittendorf of the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department and adapted the technique for use on wind-resistant doors in South Florida. Begin by making a vertical cut down one end of the door. You’ll avoid cutting the vertical stiles because you determined their location from your initial triangle cut to reach the latches (photo 9). Now, let’s say that horizontal wind bracing on the inside of the door makes it too thick to cut completely through the door. Go back and cut a second vertical cut from top to bottom about four inches from the first vertical cut. Avoid cutting the stiles on the inside of the door. Now connect the two cuts at the top of the door. This will give you an opening of sufficient width to insert the rotary saw (into the opening) and cut through each horizontal wind brace.


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Cutting through the very bottom of a sectional door may require some additional techniques because in many parts of this country overhead doors close in front of a raised floor slab, which may be as much as two inches high. Also, the blade guard and cutting arm of a rotary saw may prevent the blade from fully cutting the very bottom of the door. If this is a problem, cut a small triangle in the bottom of the door. This will provide room for the blade guard and arm of the saw to be inserted and allow the blade to cut through the bottom of the door (photos 10, 11).


(16-17) Knocking out a wood panel to reach and release the door latch. (Photos by Lazaro Acosta.)

If you encounter a raised floor slab, use a halligan as a fulcrum and a long crowbar, steel roof hook, or another halligan to lift the bottom of the door, and complete the vertical cut (photo 12). To finish the “door within a door,” cut horizontally across the door and connect the vertical cut. You can avoid unnecessarily cutting the hinges by cutting across the center of the highest panel at which you can hold and operate the saw (photo 13). Completing the vertical and horizontal cuts will yield a wide “door” that can be hinged open to provide the widest possible opening for access and egress (photos 14, 15).


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(18-19) Triangle cut in the center of the uppermost panel of the metal sectional garage door allows the firefighter to reach in and release the linkage to the garage door opener.

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FORCING RESIDENTIAL GARAGE DOORS

Older garage doors built with wood pressboard panels present little challenge to a skilled and aggressive forcible entry team. First, punch through a panel next to the latch mechanism. Reach in and release the latch (photos 16, 17). If a wood panel door is equipped with an automatic garage door opener, knock out a panel at the top center of the door, reach in, and release the linkage mechanism (photos 18, 19).


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If raising a wood panel garage door is unsuccessful, simply cut and tear apart the door. I know of no wood panel garage door that can stand up against a couple of strong firefighters. Garage doors with sheet metal panels can be forced by cutting a triangular opening to reach and operate a latch mechanism or disconnect the linkage to an automatic garage door opener (photos 18, 19).

Cutting a “door” within a residential garage door using the techniques described in the previous paragraphs is very effective because residential garage doors are generally constructed with lighter material than commercial sectional doors. A row of windows across an upper section makes this the obvious choice of where to make the horizontal cut.

CHOOSING THE PROPER SAW AND BLADE

A chain saw equipped with a high-quality carbide-tooth chain can be very effective in cutting wood and lightweight metal residential garage doors. Additionally, a chain saw does not have some of the limitations experienced with rotary saws. First, chain saws tend to be much lighter and easier to handle. Second, a chain saw has a much greater depth of cut, equal to the length of its guide bar. Third, you don’t have to cut out the triangle in the bottom of an overhead door to complete a vertical cut.

A chain saw is limited, however, by its inability to cut through heavy-gauge metal door components. Try using a carbide-tooth chain saw to cut a heavy metal sectional door. You’ll end up ruining the chain and failing in your mission.


(20) Rotary saw with carbine “chip” segmented blade. Note the roof hook and halligan to pry the door clear of the raised floor slab. (Photo by Steve English.)

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A rotary saw is somewhat limited by its weight and depth of cut (five inches for a 14-inch-diameter blade), but it can be equipped with blades to cut practically any material. A segmented carbide “chip” blade is an excellent choice when cutting sectional doors with a rotary saw because it tears through sheet metal but can also cut wood 2-inch by 4-inch wind bracing (photo 20).

A carbide-chip blade also does not diminish in diameter, so it maintains its depth of cut. Conversely, aluminum oxide abrasive disks, our primary blade for cutting heavy security bars and door bolts, wear down as they grind through metal. As an abrasive disk wears down in diameter, it reduces its depth of cut. It is not at all uncommon to have to change aluminum oxide disks when cutting through a heavy steel sectional door.

The methods and techniques discussed in this article may or may not be effective on overhead sections doors in your jurisdiction. That can be determined only by familiarizing yourself with the overhead doors in your area. Effective forcible entry begins with prefire planning. You cannot choose the proper tools and techniques for forcing overhead doors unless you have a thorough knowledge of door construction, thickness of materials, and locations of locks and latches.

BILL GUSTIN, a 32-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department’s officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Gustin is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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