When I was first interested in firefighting, in the 1920s, only two types of window glass were used for store windows, plain and plate. Firefighters were taught windows were the cheapest element of the building and that breaking them made the interior livable for firefighting. Personnel were cautioned to be sure to clean out all the glass.

High-rise buildings were a problem because falling glass could hit occupants exiting and firefighters entering the building. Sheets of glass could plane away from the building. The Fire Department of New York developed methods for removing glass into the building instead of dropping it outside.

Ventilation requires care, lest the cure be worse than the disease. I helped to solve the following crisis. There was a fire in a grocery store on the first floor of a six-story tenement. Angry, dark flames just waiting for oxygen could be seen below the smoke in the rear of the store. The engine company was crouched in the store doorway; the truck company was standing awaiting orders to take out the windows. A very stout woman had been brought down the fire escape and was transferred to the 25-foot ladder. She was clinging to the ladder for dear life and would not move down. If they hit the windows, a sheet of fire could roll up the fire escape and envelop the victim and rescuers. The chief ordered the ladder to be taken down. With firefighters, policemen, and buffs on the ladder, it was gently lowered to the street with the screaming woman hanging on. The men on the fire escape retreated into an apartment. The store window was taken out, and a ball of fire rolled up the fire escape.

Prior to World War II, large and very expensive plateglass windows were being installed in exclusive shops. A shoe store on 42nd Street in New York City had a rear storeroom with a single entrance. The fire was in the storeroom. The incident commander refused to permit the expensive plateglass windows to be broken. The result was that they eventually had to break through the expensive marble in the building lobby to get to the storeroom.

There was a similar shoe store around the corner from Truck 24. The company planned that the 25-foot ladder traditionally raised to “mark the fire building” would “accidentally” fall though the window before the chief arrived.1

Now, hurricane-resistant windows challenge our tactics.

I went to visit the new fireboat Firefighter in September 1938. It was very windy going up home along the Hudson River, New York. The East Coast to the north was being hit with a monster hurricane, which was totally unexpected. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Although the weight of the building kept the house on its foundation in an ordinary windstorm, the violent hurricane displaced thousands of homes just a few feet off the foundation, enough for destruction. As a result, codes now require homes to be securely tied down to the foundations.

Today’s lighter construction is particularly vulnerable if the hurricane wind gets into the building. As a result, windows resistant to hurricane forces are required by code in hurricane hazard areas. Ventilating or removing such windows for rescue of occupants or firefighters is a serious problem.

I had an inquiry from a South Florida firefighter relative to forcible entry of hurricane-resistant windows. I asked for help. Lt. Walter Lewis of Engine 4 of the Orlando (FL) Fire Department supplied the detailed information that follows.

“The problem is that the window is designed, in accordance with the code, to stop a 2 foot 2 4-inch 2 8-foot board from being propelled like a spear at 35 mph. Several companies produce double-pane or single-pane glass (with increased thickness) with double laminate on it. It is more durable than a car windshield but acts similarly. Since it’s laminated, it is also typically glued or set very well within the frame, which prevents smashing of the window with a hook, latching on, and pulling it loose. All you end up with is a small penetration and shattered or cracked laminated glass that doesn’t tear very well. It may tear, but it doesn’t catastrophically fail and remove like standard glass.

“The best attack thus far—if the window is stock, without additional locks or with locks that are insignificant (frame locks with thumb screws)—is to force the forks of a halligan tool under the bottom frame of the lower window, which allows the single-hung window to be forced upward, overpowering the simple locks on the window, and even the frame locks. To clear it, once the window is raised up about halfway, use the adz/pick end of a halligan tool or pike pole/hook to pull the lower frame sash outward; this will usually dislocate the lower-hung window from its track within the window framing. But this still leaves the more important upper portion. It’s personnel intensive and difficult to do if fire/smoke and landscape OR building construction conditions don’t permit easy access.

“The quick way is with the carbide-tip saw. It’s messy and throws a lot of small bits of glass and material at the operator. It is strongly suggested that the operator be masked up and on air. A door cut seems to work best, both for speed and limiting exposure to glass fragments. Cut across the top from edge to edge, then down from the corner along the window edge to the bottom. Then, from the first-cut side, meet the second horizontal cut (at the bottom of the window) with the bottom of the downward cut. This may allow you to tear the remaining portion downward, but it at least clears most of the window and cross bar out of the way. It still leaves some glass along the edges, but the good point is some of the laminate serves somewhat to protect personnel from being cut.

“Another downside is that these windows are typically set into masonry walls, so the task of pulling them out isn’t so easy.

“For rapid egress, use the window as it’s designed and hope that the single-hung window allows for enough room to escape. Halligan forks to each side of the window frame work to bend the frame, but the laminated glass can flex and may not necessarily pop out of place like typical aluminum-frame windows.”


I have written about many fires involving firefighter fatalities, and it is always disturbing. Only once in a while is the fatality truly unavoidable.

I ask myself, ” Why didn’t they know and act on information that has been published, in many cases more than once?” Thus, it is a pleasure to get a letter like this one from Lt. John Kaczmarek of the Berlin (CT) Fire Department:

“Three years ago when I was on a line crew as the lieutenant, a senior firefighter was ready to charge in to extinguish what appeared to be a routine fire. Because I had just reviewed one of your columns on fires in hidden spaces, I stopped the advance until we checked the false ceiling area from the relative safety of the adjacent large picture window outside. The fire was in full control of the truss area, and within five minutes, a collapse of the roof occurred. Keep up the great work!”

The fire building is not the training school building, where there are no hidden spaces and no collapse potential. It is a dangerous and deadly environment. We must enter it with as much information about the situation as possible. The officer should have a thermal imaging camera (the firefighter’s radar) and be skilled in its use.


1. The biggest plateglass window made to that date arrived from France with great publicity. It had to travel miles from the ship at a nearby pier to get under the elevated railroad at its highest point. A huge crowd gathered on Fifth Avenue to see it installed. As it was set in place, a workman dropped a hammer through it.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 62-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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