BY BILL GUSTIN
Forcible entry operations are inherently dan-gerous. Firefighters attempting to force a door in a dark, smoky hallway can accidentally strike each other with sharp, heavy tools, resulting in lacerations and broken bones. Power saws produce a shower of sparks and flying metal fragments that can cause serious eye injuries. Forcing entry into a closed-up building can precipitate a rapid intensification of a fire or, worse, a backdraft because it introduces oxygen. Sparks from a metal-cutting saw or cutting torch can ignite accelerants spread about by an arsonist. Fear of crime, which far exceeds any concern for fire safety, can make the firefighter’s job of forcing entry more difficult and dangerous. Guard dogs, booby traps, and even armed civilians cannot distinguish between a burglar and a firefighter.
Presented here are some of the dangers of forcible entry and measures firefighters can take to minimize their risk.
(1, 2) Forcible entry must be preceded by a size-up that assesses fire conditions. Opening a fire building deprived of oxygen can cause a rapid intensification of fire. (Photos by Rob Dube.)
Most of the injuries that occur during forcible entry are the result of haste, lack of coordination, and fatigue. As an example, I was hit in the face with a halligan when firefighters intent on rapid entry applied prying force to the tool before it was driven sufficiently between the door and the jamb. Consequently, the halligan flew uncontrollably out of the door when it lost its purchase.
SIZE-UP IS ESSENTIAL
You place yourself at risk when you do not take the time to adequately size up a building and assess fire conditions before forcing entry. Check for the presence of fire on the other side of a door before forcing it. A heavy, well-insulated door can conceal a considerable amount of heat. Before forcing a door, take a moment to check for heat with the back of an ungloved hand. Feel the doorknob as well. Insulation in the door can reduce the amount of heat conducted to the outside, whereas the doorknob will conduct heat directly through the door.
A fire deprived of oxygen can suddenly intensify with explosive force when a door is opened. Hot, sooty windows and smoke pushing under pressure are indicative of backdraft conditions. A company forcing entry into a closed commercial occupancy in the early-morning hours must heed these warning signs and delay entry until the building is properly ventilated and charged hoselines are in position. When operating at fires in high-rise buildings, you must protect yourself from the effects of high winds on the spread of fire. You must use extreme caution when forcing a door to a high-rise apartment, as wind can “blowtorch” fire into the hallway when a door is opened.
Firefighters must be trained and disciplined not to force open a door that is containing/isolating fire before a charged hoseline is in position and all personnel are ready with masks, hoods, and gloves on. Never allow a door to swing open uncontrollably. Inward-swinging doors can be restrained by attaching a short length of rope or nylon webbing to the knob. This is particularly important when using a hydraulic forcible entry tool. Few doors and locks can withstand the 10,000-pound-per-square-inch force exerted by a hydraulic tool. Most doors will “blow open” after a few pumps of the tool. Coordination between a firefighter prying a door with a halligan and the firefighter swinging an ax or a maul is critical. Remember, if the operation is progressing successfully, the halligan firefighter will be continuously changing its position and angle to the door as it is driven deeper between the door and the jamb. The firefighter swinging the ax or maul must do so only under the direct command of the firefighter holding the halligan. Any unexpected swings are likely to strike the firefighter as he changes his grip to reposition the halligan.
I find a 10- to 12-pound maul safer and more effective at driving a halligan than an eight-pound ax because, obviously, it is heavier and also has no sharp edges.
Never lay forcible entry tools down on a stairway or balcony. They can become a tripping hazard, and there’s a good chance of their getting kicked, falling, and striking someone below.
PROTECTIVE CLOTHING PREVENTS INJURIES
Protective clothing, including gloves and eye protection, is essential during all forcible entry operations, including nonfire incidents such as lockouts and medical calls when patients are unable to reach their door. Protective clothing provides a layer of padding that can make the difference between a nasty bruise and a deep laceration or broken bones. Small, flip-down eye shields may not be adequate when breaking class or cutting with a saw. Many helmets today are equipped with goggles that provide excellent eye protection. Similarly, many firefighters carry safety glasses in their pocket, for effective and inexpensive eye protection.
(5) Forcible entry tools should be clean and free of paint, except for company identification. A light coat of oil prevents rust. Rope lacing and hockey stick tape increase grip and control. (Photo by Enrique Rodriguez.)
As firefighters tire, they become less effective at forcible entry and a greater hazard to themselves and other firefighters. Fatigued firefighters are much more likely to strike each other with tools than “fresh” personnel. But, don’t expect an aggressive firefighter determined to force a door to admit that he is getting tired and voluntarily hand off his tool to another member. Company officers, therefore, must continuously judge the effectiveness of firefighters performing forcible entry and rotate personnel before they become fatigued.
You can tell a lot about a fire company by looking at its forcible entry tools. Dirty, rusted tools are indicative of a company that probably doesn’t give much thought to forcible entry. A company that prides itself on rapid and effective forcible entry will likely take pride in its forcible entry tools. Axes and pry tools should be clean and free of paint, except for company identification. Metal surfaces should be covered with a light coat of oil. Striking surfaces should be ground or filed to eliminate burrs and the potential for flying metal chips.
A member of my company has taken the initiative to place small-diameter rope around the handles and shafts of our forcible entry tools. He then covers the rope with a wrapping of hockey stick tape. This has significantly increased the grip and control of our tools.
SAFE OPERATION OF POWER SAWS
Let’s limit this discussion to the use of rotary saws in forcible entry operations. A rotary saw is a very powerful and effective forcible entry tool because it spins a metal-cutting blade at as much as 6,000 revolutions per minute. At this speed, the saw is capable of throwing sparks and metal fragments a considerable distance. Additionally, centrifugal force can cause a cracked or frayed aluminum oxide blade to disintegrate into dangerous shrapnel. Last year, Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue firefighters were cutting a sectional overhead door at a warehouse fire when their saw blade came apart. After the fire, it was noticed that a piece of the blade was imbedded in a cardboard box inside the building, more than 30 feet from the overhead door. Projectiles from a power saw can endanger anyone operating near it. It is important, therefore, that all personnel in its proximity wear protective clothing and eye protection, not just the firefighters working with the saw. Inspect saw blades regularly. Replace any blade showing signs of wear or damage. A blade that becomes warped during use or causes any unusual vibration may be on the verge of coming apart. Stop the saw immediately, and change the blade. Cutting steel doors with a saw can be dangerous because it in effect introduces two sides of the fire triangle (heat and oxygen) into a building. The shower of sparks from a saw can ignite combustibles or, worse, trigger an explosion or flammable accelerant an arsonist may have poured inside the building.
(6) A power saw blade spinning at 6,000 revolutions per minute could break apart into dangerous shrapnel. (Photos by Enrique Rodriguez.) (7) Here, a piece of blade was imbedded in a cardboard box 30 feet from where the saw was operating.
Companies in my battalion narrowly avoided an explosion when they were cutting an overhead door at the rear of a supermarket. A lieutenant who was about to don his mask got a strong whiff of gasoline and immediately stopped the operation. Investigators later determined that an arsonist had sprayed gasoline all over the sales area and set fires on a mezzanine, presumably as the “wick,” hoping that the fire would eventually ignite the gasoline-saturated sales floor. Miraculously, it did not. Power saws are very effective in forcing overhead doors and storefront rolling gates. You, however, must secure them in the open position with pike poles (see “Forcing Overhead Sectional Doors,” Fire Engineering, November 2004). Many overhead doors and security gates are counterbalanced by powerful torsion springs. Heat from a fire can cause the springs to lose some of their tension, causing a door to close unexpectedly behind firefighters, trapping them inside a fire building.
Plate glass is the most common type of glass firefighters encounter. It breaks into sharp, jagged pieces. Improperly breaking storefront windows or sliding glass doors can yield large shards that can severely cut a firefighter. Large fragments of plate glass remaining at the top of a large window can fall like the blade of a guillotine.
Because of the hazards of plate glass, most building codes now require sliding glass doors, storefront doors, and adjoining show windows to be made of a safer material such as tempered glass, laminated safety glass, or polycarbonate. Unfortunately, firefighters have no reliable way of knowing if windows are plate glass or not. It is critical, therefore, that when you can’t be certain of the type of glass you will be breaking that you assume that it is plate glass and use the following techniques:
• Use the reach of a long pike pole for safety. It is very dangerous to attempt to break a large storefront window with a six-foot hook.
• For windows on upper floors, stand a ladder to the side, upwind of the window.
• Strike the glass at the top and work down. This technique limits the size of the glass fragments that could fall or possibly slide down the handle of a pike pole.
• Be sure to clear the frame of any remaining glass that can fall on firefighters.
DOGS, GUNS, BOOBY TRAPS
I have never seen or heard of a guard dog attacking firefighters when a fire is in the building. That is because dogs are usually more interested in escaping than sinking their teeth into firefighters. The real challenge with dogs occurs on medical calls when they prevent firefighters and medics from entering a residence and caring for the unconscious master. This is where a good relationship with the department of animal care and control can pay off. It should be requested immediately. Sometimes, however, medical care must be administered immediately to save a patient’s life. Firefighters wearing full protective clothing may be successful in herding an overly protective dog into another room by nudging him with the blunt end of a pike pole and short, intermittent blasts from a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher. Whatever you do, deal with the dog in a humane manner, and make every effort possible not to harm it.
Two year ago, my company responded to a report of a house fire. On arrival, we could see light smoke coming from a private dwelling, and the smell of food burning on the stove was unmistakable. Finding the house locked, we forced the back door that led to the kitchen. Once inside, we were met by an extremely drunk naked man brandishing an automatic pistol, who ordered us out of his house.
This experience taught us a valuable lesson: Before forcing entry, make plenty of noise to announce your presence. Armed civilians impaired by drugs, alcohol, or carbon monoxide or confused by language barriers or cultural differences can mistake a firefighter for a burglar.
(10, 11) An electrical booby trap can’t distinguish between burglars and firefighters. Here, the store owner energized security bars by connected electrical wires. (Photo by Dave Wood.)
Years ago, a business owner in the Miami area became fed up with a crack cocaine addict who kept breaking into his store. Frustrated with the criminal justice system, this businessman decided to take matters into his own hands by connecting electric wires to the steel door at the rear of his store. It wasn’t long before the cocaine addict was electrocuted while attempting another break-in. Soon, other business owners began energizing their doors, security bars, and window frames. This illegal practice may be an effective deterrent to crime, but it can’t distinguish between a burglar and firefighters performing forcible entry.
As a practical matter, firefighters can’t possibly detect or protect themselves from every booby trap. If you have the slightest suspicion that building components are energized, scan the building for wires before making contact. Simple and reliable devices on the market can detect electrical current. When such a device is not available, firefighters should never make initial contact with the building by grasping an object, such as a doorknob or padlock. If energized, your muscles will involuntarily contract, and you may not be able to release your grip. Make initial contact with the back of your hand so that the contracting muscles will tend to pull your hand away from the energized object.
Safe, effective forcible entry operations begin with training, prefire planning, and tool maintenance. Size-up prior to forcible entry is essential to determine what effect it will have on fire development. When performing forcible entry, you will reduce your chances of injury when you conduct it in a systematic, controlled, and professional manner. ■
■ BILL GUSTIN, a 33-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.