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A system being used to secure doorways and window openings in vacant structures and structures under construction may present a significant forcible-entry challenge to firefighters. This system, known as the Vacant Property Security System (VPS), is sold and/or rented to property owners on the premise that it will reduce theft, damage and liabilities to the owners while making the working environment safer for the workers, enabling them to secure the property while inside. For us, it is a security device we must know about in order to properly defeat it.
The VPS is easily distinguished by its appearance as shown in the photos that accompany this column. It is usually gray and constructed of steel. Its modular perforated window screens, doors and adjustable sheets are fitted externally over existing openings, sometimes with the windows still in place. The manufacturer states that the VPS is produced in high-grade plated and coated steel and polycarbonates, with extensive use of bright zinc-coated components for durability and easy graffiti removal. By using the most modern manufacturing techniques, the VPS system is durable and highly resistant to attack. The covers weigh 35 to 40 pounds each.
- Doors -- Although the VPS doors in the front and rear look similar at first glance, they differ in operation. The front doors are designed for access to the building from the outside and the rear doors are designed to allow egress from the interior, but no access from the exterior. The rear doors are identifiable by their lack of hardware on the outside. They are completely flush on the external face and have internal keyless locking. The door may be quickly and easily opened from the inside by means of a single-action lever. The front door has a "status indicator" that states whether the door is locked or unlocked. If the indicator states that it is unlocked, but you still cannot open the door, it is latched by workers on the inside. A second type of door we have encountered does not have a "status indicator" and is opened by use of a key that locks both its top and bottom. Forcible-entry techniques for the two types of doors differ slightly.
Steel U-channel rails are the premise for securing the entire system. The channels are installed near the top and bottom of the door opening. Steel cables are attached to the door frame, then through the channels and secured to a small metal tensioning mechanism. Once the cables are threaded through the tensioning mechanism, the bolt is tightened, securing the frame to the building. The door is attached with three tamper-proof hinges built into the frame with permanently fixed hinge pins. The doors come in standard widths with a minimum height of 77 inches. The leading edge is reinforced with steel and the outside edge of the door is protected to prevent prying. When the door is locked, the locking mechanisms are at the top and bottom creating a tight, strong fit.
The best way to defeat this door is to use a saw to cut a triangle or a square on the hinge side large enough to let a member reach in and push down the interior locking mechanism. This cut must be at least four inches from the exterior "status indicator," which is the slide mechanism for entry when the proper code is entered.
To defeat the door with the keyways on the upper and lower areas, attack the hinge side with an aluminum oxide blade on the partner saw. It will make quick work of the hinges and we can pry the door open in the opposite direction. We may have to cut the locking mechanisms once the door is pried open, dependent on the style used; i.e., a dead bolt vs. a hooked latch.
- Windows -- The VPS window coverings are perforated to allow light and ventilation and are installed in a fashion similar to the doors. Steel channels are fitted at the top and the bottom of the window opening. A steel cable is strung through the top, then through the bar and attached to the tightening mechanism. On the bottom of the window a steel bar is attached to the window covering with pins. The pins are attached to the bar and inserted into the slits on the side of the window covering. This can be found on the top too. The cable is attached to this bar and once again threaded through the steel channels and tightened.
From the exterior, the best way to remove the window covering is to use a partner saw with a metal cutting blade to cut the lower part of the window covering to the left or the right of center, about one-third of the way off center, cutting the bar holding the cover in place. If the bar is used on the top, cut it the same way and the cover will fall free. Use caution and be sure the area below is clear of personnel. On the top of the window covering, as stated, the steel cable is threaded through the small openings. Use the saw and shear the head off to release the top of the VPS covering. You may also use the irons, placing the hook of the halligan directly on the pin and forcing the bar to retract then pulling the cover from the window.
From the interior, you can easily remove the whole system by using the halligan and prying the tightening mechanism away from the steel channel. Once this is done, the entire channel can be turned sideways and the VPS cover removed and pulled into the building. When removing this device, remember that the cables are under tension; for that reason, it is easier to pull the device as opposed to cutting the cables, which may cause an adverse reaction. Once again, use caution if allowing the cover to free fall to the ground below.
One last variation of the VPS is an installation of this device in a basement window and a scuttle. The VPS cover is attached using long threaded steel rods. If we use a saw to cut the channels holding the cover in place, we should be able to open these windows too. Note that the covers may have been installed with glass windows in place to protect the windows while construction is completed.
Fighting fire in buildings with VPS systems will require us to use certain tactics and techniques to vent, force entry and search for workers or occupants. These buildings must be opened up to provide us with a secondary egress once we start operations. Opening these buildings is not difficult if, when we observe them in our neighborhoods, we look them over and plan our tactics. By pre-planning these buildings, we ensure that we will not be caught short. A saw with an aluminum oxide blade, a halligan and maybe a tower ladder to work from on the upper floors is all we will need to defeat this system.
TONY TRICARICO is a 29-year veteran of the fire service, 25 with the FDNY, and currently the captain of the Special Operations Unit, Squad Company 252 in Brooklyn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.