Company Level Training - Wall Breach Part 1

Here's the scenario:

You are assigned to a truck company and are dispatched to a reported structure fire with people trapped. Your company arrives first on scene, and a frantic woman screaming that her baby is trapped inside greets you.

This is a one-story, wood-frame, brick veneer, single-family structure, with heavy fire venting from the A and B sides of the structure. Heavy smoke is issuing from the other openings, and there are burglar bars on the windows due to the neighborhood's high crime rate. The mother is pointing to the window of the room in which her child is possibly trapped.

Your crew makes entry through the back door, which is located on the C side, and you encounter zero visibility and moderate heat. You make your way down the hallway and into the bedroom where the child may be located. Upon entering the room, you notice that rollover is starting to occur in the hallway. The last man closes the door, thereby controlling the rollover. Inside the room, you find a semi-conscious child hiding in a closet. You break out the window for ventilation but are confined by the burglar bars, and exiting through the hallway is out of the question due to fire, heat, and smoke conditions.

You call for assistance with the burglar bars. While waiting for help, you decide to attempt a breach of an exterior wall, due to the possibility that current conditions in the room could change at any moment. The question is: Have you had any practice breaching walls since rookie school? And what obstacles do you anticipate?

Let's start from your arrival on scene. How many of us get off of the truck or engine with a specific assignment and make entry through the front door, without conducting a building size-up? I am willing to bet that every one of us has done it from time to time, and I am also sure that some still pay no attention to building size-up as they approach a structure. As an officer on the first arriving unit, one of your primary responsibilities is a size-up of the situation. Once you step off the apparatus, do you give building size-up any further attention?

I know that a 360 degree size-up is strongly encouraged, and there are departments across the nation that practice this on a regular basis, but others do not. Is this a mistake? I think it depends on the situation. If you live in a large metropolitan area, where your entire first alarm assignment arrives within five minutes, it's conceivable that you can forgo a 360 if you are first on. While pulling past the address you have obtained a 270 degree view of the structure. One of the next arriving companies should be assigned the rear of the structure, whether for forcible entry, ventilation, or utilities. This way the C side can be quickly and properly sized up. But I'm certain there are those who will strongly disagree with me.

So what should you be looking for as you approach a structure? Here are some suggestions. Is it one- or two-story? Is there brick veneer on the exterior? Are there burglar bars covering all of the windows and doors? Are the windows and doors boarded up? These important questions can be answered in a split second.

Wall breach is one of many tasks that require hand tools. So here is another reason every crewmember needs to bring a hand tool with them as they enter burning structures. Carrying tools is a basic concept; yet, day in and day out, people enter burning buildings without anything other than what they have on their person.

In most instances, personal preference determines the hand tool you carry. Some departments have position assignments (see article "Apparatus Seating Assignments" by Battalion Chief Pat Grace) that dictate which tools are carried by which crewmember. Personally, I don't care what tool you bring with you, as long as you have one. Of course, if you grab the 12-foot hook, and you are assigned to search, your tool won't be the most effective, so use common sense.

What are some of the situations that require a wall breach? Wall breach is effective when you need to access an area that is otherwise blocked by fire, debris, or zero visibility conditions, but it is also useful to escape a rapidly deteriorating situation. If you are in a room where the conditions are going downhill fast, the first consideration is to control the door, if possible. By simply shutting a door, you can give yourself the valuable minutes needed to make an emergency escape. This escape can be to the exterior or into another room that has better conditions.

The next step is to call a Mayday. Let command know who you are, your approximate location, and your current situation. If you access a different room via a wall breach, update command with that information. You don't want your fellow firefighters, specifically those assigned to RIT (or RIC, FAST, GO Team), looking for you in an obviously bad environment when you have made it safely to the exterior.

There are numerous obstacles that can be encountered when breaching a wall. These include wiring, plumbing, fire blocking, plywood, and even chain link fences. In some high crime neighborhoods, chain link fence has been plastered into walls to prevent thieves from breaking in from the exterior or through an adjoining apartment. I have seen studs on 12-inch centers. Metal studs are being used, more and more, in new construction. Some or all of these hazards may be present at your next structure fire.

Thus far, you have been presented with several obstacles related to wall breaches, so what do you do if you actually encounter one of these obstacles? Wiring is the most common obstacle, so remember that you can easily push the wiring down towards the sole plate or floor. There are two things of which you should be mindful regarding wiring. First, wiring is more than likely hot, and it may give you a small jolt, but if you are breaching a wall to escape a deteriorating environment, this is a minor nuisance. Second, oftentimes when you push wiring down, it naturally wants to return to its former position. If it comes back up, it can catch on your knee, the bottom of your bottle if you are going bottle first, or you could loop an arm under it if you are crawling through.

If you encounter any type of piping, try to avoid breaking it, because it could present sharp edges that can tear your gear, or worse, you could be cut or even impaled. Also, a broken pipe could result in a release of water, which presents an additional complication. As with any of these problems, if your situation is dire, do what you must to get out, because anything less puts you at risk of serious injury, such as severe burns, or death.

Plywood, aluminum, or wood siding, and brick veneer are some of the obstacles that exterior walls present. This is another reason you should always carry a tool with you when conducting indoor searches at a structure fire. Breaking through any of these obstacles without a tool is going to be difficult, if at all possible. Letting command know your approximate location and situation is vital, at this point, because you will probably need assistance from a crew on the outside to remove plywood or brick veneer. Exterior crews will have access to power tools, which will speed up the breaching process.

In part two of this article, I will discuss the five methods of negotiating a typical residential wall, which include: 1. the stud removal method' 2. the Superman method; 3. the bottle first method; 4. the reduced profile method; and 5. the emergency removal method, as well as a detailed diagram of a wall breach prop, along with an accompanying materials list. I will also cover the methods of training and the pitfalls that can be expected when breaching a wall, as well as an overview of all the information that has been explored.

I would like to thank FDNY Battalion Chief John Salka for the information he has shared with me on this subject. The wall breach prop is modeled after the one he uses when teaching outside an actual fire training facility. Chief Salka teaches wall breach in his "Get Out Alive" class at all Firehouse Expo's. If you get the opportunity to attend one of these expositions, I highly recommend it.

Please send any ideas for future training drills, or suggested improvements and variations on this drill, to my e-mail: manascl@firehousezone.com. You and your department will receive credit for any ideas used in fuure articles.

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Larry Manasco has been with the Fort Worth, TX, Fire Department for 11 years and has served as a lieutenant for the past three years. He holds the classification of Fire Officer I and Hazardous Materials Technician. He currently works in one of the busiest engine companies in Fort Worth. He has worked for Firehouse World in San Diego where he was an assistant instructor for FDNY Battalion Chief Salka's "Get Out Alive" H.O.T. class. You can contact Larry by e-mail at manascl@firehousezone.com.

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