A child is trapped in an apartment that is on fire. You are a member of the team assigned to do the search. Your way into the fire apartment is blocked by fire. What options do you have?
PhotO by Michael M. Dugan
A firefighter drives a halligan tool through a wall to determine what is on the other side. If the tool makes it through, then a second hole should be made.
You are searching a fire building on the floor above the fire and fire erupts from the fire floor and traps you in the room. The interior stairs are untenable and you need to get out. What are your options?
Breaching a wall is one way to save yourself and at the same time get out of trouble. It may also be an effective tactic to get to a person trapped by fire.
Wall breaching is a tactic that can be used with success, but must be done properly to be effective. The breach must be made below waist level to avoid crosspieces, or “cats” as they are sometimes called, being used to hold the wall together. These crosspieces will now be above the breach area.
The area that you choose as the breach area must be able to be breached. The best way to determine that is to drive a tool through the wall. This will let the firefighters breaching the wall determine if they can get through the wall. Some walls may be blocked on the other side by wainscoting, heavy furniture or appliances.
If the tool does not make it through the wall, then you must try a different place to get through the wall. If you succeed in driving the tool through the wall, then immediately make another hole in that bay to determine that this bay is a viable option. This will give you two openings to make sure you will get through the wall. Other things to look out for in the wall would be electrical outlets and heating/air conditioning ducts.
Tools that can be used to breach a wall are a halligan-type tool, an axe or a hook. The metal hook is the preferred hook, if you have it. A wooden hook will work, but you must use extreme caution to avoid breaking the wooden handle. Be aware of pulling so hard on the tool that you snap the handle. A halligan type of tool works the best.
What if you are caught in a room and you’ve lost your tool? The cylinder of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) can be used in an extreme emergency. The firefighter must maintain the air supply end of the cylinder and use the other end of the cylinder to strike the wall. This can and should be accomplished with the facepiece remaining in place and member breathing from the cylinder.
The tool must be driven all the way through the wall so the member can determine the smoke and heat conditions in the room being entered. If black, rolling smoke comes out of the hole or high heat is encountered, then the firefighter must select another wall to breach. This tactic is a relatively quick means of determining the conditions in another room, but it must be done quickly if you are trapped. It allows a quick size-up of conditions in the adjoining room. If it is clear, then continue your breach; if not, you have to find another way out of or into that room.
Other factors that will be important when you decide which wall to breach:
2. You must be able to get the tool through the wall. This can be difficult due to paneling, plywood, wainscoting, bathroom tile or furniture located on the other side of the wall. If the tool does not go through and you know you’re working on an interior wall, then try a different bay. If you still cannot get through try a different wall or another tactic.
3. You must be aware of plumbing, heating and air conditioning/ heating ducts located in the bays, which might hamper your getting through the wall.
4. An obstacle that might hamper your getting through the wall is the material of which it is made. Most firefighters can get through a wall made of sheetrock, plaster and lath. What if the wall was made of sheetrock with Lexan placed on the back? This material is being introduced to the building industry as you read this article. US Gypsum has introduced an impact-resistant sheetrock with different thickness of Lexan incorporated into the board. There is no data available on how firefighters are going to get through this material. It has not been tested as of yet.
The last thing that firefighters are going to need to know is how to get through the wall. If it is 16 inches on center, depending on the individual firefighter size, you will need a technique to get through the opening. Some of the larger firefighters and officers are going to have to use the reduced-profile technique with their SCBA. Others might be able get their shoulders through and almost “swim” through the opening in the wall. Still others might be able to sit at the wall and bring their hands and arms forward, then fall back through the hole like a scuba diver leaving a boat. The last thing that might be required to allow a firefighter to escape is to displace a wall stud. For that reason – and a host of other reasons – you should always have a tool with you.
Remember that the wall breach is an aggressive tactic when done to facilitate a search and a last resort when trapped. It is an easy tactic to learn and teach. All that you need are a couple of 2x4s and a place to attach them. Build a wall in the firehouse and attach some sheets of sheetrock to it. Each member who is an interior-qualified firefighter should know how to breach a wall and what tactic to use to get through that opening.
Michael M. Dugan, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an 19-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as a captain of Ladder 123 in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. He is former volunteer firefighter in the Halesite, NY, Fire Department. Dugan has been involved with the fire service for 27 years and is a hands-on-training instructor at Firehouse Expo and Firehouse World. While assigned as a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY’s highest awards for bravery.