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Vehicle Lockout Incidents

This University of Extrication column is a joint effort of Firehouse Magazine and to present critical information regarding vehicle lockout calls. References are made throughout this column to additional supporting documents that are available online only through the extrication website.

Vehicle Lockout Standard Operating Guidelines

Fire department standard guidelines for operating at incidents with a child or animal locked inside a vehicle should already be in place. If your agency does not have a guideline for these situations, a sample SOG is available online here.

Essentially, what the SOG suggests is that fire departments should not be using door-unlocking devices to assist a citizen unlock a vehicle. Emergency situations should be dealt with by glass removal. For non-emergency door unlocking requests, the fire department should utilize the services of a professional locksmith agency. The sample SOG details how a fire department can literally get out of the car unlocking business and still be seen as a benefit to the person requesting assistance.

Lethal Heat Buildup Inside A Closed Vehicle

From a medical perspective, it must be understood that when a child or animal is locked in a vehicle, even when outside temperatures are fairly tolerable (a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, for example), the interior temperature of a closed vehicle can rapidly become lethal (over 135F) in a very few minutes. Further information on the lethal buildup of heat inside a closed vehicle is available online at the website. A child locked in a car that is not running and is in the direct sun has just a few minutes of survivable time. This is a true emergency.

The National SAFE KIDS Campaign in cooperation with General Motors has produced an excellent public education color brochure on the dangers of leaving children unattended inside a vehicle. An online link to the free brochure, available in both English and Spanish versions, is available online through the website, University of Extrication section.

The Price Of Replacement Glass

If confronted with a true emergency where a child or animal is locked inside a vehicle, fire department actions should involve forcibly breaking and removing a pane of glass to quickly access the interior. The glass that is broken is typically that which is farthest from the child or animal inside the vehicle and also allows a firefighter to reach an inside door unlock button and open a door.

As a point of curiosity, the question was asked regarding which window glass costs the least to replace in a typical vehicle. At an actual incident, glass replacement costs are not a factor, but if a rescuer has a choice, wouldn’t it be nice to not only break a window that allows the child to be rescued, but break a window that is not too expensive to replace?

A research project to find the answer to which glass should be broken if there is a choice involved contact with numerous auto body shops, car dealerships and glass replacement agencies nationwide. The recommendations, comments and opinions from these body shop and window glass experts revealed some interesting considerations for glass breakage. While there is no “always correct” answer, there was enough information to allow the officer in charge at a lockout call to decide on a preferred window glass to break when there is a choice.

Small Is Not Always The Cheapest

In most everything we do, the larger something is the more expensive it is. We can “super-size” our fast-food order for just 39 cents more or buy a jumbo package at the grocery store for just a few bucks more. We’re used to paying more for something that is bigger or larger.

With vehicle window glass, however, size is not a reliable indicator of the cost to replace the glass. From glass industry experts, we learn that as a general rule of thumb, the smallest side window is usually NOT the cheapest glass to replace. On most domestic-made vehicles, a small side window may actually cost more to replace than a much larger door window. The front “wing window” glass of a Buick Park Avenue Ultra sedan is called the front quarter glass. This small fixed pane of glass costs over $1,200 to replace while the cost to replace the larger door window sitting right next to it is just a few dollars over $300.

Body shop personnel advise that with a typical automobile, avoid breaking out any quarter glass, small vent glass or the rear window glass if at all possible. Glass is priced more on popularity and complexity than size, so the smaller quarter glass are often much more expensive than the front door.

The exception to the size rule, however, may be foreign-made vehicles. The door window glass on a top-of-the-line Mercedes sedan for example will cost over $800 to replace while the small quarter glass window next to it may be less than $100 to replace.

So if we follow the experts? advise and decide to break out a door window, which door do you choose? Experts advise that with most vehicles, it is less costly to replace the front door glass. Remember, fixed windows on a vehicle, those that are permanently fixed in place, usually cost more than moveable door glass. So if all other factors were equal and there is a choice between breaking a driver’s door or a passenger’s door glass, it is advisable to break the passenger’s front door glass. This would not present as much of a broken glass hazard to the driver if one still had to operate the vehicle after forcible entry and some basic glass cleanup is accomplished.

For SUV vehicles, price quotations for a four-door Ford Explorer, America’s best-selling sport utility vehicle, were obtained. To replace all window glass in the SUV would cost almost $2,800. The large window behind the rear door, typical of most SUVs, was more than four times more expensive than a door window.

Broken Glass Containment

When a tempered glass window is to be broken to gain access to the interior, crews may decide to contain the broken glass. This is typically done by applying strips of duct tape or a sheet of contact paper to the exterior of the glass. These adhesive materials do NOT work on a wet window or on extremely dirty glass.

A “best practices” method when applying duct tape can use as few as four strips of tape and creates duct tape “handles”. These handles allow the glass to be pulled outward; away from the occupants inside. A procedural guide for glass containment is available online at

TASK: Given information regarding typical glass replacement costs for various makes and model vehicles, develop guidelines for forcible entry at vehicle lockout incidents.


Ron Moore, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a battalion chief and the training officer for the McKinney, TX, Fire Department. He also authors a monthly online article in the “MembersZone” and serves as the Forum Moderator for the extrication section of the website. Moore can be contacted directly at