Firefighting Operations Within Sealed Buildings

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A child guard window gate. If they are installed properly as this one is the top window cannot come down due to the gate in the window track. A firefighter cannot exit this window without removing the gate. This can be difficult and time consuming.

Firefighting is a dangerous undertaking at any time, but if the fire building is a sealed structure then the job becomes inherently more dangerous. In a sealed structure firefighters will have only a limited number of ways to get out. If they operate without having or creating a second way out of the structure and they become lost, trapped, disorientated or cut off from the way they entered, they might not be able to find their way out of the structure. Sealed buildings are killers of firefighters. For these reasons standard operational guidelines are needed for fires in these types of buildings.

A sealed building is one that is constructed or renovated in a manner that limits access either into the building or into individual parts the building. This in turn limits the ways out for firefighters and occupants in fire situations. Burglar gates placed over windows to prevent intruders from entering a home, a commercial windowless self-storage building, a repossessed home or a vacant building which has been boarded up to prevent vandalism are examples of sealed buildings.

These buildings can range from a large commercial structure to a single-family dwelling. They may be located within any response area and recognizing and determining which buildings are sealed and how they are sealed, will improve firefighter safety. Due to advances within the fire service, new tools and the improvement of personal protective clothing, firefighters are advancing deeper into these structures than ever before. A review of and possibly a revision of our Standard Operating Guidelines (Procedures) may be in order. Tactics and pre-planned strategies to deal with fire in these types of buildings are a must.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A sealed medical testing facility. Entry may be made through the small gate into the occupancy but it will be a long time before we have complete ventilation of the first floor. Members operating on the second floor have no second way out.

Identifying them is the first task to be undertaken when dealing with sealed buildings. These structures can be anywhere within a response area and can range from a private home, with window gates, to a multiple-story commercial or vacant residential building. The local fire company can find and categorize them through an inspection program. This program may be incorporated into drills or training exercises, building inspections, during routine calls, and EMS runs.

Fire Department personnel should always be on the look out for these buildings any time they are out of the firehouse and should be constantly re-inspecting and re-evaluating these structures they have identified as sealed. These buildings can change significantly in a short period of time and we must be aware of the fact that this change might have a considerable impact our operations and safety.

Once we have located a sealed building in our response district, we then need to verify the address of the building. Once the address is verified, a system to relay that information to responding firefighters and officers will be necessary. This can be as fundamental as having notebooks carried in the apparatus cab and in the chief's vehicle with a copy at the dispatch location including all essential information. It can also be as intricate as a computer generated dispatch systems that recognizes addresses of sealed structures and prints out that data on that building on a response ticket. Regardless of how simple or sophisticated the method, an information system that furnishes responding members, officers, and a chief with information on a specific location is imperative.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A telephone switching building. This is a hazardous occupancy because of the wire insulation. Notice the doors on the upper floors. New York city requires an exit door for every 100 feet of building frontage.

If no information is available from dispatch on the structure the need to include any type of sealing in an initial size-up is essential. When a sealed structure is discovered on the initial size-up it should be communicated to all units on the scene and to all responding units. If additional help will be needed to address the problems confronted because of the sealed building, call them immediately.

Once a structure that has been sealed is identified it is necessary to determine what type of sealed building it is and how it is sealed. These buildings can be divided into three broad classes: occupied residential structures, such as a private dwelling in a high crime area with window bars, occupied commercial structures sealed for the evening or weekend with roll down gates, and vacant buildings sealed or partially sealed using plywood to cover the doors and windows. Each building might have a life hazard and will require distinct tactics according to the specific type of structure we are committing our forces to.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A self-storage building. These occupancies are in every area of the country. Sprinklers may protect them but finding and fighting the fire will still be difficult.

The first type of sealed building frequently encountered by the fire service, is the sealed occupied residential building, which might have a life hazard at any time of the day or night. Because of this life hazard, these buildings must be entered and searched. The safety of our operating forces is the primary concern at one of these buildings. The operation of and the initial placement of the first hose line is decisive to a successful outcome.

The crucial task of the first hose line is to limit the spread of fire and if feasible, extinguish it. If reports were received that civilians are trapped above the fire and firefighters are going to attempt to locate or remove them, the first hose line would have the job of protecting the stairs. In this case a second line should be used to extinguish the fire, while the first line is covering the stairway and escape route for the firefighters.

While firefighters are operating within a sealed residential building, a member or team should be given the duty to work on the exterior of the structure. They would be responsible to clear at least one window on the fire floor and one window on the floor above of any bars, gates or other materials sealing the windows. In order to afford the interior firefighters with an escape route in proximity to the fire area, this operation would, if possible, take place at windows adjacent to and above the fire. This is done in case interior firefighters are cut off and need an emergency exit. The position of the cleared window and it availability, must be communicated to the members operating within the structure; this communication is essential for the safety of the interior teams.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This building was renovated after a fire removing the upper floors. The second floor is sealed with bars that are difficult to remove. They need to be removed for a secondary means of egress.

A ladder should be placed at a cleared window. If a tower ladder or aerial ladder apparatus is at the incident, it should be positioned on the front of the fire building, the ladder should be raised and positioned at a window, ready, in case it is needed. The driver or operator should remain on the turntable, in order to use the ladder if necessary.

If a Tower Ladder is positioned on the front of the fire building, than an available firefighter or team should be in the bucket with a maul, halligan and hook to remove window obstructions. An available power saw can be used from the bucket to cut either steel bars or plywood, however the operator of the saw must exercise extreme care. The proper blade will be required and the bucket firefighter will have to size-up the sealing material and determine which blade is mandated.

The area immediately under and adjacent to an elevated basket, that is removing window obstructions is an exceptionally dangerous area and should be protected. Unaware members might be struck by falling debris and injured. When operating a chain saw from the bucket extreme caution is necessary to avoid serious injury. One of the many dangers that exist is the possibility of the chain binding and causing it to kickback in the direction of the firefighter. This kickback may force the chain of the running saw towards the member at an exceptionally high rate of speed.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A sealed Multiple Dwelling, sealed with steel bars. There is no way for a firefighter or civilian to escape from these windows without the removal of the bars.

Another risk with the saws would be if members are operating behind the boarded up openings, or under possible falling pieces of material. When members are inside advise them of the locations of window you are clearing, so the area can be kept clear. When using a chain saw a plunge cut guard and depth gauge will permit a safer operation. When using any method of gaining access to the building, be aware of where the material is going when removed to prevent injury to firefighters underneath you.

A plan that deals with all aspects of firefighter entry into these structures should be in place, because residential occupied buildings must be entered and searched. The safety of the firefighters must be the number one priority. If a secondary escape means has not been established from the area of fire operations, then no personnel should move ahead of the protection of a hose line. The most important factor that influences the success of an operation within a sealed residential structure is the aggressive interior attack including placement and operation of the first hose line.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A sealed vacant using plywood HUD type sealing and stucco over plywood on the first floor.

The presence of a back-up line would be a major benefit, to the safety of interior forces, if the manpower is available to stretch it. The communications connection, between interior and exterior forces and the incident commander is an essential factor to guarantee the safety of all operating forces. The most important thing to remember about a sealed residence is that the occupants, in their attempt to keep intruders out, are keeping us in!

The second type of sealed structure that may be encountered is a sealed commercial building. These building are dangerous and should be entered only after a complete size-up has been done and the building can be entered with no undue risks to firefighters. Standard firefighting tactics employed at commercial fires, such as the use of search ropes, large caliber hose lines and ventilation prior to entry are still a necessary. These structures are often well sealed to provide protection of the contents in the building and therefore are a formable adversary, delaying entry and application of water on the fire. Finding or creating a second way out may take a significant amount of time and operating forces must be aware of this.

There is usually a substantial delay between the start of the fire and when it is first reported to the fire department. Thus, the fire has time to grow to considerable magnitude before the first units arrive on the scene. As a result of this, the interior contents may already be severely damaged or completely destroyed. Operating to protect only a structure is never worth the risk of a firefighter's life.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A sealed repossessed home. These building can be found anywhere. Could the former owner return to set fire to this building?

Therefore, if the fire has progressed from a small contents fire, to a fire involving all contents and parts of the buildings structure it now may becomes a defensive operation. It is hard to locate a fire in these large and complex buildings. It is also difficult to search and ventilate commercial buildings because of their size and construction features. When sealed, these building become even more dangerous. Many time at sealed and renovated commercial establishments the owners will use cement blocks to seal window and door openings, this will provide a good point for stream application and to create a ventilation opening because these cement blocks are not well attached to the original structure and can be removed easily.

Remember if the structure is sealed it sometimes, although not always, indicates a presently unoccupied building, therefore the potential for victims is low. However, inherent dangers still exist for the firefighters at the scene. Plan and act accordingly! The possibility of becoming lost, trapped or disorientated is real and firefighters need to stay aware of this. Remember firefighter safety first. A building and its contents can always be replaced. The life of a firefighter could be lost forever.

The third type of sealed structure that is often confronted is a vacant sealed structure. These buildings are abandoned or left vacant by their owners and can be unoccupied for years. These sealed structures are hazardous to firefighters as soon as they become uninhabited. The first reason is because of delayed alarms. Another reason is a lack of doors and walls to confine the fire and few barriers to fire extension remain within the building, due to holes in the floor, open pipe recesses and deterioration in general. The environment takes its toll on the structural stability of these buildings due to the effects that climatic changes can have on unprotected structural components.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This Multiple Dwelling has folding scissor type gate on the interior of all but one front window. Interior escape would be difficult especially is they are padlocked shut.

These structures are exceptionally dangerous and if they must be entered, do so with extreme caution! Of course the possibility of encountering victims is always present, but the risks to firefighters are much greater. Firefighters can easily become lost, hurt, or trapped anywhere within these buildings. Fires in these vacant buildings are often due to arson, which raises the likelihood of uncontrolled fire growth. Numerous structural problems may also exist. The staircase or individual steps might be missing and floors are sometimes removed from bathrooms in order to salvage copper piping. These structural problems might not be visible from the exterior. The first step in fighting a fire in a vacant sealed structure is to determine if it will be attacked from the interior or exterior of the building. This decision would be based upon the structural stability of the building and the size of the fire problem.

A fire that has started on a lower floor and traveled to an upper floor may only be visible at the upper levels. This is a real concern. It is dangerous to advance to an area where a fire is burning if it is unknown whether the firefighters are operating above an undetected fire. This could trap them in a sealed and hostile environment from which escape would be difficult or impossible. If an interior attack is decided upon, then the search for fire should be started on the lowest floor and continue upward floor by floor. This will reduce the possibility of firefighters being caught unaware by fire burning below them. The possibility of a secondary fire, which might trap firefighters unexpectedly, is always present. Even if all precautions are taken, such as searching the floors before advancing above them, there still must always be a second way out. A member or a team should be assigned the task of doing a 360-degree survey around the fire building's exterior to look for signs of previous fires, especially on the floors directly above or below the present fire attack.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This bar sealed Private Dwelling has a different variety of bars. This homeowner has placed his family in their own jail. Removal of bars for rescue will be time consuming.

The number of personnel committed to an interior attack should be kept to minimum and operational time within the structure should be limited to only the time required to extinguish the fire. While interior units are operating, outside forces should be assigned the job of removing any material sealing the structure on the fire floor and at least the floor above. Plywood, stucco over plywood or tin or other sheet metals, are some of sealing materials that might be encountered. This will be a time consuming assignment and if additional manpower is required to complete the task of removing obstructions then call for them immediately. It is safer to call in additional help, if it appears it might be needed, then to not call them and try to catch-up later.

Ladder company personnel should be used to assist the engine company by facilitating their advance and operations and should not be assigned to search without the protection of a hose line due to possibility of a rapidly developing fire. Ladder company firefighters should be equipped with hand lights and search ropes along with their assigned tools. They should clear a path for firefighters stretching the hose lines and assist them in gaining access to the seat of the fire. Thermal Imaging Cameras that help locate fire and heat would decrease the time it takes for interior forces to find the seat of the fire. Unfortunately this technology is not available to every fire company, although it should be.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This is a commercial occupancy on the first floor with two apartments on the floors above. The sealing of the building will complicate a fire in any of these occupancies.

At times firefighters may encounter what is known as a semi-sealed structure. These are defined as sealed buildings that are lived in by homeless individuals. The access points into these buildings are usually hidden from the public view. In semi-sealed structures firefighters occasionally find evidence of people living in the building. They are now dealing with a potential life hazard. Before committing firefighters to searches in these semi-sealed structures we should have a known and confirmed life hazard in the building and a definite area within the structure on which to concentrate the search. All the other requirements, for safe operations including secondary exits and hose lines are still necessary.

Keep in mind that most vacant buildings usually have a low potential for civilian victims and a large injury risk to firefighters therefore Commanding Officer must take into account the safety of all personnel at the fire scene. Remember that interior operations are not mandated at vacant buildings. Entry into a vacant building is an option not an obligation. Only when conditions are favorable to interior control and extinguishment without unusual risks to our forces should an interior attack be considered.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
This electronics store has an interior gate, which is raised by a key switch. Getting this gate opened will probably delay the start of operations.

There might be buildings in a response area that is sealed and unique to that response area. New York City has HUD (Housing and Urban Development) sealed buildings and warehoused apartments. In Florida they encounter hurricane shutter and storm resistant glass which makes it very difficult to exit the structure. Self-storage building and telephone exchanges are becoming more common throughout the country. Whatever type of building is in your response area, if it is sealed it should be the subject of visits and drills. Training firefighter on what they might face at a fire in a specific structure will improve the knowledge and safety of responding firefighters.

Sealed buildings, whether residential, commercial or vacant pose enormous risks to firefighters when called to operate at them. For this reason, Standard Operating Procedures should be prepared and strategic plans for fires within in these buildings should be established. Firefighters are called to duty to protect life and property but in doing so a firefighters life must come first. Firefighters deserve ongoing training in order to learn how to operate safely within these dangerous structures. More importantly, they need to have the ability to recognize when not to.


Michael M. Dugan is a 17-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as a Captain of Ladder 123 in Brooklyn?s Crown Heights. He has been involved with the Fire Service for 27 years. He is also a ?HOT? instructor at the ?Firehouse Expo.? He is a contributing editor to ?Firehouse? magazine. 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 award for bravery.

If you have any questions regarding this subject area, Mike can be contacted at: duganfire@aol.com

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