Hurricane Windows and Their Effects on Firefighting Operations

Dec. 1, 2004
Courtesy of PGT WinGuard In a large-missile impact test, a window is subjected to two impacts by a nine-pound two-by-four-inch beam traveling at 50 feet per second, then subjected to hurricane-force winds.

Firefighters in Florida had their hands full with the weather in 2004. First it was Hurricane Charley, then Hurricane Frances, followed by Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne, all within two months.

Many of the homes in Florida that withstood the hurricane-force winds have what are called “hurricane windows.” Hurricane windows can be of a variety of types and sizes, including double-hung, casement, patio, sliding-door and fixed types. The windows made with at least two layers of glass and plastic between the layers of glass. The glass is heated in an oven and pressurized at the same time, creating a glass that can withstand impacts. The glass is similar to the safety glass found in automobile windshields. A hurricane window can have as many as three layers of glass, and argon gas may be pumped between the third pane of glass and the two pieces that are joined together.

Hurricane windows are now required by every state along the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to New York, with new Connecticut and Massachusetts building codes taking effect by 2005. These windows are required by local building codes according to the force of the winds that may be encountered.

Photo By Craig Aberbach Hurricane Charley flattened this pool enclosure, but the home’s hurricane windows were not damaged.

Does that mean firefighters in Chicago, Dallas and San Diego – and everywhere in between – do not have to worry about hurricane windows, since usually they don’t have hurricanes? No! These windows are being sold in many locations as “impact-resistant windows” and “vandal-resistant windows.” For example, at a recent fire in New Jersey, firefighters found hurricane windows in a mansion.

Suburban homeowners are being sold these windows to better protect their homes from intruders. Urban builders are even installing these windows in new construction and renovations to address possible terrorist concerns. They also have been found in public buildings such as housing projects because they resist vandalism. Another place they may be found is in hospitals and other institutions so that people who are being treated inside cannot break windows and get out.

Hurricane windows are tested through the use of large and small missiles. The large missile test involves a beam that measures two inches by four inches by six feet and weighing approximately nine pounds that is fired at a window by an air cannon at 50 feet per second, or 34 mph. This is done twice and then the glass is subjected to 100-mph winds 9,000 times. If the window does not allow a hole larger than 1/16 by five inches to be made in the inner layer of glass, then the window is approved.

In the small missile test, 10 ball bearings are fired at a window at 80 feet per second, or 50 mph, and then it is subjected to a wind test. If it passes, it is certified as a hurricane window.

Photo By Michael Gilbert Hurricane windows being installed in new construction.

Hurricane windows impact firefighting operations in a variety of ways. First and foremost, if the interior search team advances beyond the fire for a search and becomes trapped, the firefighters may not be able to exit the structure from the interior. In test done by a fire department in Florida, it took a firefighter equipped with the usual hand tools over five minutes to exit a hurricane window. If these windows are found, interior operations must be adjusted.

Second, ventilation from the interior and exterior will be affected, as a firefighter on the exterior may try to vent the windows and find it difficult to do with the usual tools. The Florida test found that a power saw is the fastest and most complete tool to use on hurricane windows, although such a saw may not be available on the interior and hand tools would be a firefighter’s only option.

A firefighter performing exterior ventilation may be the first responder to determine the presence of hurricane windows. If the firefighter hits a window and the tool bounces off the glass, it may be impact-resistant glass. This member should call for a saw or obtain one from an apparatus, since using a power saw is the best way to take the glass out of these windows from the exterior. Cut the top and two sides and lay the glass over to create an exit. Three cuts are required and the glass will remain in place as the firefighter exits.

Members with hand tools must make a hole in the glass. The halligan and axe are the best hand tools to use in this situation. As with a saw, the axe is used to cut the top and two sides. If a firefighter is using a halligan, the fork end is recommended as the best way to get through a hurricane window, since the point can become lodged in the plastic inner layer. Use the fork to cut and rip the window on the top and both sides. This, however, requires time and energy, which a trapped firefighter may not have.

Photo By Michael Gilbert A window sticker indicates the type of window used in a structure. Any firefighter who sees such a sticker should note the type of window and document the address.

The best way to overcome these windows is to be aware of their presence before you enter a structure. This can be accomplished by visiting construction sites and finding out what kind of windows are being installed. If you know that hurricane windows have been or are being installed in a particular occupancy, enter that information into your fire department’s database and pass it on to all firefighters who may respond to that address.

If you have such information as you respond, make sure it is communicated to all firefighters. If no information is available, then members must conduct a complete size-up and include a 360-degree survey. This survey must include the type and size of the windows.

Hurricane windows are a benefit to all people living in areas with the potential of being exposed to a hurricane. The insurance industry has pushed for hurricane windows to be included in building codes, and it may not be long before Midwest building codes require them in tornado-prone locations. Hurricane windows protect structures in a storm, but hamper firefighters in a fire situation. Be on the lookout for these windows and drill on them, if they are found in your response area. (Note: Additional information on hurricane windows may be found by typing “impact-resistant glass” or “hurricane-resistant glass” in Internet search engines.)

Michael M. Dugan will present “Effective SOPs for Truck Company Operations” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb. 4.Michael M. Dugan, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 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.

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