Window Air Conditioners The Hazard From Above

Aug. 17, 2004
When doing a size-up and placing ladders on a fire building look at the window air conditioning units and how they are attached.
Images:Window Air Conditioners; The Hazard from Above

A firefighter is making his way to the rear of a two and one-half story private dwelling with fire showing from the attic window. There are reports of people trapped on the second floor. The firefighter has a 24-foot portable ladder and a halligan tool. His partner is coming with another halligan tool and a six-foot hook. They see a window air conditioner unit in the third floor attic window with heavy smoke pushing out the window around the window unit. There is another below the third floor unit, in a second floor window. Suddenly they hear a loud noise and the air conditioner falls from the third floor window and drops onto the second floor window unit, severely damaging it but not dislodging it. It then falls to the ground. The initial noise alerted them to a problem and they were able to successfully avoid the falling window unit by dropping their tools. They barely managed to avoid a serious injury.

Photo by Mike Dugan A view of the damage done to a second floor A/C unit by a unit falling from the third floor. The unit did not dislodge the second floor unit, but if it had hit a firefighter on a portable ladder, serious injury would have resulted.

Summer is here. Air conditioning season is upon us. Window air conditioning units are an important factors to be considered in any size up. These window units can give us some valuable information on living space within the building. And knowing their location may help us do a thorough search for fire victims. More importantly, knowing how they were installed is important in any size-up as this knowledge might keep you safe.

Window air conditioners can be installed professionally or by the do-it-yourselfer and this presents various types of installations. The means of securing them can be critical to the fire operations and members' safety. The professionally installed window unit has a bracket that attaches to the building giving the unit some support. The units weight rests upon the brackets and upon the window frame providing support in two different places.

Some homeowners have placed the window units in the window and not used the exterior support. The window frame and lower sash are the only support of the unit and a majority of its weight is hanging outside the building. If a fire occurs in this room and affects the frame of the air conditioner, then a catastrophic failure might occur. The interior parts of most window units are only plastic and can be easily melted by fire or the heat from a nearby fire.

Substandard or no fasteners, can be found on some A/C units which means fire only has to affect a small part of the unit's case to lead to failure. The plastic accordion type window-attaching frame will fail quickly, and if it is the only part of the unit attached to the building, the unit will possibly fall. Another problem that firefighters might face is poorly installed replacement windows. With an A/C unit placed in them these windows might become displaced during a fire.

Photo by Mike Dugan An attic window with a window A/C unit indicating this space is a living area.

When doing a size-up and placing ladders on a fire building, look at the window air conditioning units and how they are attached. If there is an A/C unit above a window you want to enter, you might want to select another window if possible for the laddering operations. Any A/C unit that appears unstable or loose could fall. This information should be communicated to the incident commander and all personnel on the scene. The area under the unstable unit should be cordoned off as a warning to all members operating near the unit.

If you plan to enter a window with a window air conditioning unit, then it should be pushed into the building. This may be very difficult and injure any victims under the widow. It may be difficult to push a window unit back into a window and if any other window can be chosen for entry, then it would be safer do so.

At no time should you risk climbing over an installed window A/C unit as this is dangerous and the firefighter's weight can cause the unit to dislodge. Members inside a building either operating or overhauling should pull the unit back into the building too avoid an injury to members outside the building. Before pulling a unit into a window, alert member outside the building so the area can be cleared.

Photo by Mike Dugan A picture of a window A/C unit that fell as a result of a fire in proximity to the unit. Notice the damage done by the fire to the plastic window attachment points. The plastic is melted.

A benefit we can get from these window units is the possibility of indicating the living space in some homes. A window unit indicates that a person is using that space as living space. When doing a 360 size-up, surveying the location of window units can give an indication of occupied spaces. Members should look for units in the attic space and also possibly in basement occupancies. These window units may only be used during the spring, summer, and fall months or they can be left in window year round.

Some homeowners have also placed window units through the walls of their homes These units do not pose as great a risk of falling but can be used to indicate the living space within a home and should be included in the in intial size-up.

The last thing that firefighters should be aware of is the possibility of window air conditioning units being used to cool illegal drug manufacturing locations. More than a normal number of A/C units might indicate activity that generates large amounts of heat such as illegal drug making or maybe counterfeiting or copying of electronics. Either way, this would indicate members should proceed with caution.

Remember that these window units can be used anywhere that air conditioners are used and they can be dangerous and helpful to firefighting operations. These units must be included in any initial size-up and the information relayed to all firefighters that might be impacted by the units.

If an A/C unit is found in an area not usually associated with a living space, then that information is vital to the incident commander and interior search teams. A/C units are dangerous and can be affected by fire as can any thing hanging from a building, window or ledge. So include it in a size-up and act accordingly.


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