"Forcible entry." It's not always a crime. It's what firefighters do for a living.
As if flames and heavy smoke weren't enough, firefighters can face a lot of other obstacles and challenges on an "active structure fire" call.
Structures may be unsafe. Floors, ceilings, stairways could collapse. There are gas lines and appliances, the possibility of toxic and/or volatile chemicals that could erupt, electrical shorts and arcs that could cause the blaze to leap behind you. Any wall can conceal an inferno behind it.
Most pressing, there is the possibility that people may still be inside, may be already unconscious, and you have to put aside every other danger to find them and rescue them.
But all that is faced once firefighters get inside a burning building, or even inside a room in a burning building. Before that, there are also doors. Possibly locked doors – possibly doors with victims behind them.
Especially in a multi-unit or multi-story building, there can be a lot of doors to get through in a blaze. That's why Wauwatosa firefighters regularly engage in forcible entry training. And that can be a challenge in itself, because breaking in a door once or twice usually renders it fairly useless for further training.
GE steps up to fund training system
Not anymore. Thanks to a $7,500 grant from GE Healthcare, the Wauwatosa Fire Department now has a "forcible entry training door" manufactured especially for use by firefighters.
The reusable door was designed by 27-year New York Fire Department veteran Lt. Mike Perrone, who founded Firehouse Innovations Corp. to manufacture and market it.
Called "The Multi-Force Forcible Entry Door System," this door, made of heavy-gauge steel, can be broken into hundreds and hundreds of times. It can simulate entry through an inward- or outward opening, left- or right-hand opening door. It can mimic anything from a wooden door in a wooden frame to – with an add-on – a steel door in a steel frame.
The door can be set for modest, moderate or heavy resistance. It is also portable, consisting of just a few pieces – albeit heavy ones – that can be assembled at any training site in about five minutes.
On Tuesday, Wauwatosa firefighters set up their new forcible entry door for its first test at their fire training building on the grounds of the Public Works yard, north of the Public Works office and west of the Wauwatosa police station.
This five-story tower, designed and built for live fire training, was stoked with both burning barrels of wood and generated "fake smoke." The simulation was of an active, engaged fire in a five-story apartment building with at least one known victim still inside.
For realism in training, fire units parked some distance away and came racing in only when they got the call from a supervisor. They pulled a hose line and deployed ladders, only to confront the "locked" training door – set up just outside the actual door to the building.
The tools of the trade
Wielding a standard fire ax and a "Haligan" – a tool designed in 1948 by another eponymous FDNY officer and still considered the best all-around device for prying open a door – two Tosa firefighters attacked the entry.
Applying the Haligan and some muscular persuasion, one firefighter "gapped" the door. The other, with the ax, then landed a series of serious blows on the far end of the Haligan, driving the business end deeper between the door and jamb.
When he had the right purchase in the gap, the first firefighter wrenched downward sharply on the Haligan and the door swung open.
The key to the system is that there are lugs on the back side that hold wooden chocks of varying strengths and thicknesses. The force applied to the steel door is transferred to those super-cheap, replaceable wooden pieces and not to the door itself, allowing it to absorb near-endless use.
"It's a great system, I think the best one out there," said Tosa Fire Chief Rob Ugaste. "We've wanted one, but there was just no money in the budget for it. So for GE to step forward with this very significant donation is a tremendous help."
Training officer seeks out best simulator
Ugaste credited Tosa Fire Capt. Dale Pekel – "Our training instructor extraordinaire," Ugaste calls him – for researching the training prop and then seeking out GE's help in funding it.
"He felt very strongly that we needed this simulator, and we looked to different ways to find room in the budget, and we just couldn't do so. So he went on a mission to find a partner that would help us purchase this, and he found that through GE."
With funding in hand, Pekel drove out to New York to meet Perrone and get a firsthand introduction to the system before loading it up and driving it home.
Leave it to the pros, GE reps learn
After the professional firefighters finished their demonstration – having rescued "John Doe," their heavyweight training dummy from the blaze – Pekel offered two GE Healthcare representatives a shot.
"Pretty realistic, don't you think?" Pekel said, handing a Haligan to Don Bernhardt, facility manager for GE Healthcare, with GE's Matt Williams, government relations leader, backing him up.
"We're going to simulate an initial response," Pekel said. "We're going to defeat the door, defeat the lock, get inside and do our business."
Sounds simple enough, but Bernhardt could not quite replicate the Tosa fire team's swift success.
"Put your weight on it," Pekel encouraged him.
"I am!" an exasperated but impressed Bernhardt said as the Haligan slipped out of the gap again.
Pekel, Bernhardt and Williams together forced the door, and once again, the victim was saved.