By Peter F. Kertzie
Published Friday, March 20, 2009
| From the May 2007 Issue of FireRescue
Last month's column ("The Weakest Link," April issue) addressed different types of fencing that may impede our access to structures, focusing specifically on chain-link fencing. In this column, I'll address some other fencing types and how to quickly make our way through them using tools readily available to truckies.
For any of the fences I will address in this article, the gate may be the weakest link. Gates are often unlocked, so try to open them before resorting to force. Further, even if secured, residential latching devices can usually be forced open fairly easily. Sometimes just shaking a minimum-security gate or giving it a good kick right at the latch area will disengage the lock. For chain-link fences, tapping on the latch will spin it around the post, allowing the gate to open.
Gates are usually wood, plastic, chain-link or another type of metal construction, with metal hinges and latches. I've never seen a masonry gate, but it could exist. Regardless, masonry fences usually include a gate constructed of other, easier-to-breach, materials.
Many gates include a padlock or a chain and lock wrapped around the gate. To cut through such devices, attach a pair of vice grips with a chain attached to them and then grip the lock or chain. Pull the chain tight as another firefighter cuts through the material using bolt cutters or a saw with a metal-cutting blade. Cut a loop near the lock rather than the lock itself so the gate can be secured by a key holder after the incident is over.
The hinges on wooden gates are often attached to the outside of the fence because the gates open outward. Sometimes the locking device is more complex or stronger than the hinges on the other side. If you carry a ratchet and sockets in your pocket, you can remove the bolts holding the hinges in place. If you only carry standard fire department tools, such as a Halligan and a flathead axe, you can pry the hinges off and open the gate.
The hinge mechanism on chain-link gates is often a two-piece connector. When loosened or moved out of place, the two-piece hinges will separate, allowing the gate to fall away from its post.
Wrought iron gates can serve as a grand entrance to a sprawling estate or as the only barrier blocking an alley between two closely spaced buildings. Don't be intimidated by the many pieces that comprise a wrought iron gate; you don't have to cut through all of them. Look for an area where only one or two pieces of metal hold the gate in place. This could be the loop that holds a lock in place, the lock itself, the hinges or the location where the gate attaches to the buildings. One or two quick cuts should be enough.
Of course, for various reasons, we don't always have access to a gate. As such, let's address different fencing types and how to either get through them or over them.
A stockade is a defensive wall made of tall stakes for security. This form of fencing has been used for centuries, once protecting military camps or settlements. Modern-day stockade fencing is usually constructed of different types of wood; however, more and more are being constructed using PVC plastic alone or PVC plastic over wood.
Basic stockade fencing is assembled by positioning vertical posts approximately 8 feet apart and extending 8' sections of fencing between the posts. The prefabricated sections usually feature two or three horizontal pieces, which are attached to the vertical fence posts. These sections are then attached to the vertical end posts.
To break through stockade fencing, we often just start swinging our tools in hopes of smashing the fence to pieces or simply knocking it over. After countless swings and fractured wood flying everywhere, we finally make a hole. But it doesn't have to be this difficult. After all, we know the vertical fence pieces are supported by just two or three horizontal pieces connected to the end posts; this is where we should focus our attention.
Near the end posts, pry off one or two individual vertical pieces to expose the location where the horizontal pieces attach to the end posts. Sometimes these areas aren't covered, making our job even easier. Then, starting at either the top or bottom, position a prying tool behind the horizontal pieces and pop them off the vertical pieces. Once the horizontal pieces are no longer attached, you can essentially "open" the prefabricated fencing section as if it were a gate and walk right through. This will cause little, if any, damage to the fencing.
Another option: Use a chainsaw or other wood-cutting saw, such as rotary saw or reciprocating saw. Position the blade between the vertical pieces, preferably near a vertical post, and cut downward, slicing through the horizontal pieces. As in the previous example, you should now be able to open this fencing section as if it were a gate. This method causes some damage, but nothing close to that produced by an army of truckies swinging axes.
Recently, crews battled a fire at a wood-framed structure on a corner lot in Buffalo (shown in the pictures). The house was surrounded by stockade and chain-link fencing. Crews initially gained access via the fence's many gates; however, as conditions worsened, they needed better access to the entire structure. The solution: A truck crew walked along the inside of the fence and pried off the horizontal pieces from the end posts. The prefabricated fencing sections fell to the ground, providing better access to the fire building. As a safety precaution, one of the truckies used a maul to pound down the nails still protruding from the felled fence sections. After the fire, the fence sections were raised back into place.
Masonry fences are especially strong, therefore complicating access for truckies. These fences are found in a variety of styles, heights and construction materials, including brick, concrete block, poured concrete and stone. In rural areas, farmers or ranchers may position stones along their property border, thus refining the land and defining boundaries. These stones form a loosely constructed fence, as compared with some brick, block, stone, mortar or concrete behemoths assembled to thwart access.
Despite their tough exterior, masonry walls can be breached using tools and equipment we normally carry; however, we must consider the time, energy and damage incurred by taking this route.
For most fences in this category, going over them-rather than through them-is a prudent way to access a building. A couple of ground ladders (one on each side) or an A-frame ladder can get you up and over the fence safely and quickly. For taller or more fortified installations, use an aerial device or a combination of an aerial device and a ground ladder.
Wrought Iron Fences
Wrought iron is a tough material, but it's also soft and malleable, meaning it can be hammered or shaped. Some thin metal fences are made to look like wrought iron. Regardless, whether you're facing an actual wrought iron fence or a look-alike, use a saw equipped with a metal-cutting blade. You don't want the fence to wobble, so try to cut close to a vertical post to maintain stability. Also, as with most other cuts, cut in a downward motion. Because wrought iron and other metal fencing materials bend, only cut one end of each section and then bend it outward as if it were a gate.
The brief descriptions of common fences given here don't cover everything you'll encounter while traversing your individual fire districts; however, they should give you enough knowledge to successfully determine the weakest link in every fence.
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