Methods for Accessing Boarded-Up Structures

At some point during your time as a firefighter, you’ll likely encounter a boarded-up building. I work in an area of Buffalo that has a large number of buildings adorned with boards, which can present an extra step for truckies engaged in forcible entry, search and ventilation. Although boarded-up buildings may slow us down, they shouldn’t stop us dead in our tracks.
 
Board-Up Basics
We may encounter boards on businesses that are defunct or up and running or on houses that are vacant foreclosed or even occupied. The boards can hint to us that something’s amiss with the structure, but they don’t always tell the whole story. After all, the boards may simply be a temporary window covering until a broken window pane is replaced, or they can remain for extended periods, eventually becoming part of the structure. In any case, we should learn how to deal with different board-up materials so we can expose the fire building in a timely manner.

Homeowners can apply boards themselves using whatever material is lying around, or they can employ a company that specializes in this service. I spent my college years working for a company that did board-ups, and there was a lot to know and a lot to do when sealing a building; thus, there’s a lot for truckies to know and do when trying to open boarded-up buildings.

The board-ups are not intended to be as secure as Fort Knox, although some are certainly more fortified than others. For the most part, we can expect to find thin plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) of various sizes. The largest piece of sheathing available is a 4-x-8, so any opening larger than this will contain at least one seam–generally a weak spot and therefore a good place to start prying.

Removing Boards from Structures
In their simplest form, boards are nailed or screwed into the wood frames of doors and windows. You’ll likely find 6d or 8d nails–or even 16d sinkers–covering these openings. Additionally, industry standards suggest that nails be located every 6 inches along seams and every 12 inches everywhere else.

When removing boards nailed directly to wood frames, it’s fairly simple to get a prying tool under a lower corner to pry off the boards. Some will mistakenly start to pry at a mid-point in the board; this will lead to frustration, as the board just flexes outward but doesn’t break.

If you methodically pry at one end and work your way up the board, you can pop the nails out of the material to which they’re nailed. The board will eventually become unseated and you can yank it away from the building. Remember: Use caution when working around exposed nail ends.

In some cases, the boards may be in place more for aesthetic than practical purposes. Thus, the boards may not be very secure and will be easy to pull off. So before committing too much effort to prying off boards, give them a little yank; if you feel even the slightest play in the board, you may be able to loosen it enough to pull it down or flap it sideways without having to pry at each nail location.

Specifically, take a pike pole or other long hook and try to latch onto the top or sides of the board. The board will fall away once you separate it from the frame.

Pulling on the bottom of the board is not a good idea because it forces you to pull and lift the board up. Don’t waste your steam on this unnecessary battle. If you start at the top you can use your body weight to pull the board downward. And as you loosen the board, gravity will help you. Pulling on the sides affords a little less help from gravity but it’s a viable alternative for hard-to-reach tall windows. Plus, pulling the board sideways requires less energy than pulling on the bottom and trying to push it up.

Another benefit to pulling down from the top or to a lesser extent pulling the board sideways: Heat, smoke and flames may jump out once the boards are dislodged from the structure. Pulling from the top allows these hazards a direct path to the sky rather than a path right onto firefighters below. Additionally, you’ll want to use a long hook so that if the board does come down, you don’t get hit with the falling board; basically, the long hook allows you to create a small collapse zone for yourself.

If the boards have been screwed on, removing them will take a little more effort. You’re probably not going to get the screws to pop out of the material, but you will be able to exert enough prying force to get the screw heads to pop through the sheathing material.

Another option for forcing boards–especially those secured with many nails or screws–is to simply pry under the wooden frame to which the boards are attached. It is similar to finding the weakest link, or in this case the weakest connection. The nails holding the wooden frame to the building may not be as formidable as those holding the boards onto the frames. Take a prying tool like a Halligan, hold it up against the wood frame and have another firefighter tap your tool in under the trim boards. Exert a little pressure, and the frame will easily pop off the building with the boards still attached.

Pounding & Cutting
It’s not uncommon to see frustrated firefighters swinging like crazy at boarded-up openings, accomplishing little more than their daily workout. Striking a board in its center will likely cause your tool to bounce like a kid on a trampoline. If the sheathing is OSB, you have a chance of pounding a hole in the board, but start your hole close to the sides of the board, near where it’s nailed on. The frame’s solid surface will reduce any “bouncing.”

For plywood, the pounding method is not advisable, as there are better ways to open this sheathing. One method for removing plywood (as well as OSB): Use a chainsaw. Position the chainsaw a couple inches inside the edge of the board and,  starting as high as you can comfortably and safely reach, cut down on each side to the sill. The chainsaw should cut through the thin sheathing rather easily. If the saw becomes labored, you may not be over far enough from the edge of the board, causing you to strike the window or doorframe. If this is the case, move the saw inward until it cuts freely. Note: When using a chainsaw, it may be awkward and unsafe to cut the top horizontal section.

For doorways with thresholds and windows with sills, the sheathing may only be nailed on three sides as there is nothing at the bottom to nail into. This will save us some time because we’ll only need to cut the two sides.

Flipping up pieces rather than pulling them down is harder and exposes us to more of the products of combustion than pulling from above, but sometimes we gotta do what’s less than ideal to complete a task. After your cuts are complete, use a long tool like a pike pole or an all-purpose tool to flip up the section. This should either snap the board off toward the area where it is attached at the top, pry the nails out or pop the screw heads through the top section of the board, allowing it to drop down and away from the opening.

Inside Boards
Boards nailed to wood frames inside buildings are not as common, but they do exist. This is usually a sign of an unprofessional installation. It’s much easier to nail up boards on the inside because you don’t need a ladder, you don’t have to work around bushes, trees, fences and other outdoor obstructions, and you don’t have to be outside in the elements. 

Clearly, you’d have to be on the inside of the structure to pry off the boards. If you’re on the outside, you’ll need to use a sledge to pound on the boards pushing them in. Start at an upper corner because gravity will give you some extra “oomph” on your downward swing.

Another method that can be used here: Break out the window and everything in the opening, such as sash, parts and blinds, and use a chainsaw to cut the sheathing around the inside frame of the opening. We used this method at a recent house fire. We encountered heavily nailed boards behind every glass window in the house. Normally horizontal ventilation allows for an interior attack on these buildings, but because of the extremely difficult job of removing the boards, we were forced to go defensive.

Summary
This article dealt strictly with those boarded-up buildings where sheathing has simply been nailed onto the existing wood frame found around many openings. Next month’s column will address other methods people use to board up buildings and how we can deal with them.

A final reminder about safety: Regardless of the method of installation or the materials used, remember that whenever we’re removing boards from openings we’re usually doing it because there’s fire inside. Thus there could be fire directly behind the boards you’re removing and sometimes the fire will blow out violently. Keep your distance, wear full PPE and be ready for the fire to pop out at you!

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