By Michael Morse
In my column, “To Force or Not to Force Entry,” I discussed the decision-making process involved when responding to a well-being check. You never know who will read your articles; Battalion Chief (Ret.) John Healey, my friend and first permanent officer when I was appointed to the Providence (RI) Fire Department in 1992, called me after he read the article. The conversation went something like this:
“Hey Big Head, didn’t I teach you anything?”
“You wasted a half-decent article with your usual caterwauling and no substance!”
And in completely predictable fashion, he spent the next half hour telling me how I should have written the article. Some things never change, this time for the better. So, without further ado, some advice from my first officer:
- Always wear turnout gear and your helmet when forcing a door or window. It’s not just for safety sake; virtually everyone knows what a firefighter looks like. The helmet especially identifies you as an emergency responder. Without the turnout gear, you could be just a person breaking into the private property of a citizen who has the right and, in some peoples’ minds, the obligation to defend his property to the death. A little badge or patch on your shoulder or logo on the back of your shirt does next to no good. Wear your gear!
- At every moment while forcing entry, announce yourself loudly; yell “Fire Department!” over and over. And over again.
- If you have to use a ladder to get in through a window, remember, when you get in, let the rest of the crew in; don’t go it alone!
- Don’t stand directly in front of a door you are forcing. Try and stay to the side, just in case.
- Make certain you have exhausted every possibility of gaining entry without using force. Alert neighbors of your presence; somebody might have a key. If the call is in a high-rise, find the floor captain, check the master box for a master key or look under the mat, on top of the door, and under the plant container, just don’t spend all day doing so.
- Try before you pry! That means all doors and windows, not just the easy one.
- Preplan. Every decent firefighter knows his district inside and out. Make sure that the high-rises have keys in the master box, promote a floor watch/floor captain program at the hi-rises, know which areas are considered high crime, get to know the people living in your area, be aware!
The chief makes some great points. The things that I had learned and then forgot and had to re-learn are imperative during a forcible entry. The police need to be on scene, and you must do as little damage as possible, leave the place secure if there is nobody home, do the proper paperwork to mitigate problems before they arise, and always be guided by your conscience.
Chief Healey was thorough. He understood exactly what a forcible entry entailed. It wasn’t a simple job, even when it appeared to be. He knew exactly how to keep his crew focused, effective, and alive. Every shift—day and night—we spent time in the district, learning the streets, meeting people, and being not just firefighters but a part of the community we protected. We drove the apparatus (Ladder Co. 7, a Maxim Tiller Truck) through the tightest spots we could find, drilled in abandoned buildings, cut up cars when they were available, and became experts at things other crews were just good at. Common sense and practice made us a great fire/emergency medical services crew. If you think I’m bragging, just ask Chief Healey…he’ll set you straight!