A fire has just started in your home. You quickly evacuate and call the fire department. They arrive in short order and then begin…breaking into your house? Can firefighters really do that?
The fire department can indeed smash through a window or break down a door to access and ventilate a burning building. In a case where your neighbor’s house was burning but the fire had spread to your house, the fire department could “break into” the property as well.
In this article, we’ll talk all about when, why, and how firefighters will access your burning house as well as the legalities of such.
We’ll even discuss what you should do about the broken windows and/or door after such an event. Keep reading!
Note: Nothing in this article is legal advice. If you are seeking legal advice on the legalities of firefighters entering a building, get an attorney.
Table of Contents
Why Would the Fire Department Break into a House?
First, let’s get some semantics out of the way. Technically, the fire department is breaking into your house, as they’re entering without you necessarily granting them access.
However, you can trust that your local firefighters are not breaking in for nefarious reasons as a criminal would. They’re not trying to make off with your big-screen TV or valuable jewelry.
Why does a fire department break into a house? Let’s go over the reasons now.
To Put Out the Fire
This is the biggest reason by far that firefighters will enter a property by breaking in. If it’s a house fire, then the blaze is most likely indoors. To combat the flames, the firefighters need to get inside your home.
Imagine what would happen if the fire department pulled up to your curb and asked you for the keys to the front door. There are so many reasons this is impractical and sometimes even impossible.
You and your other family members might not have the keys on your person.
Even if you did, there’s no guarantee the key would fit into the door, which could have melted. Plus, this wastes so much valuable time.
In firefighting, every second counts, so the fire department can’t afford to get into the house the good, old-fashioned way.
That’s why the fire department will break into your home if it’s on fire even if your neighbors called 911 because their home was the original source of the blaze.
To Search for Victims in Need of Rescue
The other reason a fire department has to break into a house, so to speak, is to gain quick access to who’s inside.
They have no time to finagle with a key ring and decide which key is for the front door and which is for the side door, not when there are people trapped inside the house.
The firefighters need to get into the home quickly so they can begin searching for the potential victims, however many of them there are.
Whether the firefighters help the victims out of the home personally or they provide a means for the victims to escape, the fire department wants to save as many lives as possible.
That doesn’t always exclusively mean human lives, either. You may remember our recent post on whether firefighters will save pets.
If all human victims are out of the blaze, then yes, the fire department will do their best to recover your precious dog, cat, or other pet.
If they had to try to unlock the door to your home, the time they’d spend doing this means they’d lose time in rescuing victims, including your favorite four-legged friends.
How Does the Fire Department Break into Houses?
A firefighter’s job is to save lives first and preserve structures second. Once all the victims are out of the building, the fire department will focus on extinguishing the blaze rather than divide their attention between that and search and rescue.
Some homes can be saved and others can’t.
Regardless, a firefighter will not hesitate to break into a home if they need to, even if this does detract from the quality of the property. This doesn’t mean firefighters are intent on destruction, nor that they’re reckless.
If the call is not considered an emergency, the fire department will try to thoughtfully enter the home or premises. Here are a few methods they’ll use according to specific situations firefighters encounter often.
Turning the Power Off
In an apartment complex or another multi-unit building where only the upper area is on fire, the fire department might start in the basement and try to prevent the spread of fire by powering down the building.
If they couldn’t get into the electrical panel room, the firefighters might smash through a padlock or even remove the molding around the door using a small crowbar to gain access rather than break the door down outright.
Then they could power down the complex.
In such a situation, the building owner would only need to mold the doorframe back or hammer some nails to secure the frame. This is very minor damage to the door, plus the building can be saved by controlling the fire early on.
Breaking Garage Panes
What if there’s a gas leak or a strong gas smell in a home or multi-unit building?
If there’s no fire raging, then the fire department will ask the homeowner if they can gain access to the garage. Provided the homeowner isn’t available, such as being at work, then the fire department is left to their own devices.
Remember, this is still considered a non-emergency, although that status can change at any time. The firefighters might get into the garage by breaking a garage pane or two.
Then they can turn off the gas, ventilate the house, and prevent a fire. The homeowner would have to make several small, inexpensive repairs to their garage door.
Kicking the Door In
In more serious situations where the home or building is already on fire and the fire department needs immediate access, there’s no time to waste.
Some firefighters will kick the door down, using a mule kick technique to smash the door into two or more pieces.
You may not see this all the time from fire departments though because kicking the door in doesn’t work quickly nor easily for all types of doors.
Thus, a firefighter could be wasting precious seconds and his or her own energy trying this.
Breaking the Door
More often, two firefighters will use a maul with a flat-head axe or a Halligan bar to break a door. A flat-head axe is a common firefighting tool that can smash through doors made of wood and other materials.
A Halligan bar or tool is named for Hugh Halligan, the First Deputy Chief of the New York City Fire Department back in 1948.
He created the tool, which is still used to this day. With a Halligan bar, a firefighter can strike, punch, twist, or pry a door. This is due to the components of the tool, which include a pick with a tapered edge, an adze or wedge blade, and a fork, which is claw-like.
If a firefighter needs to break the latch of a door rather than the door itself, a Halligan bar can do that.
In the case of a swinging door, the firefighter would put the Halligan bar between the doorjamb and the door itself, separating the two. Then a second firefighter can use a flat-head axe or a sledgehammer to finish the job.
Other duties of the Halligan bar are removing top hinges on doors or even breaking through walls.
Most Halligan bars are 18 to 54 inches long and made of stainless steel, beryllium copper, or titanium. You can add carrying rings or straps to make toting the Halligan bar easier.
Smashing the Windows
Breaking the windows of a home or building is a top priority for the fire department (*depending on the circumstances).
By opening all the windows forcibly, heat and smoke can exit the building, which can lessen the extent of the fire damage to your home. Ventilating in this manner can also be used as a strategy to send the smoke and heat away from a room or area of the house where victims are trapped.
The fire department will use a Halligan bar, window punch, pike pole or a flat-head axe for breaking through windows.
As a word of warning, you should never try to help the firefighters along by opening the windows in a burning building. For one, this distracts from your first objective, which should always be to get out of the home as quickly as possible.
Also, opening windows and ventilating a home during a fire must be timed properly in order to protect firefighters inside. If you open or break a window at the wrong time it can change the interior conditions and put firefighters in danger. Leave this job to the professionals.
Cutting a Hole into the Roof
Besides creating ventilation by removing the windows, the fire department will also vent the roof by cutting a hole there.
Now there’s yet another place for smoke and heat to exit so the firefighters can safely get into the building and do their job with more visibility.
This form of ventilation is known as vertical ventilation, whereas breaking windows is horizontal ventilation.
To penetrate the thick roof, firefighters will rely on an assortment of tools, often chainsaws, “K-12s” and cutters. By making a 4×4 hole, the firefighter has 16 square feet of ventilation.
A larger hole that’s 6×6 increases the hole to 36 square feet. Going too much bigger than that is often unnecessary.
There are some critics of cutting holes into the roof of a home. Indeed, this method can waste valuable time, and a firefighter’s life can sometimes be more at risk for doing it.
Check out this video from a firefighter in Fresno…
Is It Legal for a Fire Department to Break into a House?
Let’s take a moment to talk about the legalities of a firefighter entering your home, shall we?
If you’re wondering whether you can turn a fire department away after you’ve already called 911, to answer that, we bring up the story of Lisa Boyle from Orange County, New York.
In 2011, Boyle’s son, who was 14 at the time, believed the chimney of their home was on fire, so he did the right thing and dialed 911. Boyle attempted to cancel the call but appeared to be unsuccessful.
Local firefighters arrived, Boyle asked them to go, but they wouldn’t until they inspected the property for any traces of fire.
Firehouse.com, which discussed this story, says this on the matter: “Probably as much as any single issue, the legal duty of a fire department to respond to a fire distinguishes what we do as firefighters from what we do as emergency medical providers. To put it simply, a competent person may have the legal right to refuse medical treatment against medical advice, but a property owner (competent or otherwise) does not have a similar legal right to refuse firefighters the right to enter a property to look for the source of smoke, investigate an alarm or extinguish a fire.”
It’s the fire department’s job to do those three things, and even outside of their occupational duties, if a firefighter were to get lax, they’d potentially be liable.
That same Firehouse article mentions that fire departments have a legal authority granted to them from localities and states to break into homes when needed.
It’s not just residential properties firefighters can access in this manner, but businesses as well. That’s the case even if the owner doesn’t consent to the building or home being entered, such as the case of Lisa Boyle.
What to Do After the Fire Department Has Left
Your home was saved by your trusty fire department. You’re glad, but the damage the firefighters caused by getting into your home is significant.
The windows are broken, you may be missing a front door, and there could be a hole in your roof.
Fortunately, most of this–as well as the fire damage–is usually covered under your homeowner’s policy.
How extensive your coverage depends on if you pay to protect detached structures (such as a detached garage or shed), just your home, or dwellings like an attached garage.
Although it’s not convenient to get new windows or a fresh front door, at the end of the day, this is small potatoes. You still have a home and a family who’s all alive, and that’s what matters most.
Finally, firefighters have a legal and moral right to enter a home through any means necessary in a fire. The methods of entry include breaking down doors, smashing windows, and cutting a hole into the roof if the fire is serious.
You might not always like this fact, but it’s a crucial one. Besides, homeowner’s insurance should pay for the damages later.