Baby proofed houses pose risk to firefighters
“Baby proofed” is a term I am use to around my house. This is mainly due to my two year old running around and if it can be broken, destroyed, colored on, painted and opened it has happened or is going to happen. That is the sole reason for my house being “baby proofed.” For those of us who have kids I know this is a term that we laugh at, because we know that it is not possible to baby proof anything. But for us in the fire service this is something that we need to become familiar with, quick!
Here is an example. You are dispatched to a residential structure fire and on arrival you have heavy smoke showing from the “A” side of the structure. As on most fires, we go in to conduct a search. You and your team go in and conduct a right hand search. As you get deeper into the search, conditions began to deteriorate. It is becoming hotter and visibility is now at zero. Command comes over the radio asking for your progress. You report back the current conditions and keep moving. You know from your experience that you probably are running out of time inside the structure. That’s when you hear a collapse and then command in combination with three-load blast from the air horn, tell you to evacuate the structure. You are aware that the collapse happened behind you so it is now time to find your secondary means of egress. Command is on the radio, the air horns are blowing, it’s hot and you can’t see. You are moving as fast as possible with your team. You find a door; grab the doorknob and turn, nothing. Turn the knob again, nothing. What is going on? You keep trying and trying and nothing is happening. Frustration is building, heart is pounding, it’s getting hotter and you can’t get out.
You have just made contact with a “baby proofed” doorknob. This is placed on the interior doorknob of an exterior door in order to keep those little hands from turning a doorknob and walking out of the house. I have also seen these on interior doorknobs to keep kids out of rooms that parents do not want kids in. The “baby proofed” doorknob is a two-piece hardened plastic covering that fits over an interior doorknob. It has two finger holes on opposite sides and a whole in the front for the locking mechanism.
During a recent training night at the fire department, without telling our guys what they were about to encounter, we conducted a two-man search drill. The drill consisted of a search of two rooms, a simulated collapse, a little stress — pushups, yelling, clapping — an explanation of the conditions — high heat and zero visibility simulated with a dark room and flash hood turned around — and then the evacuation tone. The exit door was equipped with a “baby proof” doorknob.
What we learned. For the firefighters that have kids for the most part had no problem with getting out. Some would spin and spin the doorknob until frustration mounted and then would grab the back of the plastic and rip it off. Others would grab it perfectly by chance and it would open immediately. This was all done with a gloved hand, which limits your ability to recognize what you are feeling. Also take into account the locking mechanism. We tried numerous ways and were unsuccessful with unlocking the lock with a gloved hand. One other factor that we have to take into account is the construction of the door. Some interior doors are hollow and with any tool you should be able to eliminate the door as a problem and not worry about the doorknob itself. However if the door is made of solid wood and/or a steel exterior door what other options do you now have? Will the tool you have in your hand get you out if the doorknob is equipped with a baby proofed doorknob? Take into account that most doors that lead to the exterior open inward. If both the dead bolt and door knob are equipped with baby proofed items on a solid wood or steel door what are your options now? Do you practice “forcible exit” techniques in zero visibility conditions under stress?
What we also observed is the fact that once the firefighters made contact with the door and doorknob they instantly checked the door first by pushing on it. Once they located the doorknob they either had success instantly or once the stress of the situation kept mounting, due to evacuation tones going off and the adrenaline kicked in, they were able to get out. The only thing is that this was a training night and a controlled environment. In the fight we understand that seconds matter and seconds is what it takes to mitigate the door knob.
Through further research we have learned that you have various types of baby proofing for the door. You have metal sliding brackets at the top of the door, dead bolt covers, and other doorknob covers that take two different pressure locations to open the door. You also have to take into account baby gates. Where are these gates located: bedrooms, bottom of stairs, top of stairs, and open doors? How do they open? Are they permanently attached to the wall or will they break away from the wall? If it does break away is it now attached to you and your gear? Is this now an entanglement hazard?
Now we are going to return to your arrival on the fire scene. As you pull up you see toys in the front yard. In my line of work we call this a clue! Now that you have read this you should automatically think that this house could be baby proofed. If you do not train on this, however, it does not matter what you see in the front yard.
Daren Vaughn began with the fire service in 1996 as an 11-year-old with the Rock Springs Volunteer Fire Department in Anderson County, S.C. He has served in numerous roles since and currently holds the rank of captain of training. He is a volunteer with the City of Belton Fire Department. He is employed as an Arson/Bomb investigator for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.
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