Firefighters put windows to the test

"You didn't wash those windows, did you?" a firefighter quipped, pointing at streaks of dust and filth smeared across two nearby sheets of glass.

"Why should I?" replied Greg Walters, division chief of fire protection for the Peoria Fire Department. "We're just gonna break 'em!"

They did, plus several more for good measure.

Peoria fire officials teamed up with the Heart of Illinois Project Impact on Saturday at the department's Galena Road training facility to test how a newly developed window treatment affects firefighters' ability to enter burning buildings' windows.

The treatment, developed by the 3M company of St. Paul, Minn., is a thin, multilayered coating that holds glass windows together upon impact. Instead of breaking apart and letting shards fly away, the treatment binds any broken fragments like glass in a car's windshield.

Lynn Linder, development coordinator for HOIPI, said her group constantly is searching for ways to reinforce home windows, especially because intense storms often can turn glass shards into projectiles that injure people inside.

Still, a question loomed: Would the coating hold so well that firefighters could not penetrate treated windows?

"Any time you increase safety for one thing, you wonder if it decreases safety in another area," Linder said, adding that some window-strengthening products are so strong they force firefighters to cut windows with an electric saw.

On Saturday, with a representative from 3M and members of other Peoria-area fire departments looking on, city fire officials put the coating to the test.

In a series of trials, firefighters repeatedly broke through treated windows with axes and other tools.

They needed multiple blows to penetrate treated windows, but in each case the coating prevented large, pointed glass shards from plummeting to the ground (a process dubbed "the guillotine effect" by fire personnel).

Firefighters also exposed the product to fire to test whether the windows would self-ventilate and break apart on their own under intense heat. The windows did, much to the delight of fire officials.

Although Walters said he was pleased with the experiment's findings, he said department members likely will discuss the product with several other area fire officials before offering an endorsement or condemnation.

Still, Walters said he was relieved that the product did not raise any red flags.

"My personal opinion, and I want to talk to other firefighters here, is that I'm not seeing a problem with it," he said.

3M, which already has marketed the product for homes and offices in cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, is considering marketing the coating in Peoria and Tazewell counties.

Capt. Mike Crouch of the Tuscarora Volunteer Fire Department said the demonstration proved that, assuming this and other window-strengthening products catch on, he may need to evaluate his training techniques.

"I'm here to learn," Crouch said. "If it's a new product and a good product, we'll probably be seeing a lot of houses with it soon."

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