Close the Door: Small Towns, Big Impact

By Michael Alt

When you think of small towns, what do you think about? Farmers? Downtown area closed on Fridays in the fall? Small population?

What is a small population? Thirty thousand? Fifteen thousand? Eight-hundred thousand? Let’s say your town has less than 800 residents. What is the worth of any one of your residents? It’s an impossible question to answer, right? Most likely, there is no dollar amount in this world that could answer that question. That being said, a life is worth A LOT.

What if the information you shared with one—just one—of your residents ended up being the sole reason they lived through one of the scariest and most deadly situations imaginable: a house fire. What was the worth of the information you shared with that individual? It was worth more than all of the money on this earth. That is a BIG impact.

The information that could save somebody’s life is as simple as three words: “Close the door.” Simple, right? This has been known for quite some time. However, recent research has proved that closing the door can have a major impact on the conditions inside that room.

A fire needs three components to exist: heat, fuel, and oxygen (O2). If any one of these elements are taken away, the growth and direction of that fire is altered, if not eliminated completely. Also, more times than not, the actual fire is not the most lethal part of this event; in most cases, it’s the production of dangerous gases as well as the reduction of other gases that causes these events to become deadly.

A fire produces many dangerous chemicals that make up smoke. A major one is carbon monoxide (CO). Fires today burn much faster because of the heavy synthetics with which our furniture is built. With synthetics and the faster release of their fuel, the fires today are producing larger amounts of smoke and CO than ever before. Along with this faster release comes a limited time to escape.

The first part of this article’s objective will discuss closing your bedroom door before you go to sleep. Many fires as well as research burns show the life-changing conditions that can exist just by closing a bedroom door. For a fairly long amount of time, a simple hollow-core bedroom door can provide refuge and stop the progression of the fire into that living space.

As previously stated, the fire itself is not typically the initial and most lethal part of this event; it is usually the high production of CO as well as the depletion of O2 in a structure. A fire needs O2; the fire will pull all of the available O2 from that structure to sustain burning. Recent research has shown that O2 levels have dropped to a dangerous level, if have not been completely depleted, in most of the areas of the structure except where there were closed doors. The research shows that rooms with the door shut not only inhibit the progression of fire into that space but to the environment (CO and O2 levels) itself, which supports life.

The pictures below were taken at a tragic fire in Hillendale, Maryland, that resulted in a line-of-duty death. They show a room that reached flashover and a bedroom attached to that room, which had the door shut.

Photo 1 shows the living room of an apartment that reached flashover. This space could not support life. Photo 2 shows the inside of a bedroom that was connected to the living room but had its door shut for a majority of the fire incident.

Firefighting public education: Photo showing interior devastation from a fire. Courtesy the ATF.

(1) Photos courtesy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.




It is immediately noticeable that the smoke and fire damage is almost nonexistent. Notice the door to this bedroom; it shows breakdown of the door, meaning it was directly impinged by high heat conditions.

What you do not see is if there were equipment in this room to measure CO and O2 levels. Given the recent research, there is a very high chance that this room’s levels would have remained in a state to be able to support life. If you tell your citizens about the importance of closing all of their interior doors before they go to sleep, it could mean the difference between them being rescued or being recovered.

The second part of this article’s objective is closing the exterior doors when you leave the premises. As previously stated, a fire needs O2. Today’s fires require a massive amount of oxygen to sustain them. If you close the door to the exterior, you have just cut off a major supplier of the fire’s O2, if not its only supply. When you cut off its O2 supply, you no longer allow that fire to grow and, in many cases, the fire will actually put itself out because of the presence of more fuel than oxygen.

When I said that a fire needs heat, fuel, and O2, I meant that the fire needs these in the right combination; too much or too little of one of them will inhibit fire growth. Rural fire departments know that by the time they arrive at the structure fire, the fire has almost always progressed to the point where they are starting off far behind and sometimes cannot keep up let alone overcome it. By having your citizens close their exterior doors when exiting the structure, you create environments where the fire is not able to progress as far as it had in the past, and you now have savable structures. Savable structures mean savable valuables and, potentially, savable victims, even with your extended response time.

I hope by now you understand the importance of closing the door and the impact it could have on you as a firefighter as well as the lives of your citizens. So, how do we get this information out there? Larger cities across the nation have been doing a great job promoting this information. They are having their local news stations run stories on this exact subject. Unfortunately, those news stories may not reach the smaller communities. So, it is your job as firefighters to educate the public on this issue. Look at some avenues to accomplish this. Most small towns have a diner, a bank, a post office, and a church. These entities offer great ways to promote this subject.

Click HERE to download a printable brochure from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives that gives the public the information they need to know to implement this practice in your community. Not only can you hand this brochure out at local businesses, but most small town or volunteer fire departments have a fundraiser which is a perfect way to get this message out there.

You signed up to be a firefighter, to help your community. This is your opportunity. Many paid and volunteer firefighters go their entire careers without ever pulling a victim out of a structure. Sharing this information is just as heroic as pulling that citizen out. You have a chance to have a tremendous impact on someone’s life, and you have no clue the ripples of that action. Sharing this with one person might be the reason that 10 people are able to walk this Earth. Please take this information and share it with as many people as possible and help your community become safer as well as educated on ways which help themselves as well as us, the fire department.


Michael Alt is an 11-year fire service veteran and a career firefiighter with the West Lafayette (IN) Fire Department. He is a 2007 graduate of the Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Firefighter 2 Academy and is now one of its part-time basic instructors. Alt is also a nationally-registered paramedic and a co-host on the Fire Engineering blog talk radio show “Small Town Tactics and Tools.”

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