Lack of Ventilation Because of a Lack of Performance

By Jarrod Sergi

Ventilation is a critical fireground tactic that must be performed to not only affect saving trapped occupants but also to allow the engine company to quickly make a push to the seat of the fire. I have talked to firefighters from departments all over the country—large and small—about how they perform ventilation, specifically vertical ventilation, on the fireground. It was not uncommon to hear these firefighters say that vertical ventilation is going away or that it’s becoming a lost art. Additionally, I have heard firefighters talk about the incident commanders (IC’s) decision to send a crew to the roof, with many saying something such as, “Our chiefs just don’t like us to vertically vent.”

This is what concerns me; you need to understand why we are not sending crews to the roof. Sure, there are hazards with lightweight building construction, and you know the dangers associated with lightweight wood and steel trusses; this is in the back of every IC’s head as he makes the decision to vent. What also may be on his mind is the ability of the crew and its officer. To me, this might be the most important. If the IC has not made the necessary decision to send a crew to the roof based on its physical conditioning, lack of knowledge, or inability to perform the task efficiently, this is a problem. In fact, I think that if I were to ask 10 ICs about what influences their decision to give the order to vertically vent, the competency of the crew would be near the top of the list. There are probably dozens of cases where crews were not sent to a perfectly safe roof on which to operate because the IC had no trust in the companies on scene.

As I mentioned before, lightweight wood and steel truss roofs keep us from going above a well-involved fire, but how about your past performances? Is this what’s keeping the IC from sending you up there? My fear is that sometimes you and your crew are not being ordered to vertically ventilate because the IC is losing confidence in your ability to get up there, cut a hole, and get off. So, if you happen to be in a department where the decision is often made not to vertically vent when needed, you have to ask yourself “Why?”

Has the IC had bad experiences in the past with ineffective crews? You must show that you are a professional who practices your craft and does everything you can to improve your performance when it counts. As soon as the bell hits, you need to be ready to do your job and do it well. You have to have good aerial placement, select the right ladders and saws, and work safely and efficiently to get the job done. Remember, you typically are doing one of two things when you step off of a ladder or truck company: searching or venting. If you decide to vent, you must immediately decide if you will work off ground ladders or an aerial device. If you have a well-involved fire that needs to be vertically vented, you can use our aerial device; apparatus placement is crucial in this case.

When you arrive as a ladder company (or any company for that matter), you need to immediately think ahead. A captain once told me to make decisions based on what you will see a few minutes from now. You must size up the building, read the smoke and fire conditions, and base it all off the structure’s construction type and where that smoke or fire is traveling, which initiates actions that will prevent that fire from going where it wants, allowing you to control it. Be proactive on the fireground; not reactive. Also, know where to place apparatus; it is a very important factor in your outcome. Spot your aerial device to best take advantage of the building and get to the roof quickly to vent and cut off fire spread.

As the ladder operator or officer, pay attention to other companies that are responding with you. Know how responding engine companies will spot a building. Most times, engine operators are told to pull past the house and leave room for the ladder. Well, what if that ladder company is not coming behind you but from the front? They may stop short and let the ladder nose up to you to take the address. All of this coordination can be done prior to going to these fires with training and discussion with other companies in your run districts.

If you choose to operate off of ground ladders, it is very important estimate correctly. Just like you have methods of estimating your hose stretch to reach the seat of the fire, you have methods of making sure you choose the appropriate size ground ladders. There are a numerous ways to remember how far a ground ladder will reach.

Table 1 gives a quick guide to selecting the right ground ladder. Not all buildings will feature the same spacing between floors. You will not always have your textbook eight feet between floors for residential buildings and 10 to 12 feet for commercial buildings. You may have an old balloon-frame house that sits on a three-foot crawl, making the roof line higher. Some modern building construction has changed the spacing between commercial floors up to 15 feet. Get out there and practice in your response areas with the ladders you have on your trucks. Practice reading buildings and know what ladders you will deploy when needed.

TABLE 1. Ladder Selection Guide


16 to 20 feet

Second-story window

20 to 28 feet

Second-Story roof

28 to 35 feet

Third-story window or roof

40 to 50 feet (consider aerial device)

Fourth-story roof

Over 50 feet (consider aerial device)


Equally important is choosing the right saw. Many times, when you enter a residential pitched roof , you will be working with a wood cutting saw. The plywood roofs may be easy to get through, or you may be faced with an older home that has strong one- × six-inch tongue and groove planks. Recognizing the roof construction on a flat residential or commercial roof can sometimes be difficult when observing from the street. Again, if it is an older building, it may have a flat wood roof. Newer flat roofs are typically lightweight steel; they may also be a combination of both. When going to a flat roof to vent, if you don’t carry a multipurpose blade on your rotary saw, you may want to take your wood cutting and metal cutting saws up with you.

Also, don’t forget to remove any skylights or other roof openings while you are up there. Sometimes, simply removing these can allow you to get a quicker look at the type of roof construction and, in turn, use the right saw for the job when needing to cut a ventilation hole. 

Other than going up to the roof to cut a hole, there are other key safety items to consider. The first and most important thing that needs to take place is the coordination between the engine and ladder companies. You can read about several accounts or you may have seen it happen at fires where improper, uncoordinated vertical ventilation led to more property loss and possible injuries on the fireground. Be disciplined enough to know when and where to make the cut. When you get the opportunity, look at the recent studies on flow path and the hazards created by them at ventilation controlled fires.

Chief Ed Hartin, owner of CFBT-US LLC, along with his fellow colleagues, has put out some great information, which I will touch on briefly (although there is far more than what I will present here). Fire attack and ventilation contribute to fire control; a well-coordinated attack is reinforced over and over again. Ventilation in the absence of a charged and well-positioned hoseline will just increase the heat release rates in a structure and make conditions worse. Simply making entry through the front door represents ventilation, and you must understand the implications of your actions. When crews make entry to stretch a line or perform a search, they are ventilating, allowing hot gases to escape and fresh air to enter.

When performing horizontal ventilation, do you really need to be inside the structure? A disciplined ladder crew should be staged outside the structure on the opposite side of the nozzle team, waiting for the order to take the windows and channel all that toxic and superheated smoke out of the building. When you perform horizontal ventilation from inside the building, you are venting what is around you. If you cannot read smoke conditions on the exterior, you might create a flow path that will endanger your firefighters. Moreover, people may end up “venting as we go.” With no systematic approach, they will walk through a structure and shatter as much glass as they can. Remember, as I previously stated, if this is done without coordinating with the engine company, all you are doing is allowing for a rapid rise in temperature and the potential for that superheated gas to come down on other crew members. Staying outside to horizontally vent not only allows us to better read the smoke conditions and communicate that to the interior crews making the push, but it also frees up the main arteries of travel so we aren’t jamming up hallways and stairwells, making the engines push to the seat of the fire.

Francis Brannigan once said, “The building is your enemy. Know your enemy.” Learn as much as you can about building construction and roof types. Know the materials that are being used today and the hazards they present to firefighters. When making access to the roof, always keep yourself between the fire and the egress point. Throw multiple ladders to the roof if necessary to allow for a quick exit if something going wrong.

When throwing ladders, consider where the engine made entry. Don’t get tunnel vision and think you have to ladder the front of the building every time; think about laddering the building on the opposite side, where the nozzle made entry. By the time you are up and ready to cut the hole, they could have made the push to the seat of the fire, and you are right on top of them, cutting the hole. Always consider this during commercial fires; there may be access problems with parapet walls at the front of the building. Laddering the rear will, most often, be a better and quicker option. Travel along the bearing walls of the structure and then shoot out to make your cut closest to the fire. If you are on the roof of a multistory building, look over the side of the roof as you move to your target to look for occupants that may be at their windows trying to escape the suffocating smoke. Wear your full personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus at all times while performing roof ventilation. Make your cuts as close to the area above the fire as possible. Once the job has been completed, get off the roof and admire your work from a safe area.

Practice, practice, practice! Pull that ladder or truck company out of the apparatus bay and get out there and train. Include throwing ladders or putting the aerial to the roof during prefire plans. During the fire is the wrong time to find out that your aerial didn’t reach a certain floor or area of the building. Try different ways of getting to the roof quickly. Make specific assignments on who will carry what when stepping off the apparatus. Even with a limited staffing level on your company, proper training and practice will let you develop ways to get to the roof quickly and get the job done.

Your attitude affects your performance, and your performance is what counts when the bell hits. If you show a safe and consistent pattern of executing the task of vertical ventilation, you will continue to build confidence with the ICs. The more they can pair a successful outcome of a fire with well performed vertical ventilation, the more likely you will not find yourself sitting on the tailboard asking, “I wonder why they didn’t send us to the roof.”


Jarrod Sergi is an eight-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the Norfolk (VA) Fire Rescue (NFR) assigned to the training division. He also serves as the assistant coordinator for NFR’s regional fire academy. Sergi has a bachelor’s degree in fire science.

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