By CHRISTOPHER S. JOHNSON
Vent-enter-search (VES) is an extremely aggressive and potentially dangerous tactic that only well-trained and experienced outside vent teams should use when the risk vs. reward is deemed appropriate. For example, the most appropriate time to employ this tactic might be a lower-floor fire with a known (or strongly suspected) victim on the floor above. In this situation, it may be faster to access the victim’s anticipated location by ground ladder and window entry than it would be to wait for a line to be placed in service and make the interior stairs.
Recently, members of the Concord (NH) Fire Department’s Battalion 2 conducted realistic VES tactical training as an introduction for newer firefighters and a skills review for more senior members. The goal was to develop a short (45 minutes per company) drill in which all battalion members would participate in a realistic hands-on first-due VES scenario.
TRAINING PROPS CREATED
The department used an acquired two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling, but members were limited because they had to secure the building after each training session. Additionally, the building only offered about five second-floor windows; with 24 members to train, this proved insufficient. As with any significant fire service problem, we took the discussion to the kitchen table and developed a successful plan on the back of a napkin.
A battalion member who works for a glass company on the side offered to save and donate used double-hung window sashes from replacement jobs his company completed. Within a week, 60 old sashes (that otherwise would have gone in a dumpster) appeared at the firehouse. The only problem was that the donated sashes were all various sizes and would not fit the existing openings in the acquired structure. To overcome this, members designed and built a training prop that they attached to the structure.
We selected the training window, removed the existing sashes from the window opening, and set those aside in a safe place for later installation to secure the building after training. We built two simple wooden assemblies (designed by Lieutenant Chris Andrews): We laid six-foot-long 2 × 3s on edge and face-screwed 2 × 6s to each of them, forming an “L” shape. We then lag bolted one assembly to each side of a second-floor window opening, forming a set of “tracks” into which we could slide the donated sashes from the top (Figure 1). This arrangement allowed about eight inches of variation in sash width. We also installed a scrap piece of 2 × 3 horizontally below the sill to create a stop so the sashes couldn’t slide or fall out from the bottom of the tracks.
Figure 1. Schematic of the VES Training Prop
With two sashes stacked in the tracks, we created a double-hung window prop that we could break and quickly clear and replace for the next training scenario (photo 1). We used a tower ladder to install the sashes between scenarios, but we also could have accomplished this with a ground ladder or possibly from the interior. We also laid out a tarp on the ground below the training window to catch the majority of the broken glass for easy disposal.
(1) The window prop ready for the VES drill with two donated sashes in place to form a “double-hung window.” Note the black plastic “curtains” inside the window. (Photos by author.)
The training’s intent was to place the members in an urgent situation requiring immediate tactical action. Since we all can become complacent when “it’s only training,” we took steps to make the drill as realistic as possible without the benefit of live fire. Although all members had previously trained in this building and were familiar with its layout, they were not briefed on this particular scenario prior to participation.
Likewise, we did not intend to physically exhaust the members but rather to challenge them and to develop solid skills. Thus, we decided not to use the typical adult victim mannequin. We fashioned a baby’s crib near the bedroom closet on the wall opposite the window from a couple of wooden kitchen chairs and couch cushions. We screwed the chairs together side-by-side and placed them with the seats against the far wall and the chair backs facing the room with the spindles forming the side of the crib. We set the cushions on the seats, and we placed an infant mannequin in the crib. Interestingly, after the training, several members said they didn’t know there was a crib in the building and wanted to know if it had been acquired for this drill.
We covered the interiors of the second-floor windows (including the training window) with black plastic to simulate curtains. We placed two spotlights in the hallway just outside the training room door and then placed orange traffic cones over the lights to create the glow of the fire. (Note: Spotlights get hot. Monitor the traffic cones if you use this technique.) We placed two salamander heaters in the hallway to blow heat through the open door of the training room. Finally, we used a theatrical smoke machine to fully charge the second floor so smoke was pushing from around the window prop (photo 2).
(2) Smoke showing on the outside vent crew’s arrival.
We assigned a safety officer/instructor with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to the second floor during each evolution to monitor conditions and the crew’s progress. The instructor and another member would then reset the props after each drill, quickly sweeping up broken glass, replacing the infant in the crib, and restapling the plastic curtains over the entry window. Meanwhile, members in the tower ladder bucket would clear the broken sashes and replace them for the next drill. Turnaround time between drills was less than five minutes, with the smoke machine being the limiting factor.
Before members participated in the hands-on drill, an instructor conducted a short (approximately 10-minute) briefing and demonstrated VES tactics. Briefing points included the following:
- The dangerous and aggressive nature of VES and risk vs. reward decision making.
- Exterior VES size-up, such as predicting the behavior of smoke and fire conditions and reading building construction and anticipated floor layouts.
- Efficient resource use and speed of deployment, including ladder and hand tool selection and where the control firefighter places the ladder while the searcher dons his mask for entry.
- Single-firefighter ladder techniques.
- Using the ladder to break the window, such as a roof ladder with hooks deployed to “break and rake” double-hung sashes, then hooking the sill to eliminate the need to “foot” the ladder (photo 3) and placing the ladder and breaking the window with tools if it doesn’t break easily with the ladder tip
(3) The control man uses ladder roof hooks to “break and rake” the glass and sashes while a searcher dons his mask.
- Safe window entry, such as clearing the window of remaining glass, sashes, curtains, and so on (photo 4); sweeping for victims and then sounding the floor with a halligan; placing the tool on the floor below the window; hugging the wallhead out and low and rolling to the floor feet first; and other options to aid first-floor window entry, such as using a halligan as a step, a six-foot hook with a webbing loop step, a 10-foot attic ladder, and a 12-foot extension ladder
(4) The searcher clears sashes and curtains prior to entry. Note the markedly increased ventilation after he removes the curtains.
- A partner serving as the control man at the windowdonning your mask and ascending the ladder immediately after initial placement, maintaining verbal contact, marking the exit window with a six-foot pike pole from the sill into the room, using a flashlight and a TIC, monitoring smoke/fire conditions and radio traffic, and assisting with victim removal.
- Checking hallway conditions and closing the door.
- Completing an aggressive primary searchremoving any victims with a ground ladder (photo 5) with the possibility of multiple victims in the same room.
(5) The victim is passed out of the window to the control man for removal. Note the roof hooks over the sill, effectively “footing” the ladder, and a six-foot hook extended into the room from the sill as a landmark of the entry/exit window.
- Exiting through the entry window (photo 6), reopening the door to increase interior ventilation (if safe and prudent to do so), and reporting conditions to Command.
(6) The searcher completes his primary search, reopens the door for interior ventilation (if prudent to do so), and then exits via entry window.
- Rolling the ladder to the next room if necessary to repeat VESthe initial searcher assumes the control position as the initial control person is still “fresh” for the next search (consider your ability to reach multiple rooms from a single lower-level roof).
HANDS-ON TRAINING/LESSONS LEARNED
Following the initial briefing, each member participated in two complete VES drillsfirst as the searcher, then as the control member. Each full-speed and real-time drill was completed in less than approximately three minutes and was followed by a short tactical critique. Several interesting points were brought up in the drill critiques or were obvious when watching the members participate.
- Many members had never been previously trained to perform a true VES tactic. Several who were familiar with VES strategy had never actually performed the skill in training or at an incident. Performing the skill is a lot different from reading about it.
- One-person ground ladder skills and window entry techniques were overdue for review.
- Deployed roof ladder hooks are generally more effective than just the ladder tip in breaking energy-efficient glass.
- Even old window sashes can be tough to break. Some members repeatedly tried “Plan A” by repeatedly beating the glass with the ladder rather than moving to “Plan B” and ascending the ladder to break the glass with a tool.
- All members quickly located and closed the search room door. Several commented that they were surprised to encounter a heat condition during this drill and that it increased their urgency to complete the search.
- Primary searches were generally fast and efficient. However, several searchers missed one or more corners but covered the majority of the room. All but one searcher appropriately identified the crib and located and removed the infant victim. Few searchers returned to the room to complete the primary search after removing the infant victim. Future drills should include a random number of victims, such as an infant and a child in the same room or a bunk bed prop.
- A video review or TIC video recording of the training can be educational to participants, both exterior and interior.
- Consider using two adjacent search rooms, and incorporate rolling the ladder and repeating VES rather than conducting two separate drills per team.
- Most importantly, all members of the battalion are now “on the same page” with this skill. Increased efficiency is gained though repetitive drills.
Members outwardly enjoyed participating in this somewhat challenging and realistic scenario. Given the drill’s nature (breaking things, heat and smoke condition), even the senior members and less excitable firefighters became interested and trained aggressively, even competitively. This was a change from our normally routine and mundane training and, although creativity and setup were required, the expense was minimal (just a few dollars in hardware), but the benefit was immeasurable.
CHRISTOPHER S. JOHNSON has been a fire service member since 1993 and a Concord (NH) firefighter since 2000. He previously worked and volunteered for several New Hampshire departments. He is a staff instructor at the New Hampshire Fire Academy and an instructor for Innovative Fire Training Solutions and has taught several programs in South America. He is a vice president for the Fire Instructors & Officers Association of New Hampshire and has associate degrees in fire science and in fire investigation.