By Anthony Avillo
One of the most improperly used tactics on the fireground is the vent-enter-search (VES) operation– also known as vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) or, as I see it, vent-enter-Shut the Door, Stupid (VESS). This tactic has been well addressed by many fire authors/experts with some great advice for those undertaking this extremely dangerous tactic. I would like to offer my slant on this business.
VEIS or VESS? That is the Question
For years, VES stood for vent-enter-search. The objective of VES is to quickly access rooms (bedrooms) above the fire from exterior positions before the fire gets there and remove trapped occupants who are not able to use the stairs by windows. The most critical tactic regarding the VES operation is to shut the door. Shutting the door isolates the room being searched from the rest of the house, including the open interior stairs, and basically eliminate a flow path, which buys time for rescuers.
Thus, the “I” was added to VES to make it VEIS or vent-enter-isolate-search. The “I” (isolation) was meant to isolate the room and flow path so that the victims and firefighters can survive a potentially nonsurvivable area of the structure. This is great except for the fact that if firefighters do not understand the importance of shutting the door, the term “isolate” is not going to mean anything to them. If their department and its officers (both to blame) have not taught them the importance of shutting the door during this operation, and why they must shut the door, “isolation” will mean anything to them.
For this reason, I like to use the more street-wise “vent, enter, Shut the Door, Stupid,” (VESS) search. It leaves nothing regarding this operation to the imagination. Regarding shutting the door, I impress on students the following: I don’t care if your mother and three of your kids are in this room; if you don’t get to the door and shut it as a first action, they will all (including you) likely die. Shutting the door eliminates the flow path and buys time for the rescue; burps the area, eliminating toxins and smoke; and makes it much safer and easier to effect a rescue.
Can I Get to the Door Before the Fire Gets There?
One of the most critical decisions involves whether to enter the room so that the door can be closed and victims can be found and rescued. This is a tough decision, especially for a novice firefighter. The best advice I can give here is this: If you can get to the door and shut it before the fire gets there, go for it. If you cannot, you might just be dealing with a tool sweep below the window. Remember that when you break the window, you are creating a flow path. If the fire has nowhere else to go, it is coming to the window. If you decide to enter, you might not make it to the door before the fire does; and in this case, the fire will beat you back to the window every time, causing you to be trapped, allowing you to rescue no one and probably kill you. Again, an unseasoned firefighter should not be left to make this decision.
Remove the Whole Window Frame
If you are going to enter the window for VEIS (VESS), remove the entire frame. This should not be terribly difficult and will prevent nasty cuts to the firefighters and victims. A true VEIS (VESS) operation will necessitate that an entering firefighter slither over the window frame to enter the room. You cannot put your whole profile high up in the window frame during this operation because the conditions at the top of the window are likely to be untenable. If you attempt to slither into a partially cleared window, you risk a severe laceration injury not only to yourself as the rescuer but also to the victim you need to drag back out. If you properly shut the door (VESS), this may be avoided; however, if you need to avoid nasty conditions, take out the whole window.
The Two-Person VEIS (VESS) Operation
Technology in the form of a thermal imaging camera (TIC) can be extremely valuable to a VEIS (VESS) operation. Two firefighters should work together; the first firefighter goes up the ladder and scans the room to be searched with the TIC. From this vantage point, the firefighter can ascertain conditions in the room, possibly see any victims, where the door is located, and if the door is open or closed. An open door should be readily visible through the TIC. Once this is completed (and it should take about 15 seconds), the camera is handed back to the second firefighter on the ladder. Once the lead firefighter takes out the window and frame and enters (slithers in), the second firefighter then climbs to the top of the ladder (at the sill) and monitors the activities of the firefighter searching the room. From this vantage point, the firefighter on the ladder can assist the interior firefighter with a victim, if necessary; guide the interior firefighter back to the window; monitor conditions with the TIC; and request additional assistance, if required.
Sweep, Then Sound
Victims who cannot get to the window will often be found beneath the window. We are often taught in Firefighter 1 to sound the floor before entering any area, either from a ladder through a window or to the roof. This is great except in the situation where a firefighter is entering a window for VEIS (VESS). Sounding without first sweeping beneath the window can be a severe or even deadly mistake. A blast with a halligan tool or an ax can maim an adult or kill a child beneath the window. This is often not taught in Firefighter 1. Sweep first; make sure there is no victim beneath the window, and then sound to ensure there is a floor and it will hold you.
Where Is the Door?
Once you climb up to the window, break it, clear the glass, and remove the frame. How do you know which way to go once you enter to shut the door to the room? Other than scanning with the TIC, there is only one other pretty reliable rule of thumb I know of to determine the location of the door. If you are entering a window near the corner of the house, the door to the room will almost always be on the opposite wall away from the corner of the house. What this means is that if you are entering a window on the extreme right of the second floor, the door to that room should be found by searching to the left as you enter the room. It is the opposite if you enter a window on the extreme left of the house–in this case, the door would be found fastest by searching to the right. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it is a pretty a good rule of thumb when trying to quickly find the door after entering a room for VEIS (VESS).
(1) If you were going to access the second-floor window with the shutter for a VEIS (VESS) operation, you would likely find the door to the room on the opposite side of the room to the left; so, a left-handed search would get the firefighter to the door the fastest. (Photo by author.)
These are just a few tips for conducting a quick and efficient (and safe) vent-enter-search operation. As the VESS acronym dictates: As a first action, get to the door and close it. I don’t mean to be offensive here, but the simple act of shutting the door has saved the lives of many victims and firefighters.
Anthony Avillo retired in March 2015 after a 30-year career in the fire service. Avillo was a deputy chief in North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire & Rescue, assigned as 1st Platoon regional tour commander. He has a BS degree in fire science and a master’s degree in national security studies from New Jersey City University. Avillo is the director and deputy fire marshal at the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy. He is also an adjunct professor at New Jersey City University. He is an FDIC instructor and a member of the FDIC advisory board and the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering. He is the author of Fireground Strategies, 3rd edition (Fire Engineering, 2015) and Fireground Strategies Workbook Volumes I, II, and III (Fire Engineering, 2002, 2010, 2016). A new book co-written with Chief Edward Flood, Full Contact Leadership, is scheduled for release by Pennwell in 2017. Avillo was a contributing author to Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and Firefighter II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is co-author of its Study Guide (Fire Engineering, 2010). Avillo has also contributed to both volumes of the Pass It On books by Billy Goldfeder (Pennwell, 2015, 2016). Avillo was a collaborator in the Tactical Perspectives DVD series (Fire Engineering, 2011) and has had issued the DVDs Control of Fireground Operations (Fire Engineering, 2016 release) and Forging a Culture of Safety (Fire Engineering, 2013). Avillo co-hosts the radio show “Fireground Strategies and Other Stuff from the Street with Chief Jim Duffy on Fire Engineering BlogTalk Radio. Avillo was recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering/ISFSI George D. Post Fire Instructor of the Year Award.