By Jimm Walsh
Many people associate the term aggressive with unsafe, particularly when it comes to truck company functions. Despite what some may think, the fireground can be made safer through the execution of aggressive truck company functions. Some of the core truck functions like forcible entry, ventilation, and search can make the fireground safer for everyone when performed in a timely manner.
Unfortunately, there is a common misunderstanding in the fire service that all aggressive actions are unsafe. As a result, many fire departments have become overly conservative on the fireground. Unfortunately, this is causing us to lose valuable time to operate in a safe fashion. As time passes and the fire progresses, our actions on the fireground can place us in greater danger. This whole cycle can be avoided if crews are trained to take aggressive action early, in a safe fashion.
There has recently been an effort to apply scientific research to help us better understand the modern fireground. In particular, the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Fire Department of New York’s research focusing on flow paths and ventilation has been some of the most significant. These studies demonstrate the importance of understanding flow paths and their effect on the fire. This new understanding of flow paths, combined with knowledge of the differences in modern building contents and construction, are essential to our safety on the fireground. Although some may read these studies and use them as justification not to perform truck functions, others could use these studies to justify exactly why we need to perform truck functions on every fireground.
Because of the limited staffing most departments are facing, we must improve our efficiency on the fireground. It is unfortunate, but many departments have been forced to reduce staffing or eliminate truck companies altogether. As a result, truck functions are not being performed on many firegrounds. One of the ways we can increase the potential for truck functions to be performed is to implement the two-team concept, which splits the essential truck functions into two teams, an inside team and an outside team. Splitting these tasks prevents duplication of effort and allows us to operate more efficiently with fewer personnel. The inside team should focus on forcible entry and search, and the outside team should focus on forcible egress, ventilation, and ventilation-entry-search (VES). Splitting the tasks allows for a more efficient division of labor that works well in situations where truck functions have to be split up and assigned to different crews.
VES is one of the most important outside-team tasks. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most widely misunderstood truck functions on the fireground. Many departments feel VES is overly aggressive and unnecessary. Despite some common misunderstanding, VES is relatively safe and can be an extremely effective use of personnel. Often, VES is not even considered solely because of the misunderstanding of the task and personnel needed. In its purest form, VES requires only two people.
For example, what if an engine company staffed with two or three pulls up on a two-story residential structure with heavy smoke showing on the first floor? The frantic homeowner is in the front yard pointing at a specific window on the second floor screaming that her child is in “that room.” In this situation, engaging the fire might not be the most effective use of the limited personnel. If properly trained on VES, two members from the engine company could throw a ladder, enter the bedroom, and perform the rescue. Is that an overly aggressive tactic? I think not! In fact, it was the quickest and safest way to save that child’s life, and perhaps the child’s only chance for survival. Even if the crew could have made it up the interior stairs, by the time the victim was located and removed down the staircase, what would the conditions in the stairwell and first floor have been like at that point? The potential for the victim to survive is significantly decreased, and the crew is unnecessarily subjected to hostile fire conditions. This same scenario could play out in any fire department’s first-due area at any moment. Why then, is every firefighter not trained and proficient in VES?
VES is the tactic of having a team of two perform a targeted search of the bedrooms in a residential structure. It involves venting a bedroom window, entering the room, and searching for a victim. Because of the targeted nature of VES, it speeds up our search and increases the survivability of potential victims. The inside team is using traditional search techniques to look for victims who tried to escape but could not. These victims will typically be found in common areas and in the means of egress. The outside team is utilizing VES to search for victims who did not, or could not, escape on their own. These victims are typically found in bedrooms.
When taking the window, we must remember to clear it entirely: the sill, sash, and glass. That window is not only functioning as our entrance, but it will soon be our egress opening as well. Remember, we are performing VES in hopes of finding a victim. If the window is not properly cleared, it could later hinder victim removal.
Closing the door to the room is the number one priority during VES. We must remember that we have created a new flow path simply by taking out the bedroom window. If we don’t isolate the room and eliminate the new flow path, the fire will be drawn to our location. Conditions in the room will improve immediately once the door is closed. The UL studies found that the tenability thresholds were never exceeded in a bedroom with the door closed.
The safety factor in VES can be found with a proper understanding of the tactic. The firefighter never leaves the bedroom. When closing the door, the firefighter may reach into the hallway to feel for a victim right near the door, but the firefighter never leaves the bedroom. In an average size home, the typical bedroom is only 120-200 square feet. That means that at any point during the search of the room, the firefighter is not more than 15 feet away from his means of egress. In addition, when performing VES, the possibility of having your means of egress cut off by rapidly deteriorating conditions is almost impossible. The crew is not crawling a long distance and potentially taking a beating from heat conditions since they are simply entering a single room from the outside. As a result, the likelihood of getting lost or disoriented goes down significantly.
Before performing any task on the fireground we must be able to answer the following questions: Where is the fire now? Where has it been? What has it done? What is it going to do? Being able to read fire conditions and building construction are essential skills for anyone performing VES.
VES must be trained on heavily before it becomes a tool in your tactical toolbox. The residential fire example above highlights that everyone should be trained on VES. Speed is of the essence when it comes to performing VES.
The only way to ensure a successful fireground operation is through a coordinated fire attack. An engine company’s effectiveness and safety are directly related to the timely execution of truck functions. Calculated decisions made by competent fire officers will allow for aggressive functions to be accomplished on the fireground in a safe manner. However, it is important to point out that the decision to execute aggressive truck functions cannot be made on the fireground. The commitment must happen ahead of time. Having standard operating guidelines in place and using realistic hands-on training to perfect your truck skills is paramount. Crews must show up expecting to perform certain truck functions to be successful. We need to make sure that we train until every member of our department can and will perform truck functions without hesitation. Aggressive truck functions save lives! Aggressive truck functions will allow everyone on the fireground to work in a safer and more efficient manner.
JIMM WALSH, EFO, CFO, CTO, is a division chief with Winter Park (FL) Fire Department and the owner of VentEnterSearch.com. He has lectured around the nation on various fire related subjects including leadership and truck company functions. He has a bachelor’s degree in public administration from the University of Central Florida.