Oriented Vent-Enter-Search for Small Departments

BY JOSEPH PRONESTI

Much has been written on the benefits and techniques of conducting vent-enter-search (VES). All firefighters have to do is put this acronym into their favorite Internet search engine and they can spend hours reviewing articles and videos pertaining to this tactic. Many of these articles and videos, however, focus on conducting VES using a single searcher only; this method presents several hazards to the untrained or to those who infrequently perform this operation, which is the case for most small departments. This article applies the lessons and strategies of interior oriented search to the exterior or VES tactic in which small departments can train and use when conditions warrant.

On Sunday night, May 16, 1993, the Elyria (OH) Fire Department (EFD) was called to a residence on Mendel Court for a working house fire with a child trapped. When crews arrived, they found a 2½-story wood-frame residence with heavy fire conditions enveloping the front porch and interior foyer of the residence. Twelve firefighters attempted to knock down the fire and make an interior entry to conduct a traditional search, but this proved futile, and an eight-year-old was found some 20 minutes later on the second floor under her bed, obviously deceased. How could this tragic event, which occurred two decades ago, provide us lessons for today?

(1) Placing the ladder at an angle that is lower than usual may make it easier for two firefighters to remove the victim. It will also make it easier for firefighters to bail out of the window if conditions should change rapidly. (Photos by author.)
(1) Placing the ladder at an angle that is lower than usual may make it easier for two firefighters to remove the victim. It will also make it easier for firefighters to bail out of the window if conditions should change rapidly. (Photos by author.)

In 1993, except for the largest fire departments, VES and oriented interior search were little known tactics. Our department, like most departments, still conducted searches as taught in fire academies: Go in through the interior stairs with a partner, conduct a left- or right-handed search, and do the best you can to save a viable life. Throughout our history, fireground search was, and still is, a very dangerous tactic, one that must be studied and trained on continuously. Many things in the EFD have changed in 20 years, and we mirror most Midwest departments. However, if this fire happens again in Elyria or in a town with any similar-size or smaller department, would the tactics be the same as they were 20 years ago?

SURVEY

In preparation for this article, a questionnaire was posted on the National Fire Academy’s Trade Net, and several e-mails were sent to fire chiefs across the state of Ohio. The questionnaire specifically targeted smaller departments and asked the following questions:

  • Do you routinely train on VES?
  • What would be your apprehensions if command ordered VES on the fireground?
  • How large is your department? (Departments with more than 100 members were omitted.)
  • Are you familiar with the term “oriented VES”? If so, do you train on it?
  • Have you had a save using VES?

    Results

    Most departments surveyed do indeed train on traditional one-rescuer VES, but the majority stated that they train at the company level and their respective departments do not have a standard training program covering VES.

    (2) The VES firefighter at the top of the ladder prepares to ventilate the window. The oriented firefighter below him is carrying the thermal imaging camera (TIC).
    (2) The VES firefighter at the top of the ladder prepares to ventilate the window. The oriented firefighter below him is carrying the thermal imaging camera (TIC).

    Apprehensions on the Fireground

    This questioned was answered in a standard manner by those that answered, Is there a viable victim? What are the smoke conditions? How experienced is the searcher? How close is the fire to the room being searched? The responses indicate that commanders and company officers are in fact heeding the warnings of reading smoke but are concerned about the lack of experience and ventilation profile. Many responders indicated that staffing dictated whether or not a VES would be launched on the fireground.

    Awareness of the Term “Oriented VES”

    Although many departments said they know and can relate to the term VES, there appears to be a lack of understanding and of using an oriented member for the VES tactic. Few departments that are aware of the term train on specific oriented VES operations.

    Recorded an Actual Save Using VES

    With so few reported or documented saves, the argument could be made that this low-frequency/high-risk tactic may not even be considered on the fireground. Many departments stated that because of the actual lack of experience in making a save, they neglected training on the tactic.

    (3) While the entry firefighter is searching the room, the oriented firefighter stays on the ladder with the TIC at the window monitoring conditions while staying in voice contact with the entry firefighter and acting as his safety lookout.
    (3) While the entry firefighter is searching the room, the oriented firefighter stays on the ladder with the TIC at the window monitoring conditions while staying in voice contact with the entry firefighter and acting as his safety lookout.

    AN OVERVIEW OF VES

    In his book Searching Smarter, Assistant Chief (Ret.) John “Skip” Coleman states that VES was introduced on the East Coast by a department that had a large number of residential dwellings with front porches. Quickly laddering these porches with a single section wall with straight or roof ladders gave firefighters instant access to second-floor sleeping areas. Firefighters ascend the ladder and ventilate the window to get inside the room. They should immediately find the bedroom door and close it to prevent the fire from extending into the room and to block off the flow path of escaping heat, gases, and smoke. They then conduct a primary search of the bedroom. When the search is completed, they get back to the entry window and exit the structure.

    Many dangers can be encountered when using this tactic, which have been covered in several Fire Engineering articles and videos. Anytime you ventilate a window, you face the hazard of unpredictable fire spread, creating an even more dangerous situation. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) research has confirmed that today’s modern home furnishings have a greater heat release rate than furnishings of the past, increasing the speed of a flashover’s occurring and limiting the time firefighters have to quickly and safely enter the structure and conduct a viable search for occupants. This report provides a wealth of information that can help improve fireground safety and performance. The report is available at http://www.ul.com/global/documents/offerings/industries/buildingmaterials/fireservice/ventilation/DHS%202008%20Grant%20Report%20Final.pdf.

    A failure at the Mendel Court fire mentioned at the beginning of this article was the lack of a 360° walk-around done immediately on arrival. It was not done until suppression and rescue efforts were well underway. An initial walk-around would have revealed the presence of several windows on the second floor that could have been used to conduct a quick search of the second floor.

    ORIENTED SEARCH + VES = A SAFER SEARCH

    Coleman’s thoughts on oriented VES and the survey responses indicate that maybe the idea of using an oriented member while another member conducts VES off a porch roof or ladder might be an excellent tactic whose time has come because of today’s fireground environment. Much of this information is emphasized in the UL modern vs. legacy combustibles research.

    (4) A typical 2½-story residence front porch makes an excellent launch point for an oriented VES mission into bedrooms. Always size up the porch's stability before using it.
    (4) A typical 2½-story residence front porch makes an excellent launch point for an oriented VES mission into bedrooms. Always size up the porch’s stability before using it.

    In an interior oriented search, an oriented firefighter stays in the hallway to serve as a “human lifeline” to the searchers conducting the primary search. The oriented member monitors fire conditions with his senses and a thermal imaging camera (TIC). He must also maintain voice contact with the primary search group. This is particularly important when searching the second floors of homes with unenclosed stairwells, a common feature of most private residential dwellings. Problems occur when conditions hamper our ability to enter through the interior. Using an oriented member for VES incorporates the quick access of a ground ladder to a second-floor bedroom with the additional safety of a member watching your back and monitoring fire conditions with a TIC as you search the bedroom.

    CONDUCTING ORIENTED VES

    Before initiating oriented VES, confirm that the information you have that indicates victims are trapped is credible. Are family members telling you that someone is inside? If so, how old are the occupants inside? Knowing the victims’ ages can be helpful for rescuers; studies have shown that young children may hide under a bed or in a closet; older children may attempt to seek refuge in their parents’ bedroom; and teenagers and adults may seek refuge in a bathtub with the water running to protect themselves from the fire.

    Restrict VES to bedrooms only. It can be used in ranch-style and 2½-story structures. You must know the layouts of the typical residences in your jurisdiction-for example, most bedrooms in ranch houses are on the opposite side of the attached garage.

    Another option is to size up the style or size of the window, which may be a clue to the type of room. Remember, there are no absolutes; the best time to familiarize yourself with the residences in your jurisdiction is when making medical emergency and other service-type calls. Also, if a new development is being constructed in your district, pick up the floor plans from the sales office and include them in your fire preplans.

    FIRE CONDITIONS

    I will not go into how to read smoke, but all firefighters on the fireground should be well trained and educated in reading smoke conditions. For a successful and safe oriented VES, rescuers and command must have some idea of where the fire is located and what the smoke is forecasting. Is flashover imminent? Is the fire below the room being searched? Has a walk-around been done to evaluate the building? Command officers responding to the above survey stated that conditions must be evaluated correctly and a cautious eye must constantly be kept on fire and smoke conditions. Command must also get a hoseline in service to protect this operation if there is a known life hazard and members are operating in a compromising position.

    VENTING THE WINDOW

    After venting the window, remember to let the room vent for a minute to release the buildup of superheated gases and smoke prior to entry. Then use the TIC to see if the fire is penetrating into the room and whether it is safe to enter for the search.

    THE ROLE OF THE ORIENTED MEMBER IN VES

    Similar to this firefighter’s responsibilities while conducting an interior oriented search, the oriented member for VES is the “security blanket” for the VES rescuer. This member will be on the ladder in full personal protective equipment, including self-contained breathing apparatus. Research has indicated that if a searcher knows that someone has the sole responsibility of watching out for him, he is more likely to relax and conduct a more effective search under adverse conditions. If the oriented member has a TIC watching conditions, this “comfort level” is increased.

    Once In, Close the Door!

    Once a window is vented, a new avenue of smoke and fire travel is introduced. The VES rescuer must understand that if the bedroom door is open, the “race will be on” for that member to get to the door, close it, and isolate the room from the fire. Some departments have added the word “isolate”-that is, vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS)-to emphasize the importance of keeping fire out of the room. VEIS may become the standard term for the fire service.

    Members training in VES operations often ask, “What happens if there is no door?” or “What happens if clutter or Collyer Mansion conditions prohibit the rescuer from shutting the door?” In this case, there would be no way to isolate the fire from the room being searched; based on conditions, you must decide how long a firefighter should attempt a search in a room under these conditions.

    Once the firefighter has entered the window, he should use a six-foot hook to sweep from the base of the window to the walls in an attempt to find the door opposite the window and close it. He can pass the hook back out to the oriented member or leave it at the window. The room should be searched with a smaller hand tool.

    Although it can be argued that accountability is everyone’s responsibility on the fireground, the members conducting the oriented VES must keep command informed. A simple radio transmission to command should be standard: “Tower 8 to command. We have two members conducting VES on the alpha bravo corner division 2.”

    This brief, but very important, transmission advises command that two members are conducting VES at a second-floor window on the A-B side of the structure. Should something go wrong, command now has accountability of where his people are located, and other companies on the fireground will know where this tactic is taking place. Once the search is completed or when a victim is found, an urgent radio report to command must be made as soon as possible: “Tower 8 VES to command. Urgent! We have found a victim; bringing him to the ladder.”

    If the oriented VES rescuer can see this taking place, he will be in a better position to radio command, but, more than likely, this will have to be done by the firefighter inside. Bringing a victim down a ladder is a very dangerous tactic in which firefighters must be continuously trained; this was one of the concerns mentioned by respondents to the survey.

    Command should attempt to get additional resources to the rescue area and consider placing another portable ladder, which may help in moving the victim to the ground. An aerial or a tower ladder may also be considered.

    Additional personnel may be needed because the oriented member may have to enter and assist in lifting the victim up to the porch roof or onto the ladder. Emergency medical services should be on scene and staged as soon as possible when responding to a structure fire, especially when active rescues are being attempted.

    Use of a TIC for Oriented VES

    The TIC is a useful tool when conducting oriented VES operations. The oriented member should bring it up the ladder while the search member carries the six-foot hook and halligan. Once the window is vented and it is determined through a proper size-up that the room is relatively safe to enter, the oriented member will hand the TIC up to the entry firefighter, who will attempt a quick scan of the room. The TIC might assist in locating the door. In most residences, the bedroom door is on a wall opposite a window. Again, it would be helpful to know the types and most common layouts of residences in your jurisdiction. The TIC can also be used to gauge the heat and the fire’s location to the door; moreover, the TIC may help to determine if the victim is on the bed or floor. Often, a victim could be blocked by the bed or furniture. A primary search is the only way to locate such victims.

    Limitations of the TIC

    Do not rely totally on the TIC. As noted, a victim under a bed or in a closet can be found only by an aggressive search inside the room. Also, the TIC may not work because of a dead battery or a broken part. Having an oriented member as your lifeline outside the window may help balance any limitations of the TIC. VES operations are time sensitive. The first rescuer up the ladder cannot spend a lot of time studying the room with the TIC; the room must be scanned quickly. The oriented member can use the TIC from outside as the rescuer searches the room. Remember that the window glass must be broken because the TIC will not get readings through glass.

    Training Considerations

    Whether your department is large or small, the life safety of the public we protect and our own members is paramount. Commanders of smaller departments who replied to the survey tended to avoid conducting VES operations, possibly because of the lack of personnel or documented rescues. A number were unaware of the value in combining oriented search methods with VES.

    The survey revealed that there is a lack of standard organized training in VES operations. Most of the respondents stated that most VES training is left up to company officers. Although these officers should be commended, not having a thoroughly researched and standardized department protocol on VES operations could lead to uncoordinated and unsafe actions on the fireground. Training in oriented VES can be accomplished in an environment with a standard bedroom window; it can be done in a firehouse, training tower, or vacant structure.

    VES training also incorporates many other important fireground tactics such as reading smoke, ladder selection and placement, and victim removal.

    Based on the responses of the survey participants, it appears that many small departments would be at a disadvantage if a fire with civilians trapped, as happened in Elyria, were to occur in their jurisdictions. Ohio fire departments were at a disadvantage some 20 years ago. The difference today, however, is that VES is a much more widely known acronym but, unfortunately, it is still widely misunderstood. Don’t wait for your “Mendel Court” fire to ask “what if.” You may be only seconds away from your next career-defining fire. Adding oriented VES to your toolbox could pay dividends.

    This article is dedicated to the memory of that eight-year-old lost 20 years ago.

    JOSEPH PRONESTI is a 23-year veteran of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department, where he has served as a captain since 1999. He is a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Executive Fire Officer Program and an instructor at the Cuyahoga Community College Fire Academy.

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