BY STEVE SHUPERT
Vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) tactics are the most talked-about search techniques. Following is a discussion of the decision making involved in choosing VEIS. This search technique is generally applied to residential dwellings at night. The concept is that the bedrooms represent the highest probability of finding a victim trapped or overcome by fire/smoke. VEIS is not intended to replace a more comprehensive interior search. To execute a VEIS, a ground ladder is thrown to break out the targeted bedroom window (vent) and the crew ascends the ladder, enters the room, and begins to search.
PROS of VEIS
Some of the benefits of using VEIS are the following:
- It helps keep egress clear of firefighters.
- It keeps egress open for building occupants.
- It allows more room for the hose crew to enter.
- It helps keep the doorway clear during positive-pressure ventilation (PPV).
- It provides quicker access to potential victims.
- It provides a route to elevated floors when normal egress is cut off by smoke/fire.
CONS of VEIS
Some of the disadvantages of using VEIS are the following:
- It may create unwanted ventilation.
- If interior stairs are unusable because of fire, you still have only one way out.
- Missed searching areas are normally hit by using the front door and stairs.
- Carrying a victim down a ladder may be more difficult than using interior stairs.
- The engine company may need to search most untenable areas (directly exposed to the fire), which may delay fire control.
Tactical considerations of VEIS can be complicated and dangerous if the search crews do not understand them and the incident commander (IC) does not coordinate them. When deciding which window to take out, you need to know if your crew is the only one assigned to search. Your crew may be part of a much larger search plan because the IC has determined that fire growth will outpace fire control efforts/assets and has launched a multipronged search. An example of this would include a large apartment complex that has its usual egress cut off and many victims presenting themselves on the fire department’s arrival. We must work from the area of greatest hazard outward.
Therefore, if you are part of a multicompany search assignment, hopefully there will be a search sector command. At any rate, you are most likely making most of these decisions on the fly and at best doing face-to-face coordination with other company-level officers on the sidewalk. Given this situation, a company will need to be assigned to the fire area and directly above it, with other companies searching flanking areas or the highest floor, depending on the size and shape of the building.
Because companies are working above the fire, use great caution if employing PPV. It could spread fire and smoke directly to the searching crews because they created an exhaust vent hole to facilitate their entry. In a scenario like this, it would help to have companies assigned to rescue. Searchers find victims and hand them off to rescuers, who perform the final extrication and delivery to emergency medical services. This type of transition will help prevent duplicating search efforts and cut down on the possibility of areas being missed.
Say you are responding to a three-story multifamily dwelling (apartments) with smoke showing throughout the front of the structure, first floor. It’s nighttime, so you assume that some occupants will be found in their bedrooms. The fire has presented on the ground floor. The occupant of the fire area of origin has most likely left the door open when he fled the building, allowing heat/smoke and fire to occupy the common areas of the building.
You are the crew leader of a four-person truck company, assigned to search, and you decide to split your crew. Two firefighters pull a 28-foot ladder and select a second-story window above the apartment that has the fire. They break out the window and lower the ladder tip to the bottom of the window; they will not have time to trim this frame out. They are moving fast. You and the junior member of the crew do the same to the next closest smoky bedroom window. Each two-person team mentally notes the position of the other team’s ladder. You have the thermal imaging camera (TIC); the other team does not. The junior member enters a smoke-filled room through the window—low heat and no fire. He checks the floor under the window to make sure it is intact and no victim is there.
From the tip of the ladder, you direct the firefighter to make sure the door to the hallway is closed and begin a TIC-directed/physical search (see “Using Thermal Imaging Cameras,” Fire Engineering, November 2011, for more details on this application). The apartment is empty. You look out into the hallway. By listening to the radio traffic, you know the engine crew is gaining control of the fire, which, in turn, is making visibility worse on the second floor.
The other search team working above the fire (without the TIC) encounters heavy smoke and high heat. The members attach their guide rope to the tip of the ladder and enter the apartment with it to begin their search. They find an unconscious victim and request help. An exterior firefighter ascends the ladder to receive the victim. Now, these search teams have a decision to make: Do they exit the building by ladder, reposition the ladders, and continue VEIS or assess the progress on controlling the fire and proceed to search as much of the building as possible from their current locations?
They will need to coordinate this decision with command. The primary search of the remaining areas of the building (third floor) may be completed by more conventional techniques if the fire is under control. If the fire control efforts are not making progress and conditions continue to deteriorate above the fire, then command will need to get a protection line to this area if the search is to continue. The VEIS technique has quickly placed firefighters into the building where success was likely and vented smoke and toxic gases.
PRECAUTIONS WHEN WORKING ABOVE THE FIRE
Even a casual review of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health line-of-duty death reports reveals that too many firefighters die working above a fire, virtually all of them searching for victims. Make sure your crew knows about the dangers of this assignment and that the IC knows where you are inside the building.
Keep in mind that the success of the search often is directly dependent on the engine crew’s successfully containing the fire. Many fire departments require the engine company officer to broadcast over the radio that water is being applied to the fire. Crews searching for victims (especially above the fire) while the engine crew is still searching for the fire is a recipe for disaster.
When assigned to work above the fire, you should have a charged hoseline present. The crew assigned to search will lose valuable time if it has to pull the hose and then commence a search. Therefore, the IC needs to assign a hose crew to support the assignment; this is critical. To be fully effective and to manage time appropriately, company-level assignments need to have focus and achievable objectives, given the time available to complete the task before structural failure occurs. A company rarely can be effective when it must both pull hose and search. If faced with staffing levels or response times that negate this type of coordination, train your crews (four-person minimum) to split so that two search and the other two support the searching firefighters with hose coverage.
Working Above the Fire
When working above the fire, look, feel, and listen for the following conditions:
- Smoke pushing through the floor.
- Heat keeps increasing, but no fire is visible.
- Floors are sagging or creaking.
- The floor is hot to the touch.
- Large loads (dressers, waterbed, and so on) are in the room.
- Water-damaged areas are present.
Use caution when using interior stairs. Keep your body close to the wall side, which has stronger supporting members than the banister side. Watch for falling glass if vertical venting involving a skylight at the top of the stairs is underway. Keep your arms in tight. Stair treads have been known to break with a fully geared firefighter bounding up the steps. To avoid this, try not to step directly on the center of the steps, and keep your feet near the stair stringers.
When searching above the fire—more specifically, the room directly above the fire—force entry into a room away from this high-danger area so you can use it as an area of refuge if you get cut off. When these conditions occur, proceed with extreme caution or employ defensive search techniques. If, when searching a room above the fire, a localized floor failure occurs, get to another area as quickly as possible, and radio your situation. This is a “Mayday” situation. Be aware that carbon monoxide, an odorless and colorless gas (by-product of combustion), will rise and could be trapped and accumulate, reaching explosive limits above the fire.
VEIS techniques have saved lives and have allowed firefighters to search dangerous buildings with a larger margin of safety and success. However, you must train and practice the techniques before you have to use them at a fire. Your life depends on it!
STEVE SHUPERT is a 26-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant in the Miami Valley Fire District in Montgomery County, Ohio. He is assigned to Engine/Rescue Company #48, 2nd Platoon. He is a member of Ohio Task Force 1 USAR and an East Coast representative to the DHS/FEMA/USAR Rescue Working Group. He has been deployed to five national disasters, including the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
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