Venting for Fire, Venting for Life

Firefighter on a roof with flames venting
Photo courtesy the Indianapolis Fire Department

Your engine company pulls up to a good working fire in a three-story private dwelling. The fire is not out any windows, but smoke is issuing from every crack in the building. You as the engine company grab the line, go to the front door, flake out the line, and start the push. At first, you open the nozzle and a wave of steam and heat comes at you. It’s hot, brutal, punishing work. Then, like magic, the tides change. Smoke and superheated gases start leaving the building, and the push and final extinguishment become almost simple. What changed? The truck company started to vent.

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A well-coordinated fire attack involves teamwork between the engine and the truck. The outside truck members understand their job is to vent for fire and life. They know that once the fire attack starts and the nozzle is making its way in the building, the opening of windows in the fire room and ahead of the line allows the engine company to push the superheated gases and steam they create outside into the atmosphere. This move makes for a faster, more efficient fire attack. The engine company can work faster and easier without the unfavorable conditions of an unvented building. Venting for fire and life are planned and rehearsed procedures that allow the release of smoke and heat from the building. The search for victims in potentially occupied rooms can occur as well without creating a dangerous flow path.

Venting for Fire

While the engine company is stretching the line, windows must not be taken. The premature venting of the windows in today’s buildings will create a flow path that can accelerate the fire. This is called a vent-induced flashover. Vent-induced flashovers may be one of today’s biggest enemies in modern firefighting. The fire will flash toward the firefighters who may not have the protection of a charged hoseline and make rooms that were once survivable untenable for any potential victims. The outside truck members need to listen to radio traffic and rely on their own knowledge of smoke travel to help determine where the fire is, what stage it is in, and at what windows to place the ladders.

Communication between the outside members and the engine and truck officers is vital to the success of the operation and the safety of firefighters inside. The outside team should raise ladders so that the tip is centered in the window, level with the sill. From here, they stand at the tip, waiting for the go-ahead to take the window once the line starts the push. When the engine officer announces that the line is moving in and they’ve started their attack, the members on the outside can begin to vent the windows. This is their permission to vent!

When a line makes entry into a house or apartment, it creates one of the biggest flow paths by opening and keeping the front door open. When the line is in operation and moving, it is cooling the environment sufficiently to prevent the vent-induced flashover. By taking the windows, these vents will allow the nozzle team to push the smoke and heat out the window. It changes the flow path for the engine from the front door they are using to the windows the outside teams are taking.

All nozzles, fog and smooth bore, move a lot of air and can be used to push the products of combustion out the window. Creating this new flow path toward the windows is the goal. The coordinated vent will accomplish a few things. First, it makes the engine work a lot easier, as all the products of combustion and heat are now chased out the window instead of back at them. Second, it makes the job of the truck interior team easier, improving conditions and lifting the smoke to make the searches more effective. Third, and probably most important, it allows for more favorable conditions for any potential victims and their survivability.

Venting for Life

In any residential dwelling, also consider the possibility of victims in the building and where they could be located. Vent for life is a method of venting and entering a building with a known life hazard ahead of the line or before the line is in place. Quick action by the outside truck team to vent-enter-search (VES) bedrooms and living spaces can have great outcomes for any potential victims in these areas. It is important to have a strong grasp of flow paths when attempting to VES the building, especially away from the fire area.

By taking a window, you are creating low pressure and providing the fresh oxygen that the fire will feed off and draw to your position. On entering a bedroom through the window, it is important to immediately get to the bedroom door and close it. This limits the flow path and allows the room to clear of smoke while you search for potential victims. Having a good knowledge and grasp of these flow paths is of utmost importance! By performing VES with a known life hazard, you are taking the calculated risk of potentially drawing the fire toward you; therefore, communicate to the rest of the fireground to help make the situation better.

For the known life risk, the engine has to work faster and make the push harder, as now the fire has a pathway to travel in the building toward the new vent hole. This is okay, as the engine moving in with a flowing handline is the ultimate protection for both the rescuers and the victims. The flowing nozzle will cool the surrounding atmosphere enough to hold back a vent-induced flashover and the fire from traveling down the flow path created by VES.

A common misconception of VES into a fire building is that firefighters would enter a room through a window, search the room, then go back out the same window. Then they would reposition the ladder to another window and start the process all over again. This method is not only time consuming for the firefighters but also physically taxing. After a few rooms, any potential for saving a victim will be reduced. Even the strongest firefighters will have spent all their energy going up and down and repositioning the ladder.

In actuality, all firefighters need to do is to open the door to the hallway and evaluate the conditions. If conditions are poor, firefighters can exit from the window from which they entered. Often, however, conditions are good enough, especially if the line is flowing, that firefighters can move down the hallway toward another room and start the process of searching the next room. This method of VES allows for a faster search of a greater area and increases the potential to save any viable victims.

Another big misconception of VES is that firefighters need to bring their victims down the ladder they used to VES. Especially if the line is flowing and moving into the fire area, the interior stairs will be a safer and quicker option—only if that path is tenable for the victim. This is even more true for the unconscious victim.

There is a mnemonic for remembering the specific way to bring a victim out of a building in degrees of safeness, “I Have Five Little Rats”: Interior stairs, Horizontal exits, Fire escapes, Ladders, Rope. These five exit points are the order in which you should exit a building. It’s not often the interior stairs are compromised; they should always be your number-one option. Horizontal exits are areas in larger buildings that can be used as an exit or area of refuge where smoke doors/barriers protect firefighters and victims. Fire escapes are generally a safer option than ladders, as they offer a platform, which multiple people can stand on, and stairs to descend. Ladders can be tricky for children and the elderly, and some people are just not comfortable using ladders (especially when talking about heights of more than 30 feet). Rope is the last option, as it is the most dangerous for the victim, who may not be tied into the system like you may be.

Important Tool

VES is an important tool on the modern fireground. There are some misconceptions about it and some negative consequences if it is done improperly. When VES is done correctly, however, the possibility of a vent-induced flashover is minimized while the benefits of the vent will increase the efficiency of all the units involved.

With the right training and communication on the fireground, venting for fire and life can be one of the biggest lifesavers for firefighters and victims. If you know what consequences your actions will have, you can stay safe and be effective. By coordinating the vent with the line, the engine can make the push that much faster, and the truck can search more effectively, which will save more lives and property.

JOSEPH FICARELLI is a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and is assigned to 40 Engine in midtown Manhattan. Previously, he was assigned to Ladder 61 and Engine 63 for 10 years in the Bronx. He was a volunteer firefighter from 2001 to 2008, when he joined FDNY. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Manhattan College.

KAREN LAVARNWAY is a technician with Loudoun County, Virginia. She has worked for the county for 10 years and volunteered two years before that. She has a bachelor’s degree from George Mason University and is obtaining her masters through Harvard University Extension School.

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