Question: After forcing the door to an apartment with a room on fire on the fourth-floor of a five-story apartment house, the search team is about to enter. The engine company is just arriving and has not yet begun the hoseline stretch. The three-member team enters the apartment through the door to begin a search for the fire and any victims. Should the members chock the entrance door open or allow it to close but not lock, and why?
Response: First, I will make a few assumptions: that the fire is in this apartment; that victims are in the apartment (although it is not known whether they are still alive); and that when the door is forced, I will have no visible fire and very low to nonexistent visibility.
First and foremost, the officer must determine if this is the most appropriate area to begin the search. Any search should be started as close to the fire as possible, where savable victims could still be found, then work back away from the fire until that floor has been completed or the area is no longer immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), and then move up to the area above (until the area is no longer IDLH). If by experience and training the officer knows that no “unprotected” human could still be alive in this atmosphere, spending several minutes searching for dead victims is wasting precious time when other occupants still might be alive elsewhere.
As it relates to this problem, most departments don’t search ahead of the hoseline except in extreme circumstances such as “seen or heard” victims. In most departments, the engine arrives first and begins to stretch a line toward the fire to cut the spread and get the line between savable victims and the fire. However, in larger metropolitan departments, it may not be uncommon for a truck crew to arrive first, or with the engine, and begin to search prior to advancing the first line. But again, this circumstance is rare in most departments across the United States. Most will first get an engine on the scene, followed by another engine or a truck (if they have one) a minute or two after. In some instances, no additional units will arrive until the first-arriving unit is on the scene and calls for more help.
If you are doing a standard search, whereby the entire team enters and searches as a group, and the officer believes savable victims may be in that apartment, the apartment door should be closed. [Procedure may dictate that the officer remain at the door as a “control” (oriented) man.] This reduces fire and smoke spread toward that door (fire travels toward oxygen and fuel; smoke travels to areas of low pressure in the hallway or landing to the apartment) and also will allow for the best possible conditions in the hall or stairway being used by civilians to exit and crews to advance. In addition to effecting rescues, one of the main objectives is to protect the stairway. Closing the door to the fire apartment helps to accomplish this.
If your department insists on searching with a rope (again, all entering as a crew), the door should be closed on the rope as much as possible; the rope should be secured to an object in the hall or stairway. Again, this should slow the movement of smoke into the hallway.
Departments using the oriented method of search (depending on the size of the apartment) would probably not search that room until a line has been stretched and is inside the apartment. The officer (oriented man) would start his searchers in other apartments adjacent or next to the fire apartment until the engine crew takes a line in there. At that time, the officer would send a firefighter into the apartment to start the search with a line ahead of him, and the door would be open.
The actions taken would depend on the department’s staffing levels, operating procedures, and standard evolutions. The bottom line as far as I am concerned, however, is that if you are going to take your entire crew inside the apartment in these circumstances, close the door.
—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Bobby Halton, deputy chief, Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department
Response: I am assuming the door forced is the fire apartment, and we are going in because someone (reliable like Mom or Dad) has told us that young Throckmorton is absolutely still somewhere in the apartment. I am also assuming this is a center hallway or corridor apartment setup and not an exterior opening door to a landing.
Albuquerque does not routinely extend searches without rapid intervention capabilities and charged handlines; the exception would be a known rescue possibility. We try to always stay on the line. Our system routinely puts our engine and truck companies on-scene together, so the truck’s working out that far in front of our very aggressive engine folks is also unusual. But it could happen. My answer is what I would hope our training would produce.
The company officer (CO) leading the search must weigh the fire behavior factors carefully as we proceed. First, is the room on fire in this apartment vented to the outside; did we look up on arrival to see smoke or flame exiting the apartment? Second, what are we seeing now? Are the doors closed to the room on fire within the fire apartment? How are the hallway conditions, and what are our residents doing in the other apartments? What are the physical conditions of the resident population—elderly, invalid, young and restless? This also plays a part in our decision making.
We would force the door: The CO has notified the engine company officer on-scene and all responding units on the tactical channel of the situation, that a rescue is in progress, and the apartment floor and number. The officer would check the door, brief the crew, and carefully assess the conditions in the apartment before allowing the crew to enter to begin the search.
We would close and control the door: If the door is chocked open, we are faced with allowing the products of combustion to enter the hallway and make escape difficult for residents on the fourth floor and above. If the doors are chocked open, we are allowing air to move freely now and enhancing fire growth and increasing the potential for extreme fire behavior.
We know from sad experience that only water kills flashover. Ventilation alone is not sufficient to ensure protection from flashover. Knowing this, we would have the officer control the door by positioning himself at the door with the door closed and unlocked and with a door band over the lock to prevent it from relocking and impeding a rapid escape if needed. The crew would perform a righthand or lefthand two-person search while maintaining contact with the company officer at the door.
The CO must constantly monitor the conditions within the apartment. If there is any significant negative change, the crew should immediately withdraw and conditions should be reassessed. After concluding the search, the crew would exit together and close the door to the fire apartment while the lines are stretched for extinguishment. The crew on the fire floor would evacuate the residents on the fire floor and the floor above while waiting for the engine company, if possible.
The engine crews would be advised of the fire’s location, stage, and size as best estimated by the search crew. The search crew officer would coordinate any additional ventilation with the arrival and advance of the handline attack crew. The ventilation of the apartment must be coordinated with the arrival of the 21/2-inch charged attack handline.
Tom Brennan, chief (ret.), Waterbury (CT) Fire Department
Response: Well, let’s see what we know—a rapid size-up for the officer and personnel in the truck function on the fourth floor:
1. The door is forced and in the control of the searching firefighters.
2. The building is probably combustible at five stories.
3. There probably is no standpipe for buildings less than 70 to 75 feet.
4. There are occupancies above for one floor. The probability of occupancy at this time is a function of size-up time, economic conditions, and more.
5. How long will it be before there is a charged line?
a. A well hole, if present, will make the stretch more rapid and take the least amount of hose at about four lengths.
b. Return-type or elevator-wrap stairs will require about a seven-length stretch and a much longer time, given four firefighters are performing the stretch.
Where is the fire? We know it is not at the door—we just had no trouble forcing it and are inside. If we are members of a department that has an overcautious policy of no tactics at the fire door until a charged line is in position, keep the door, and condition, controlled; transmit urgency for the engine; and account for extension and victims above the fire.
Begin the search procedures, given the fire conditions above. What about the door? In most cases, chock the door but not with an “anvil” type of chock. You should be able to escape and get the door shut. An ax blade and yank on the door will not do. A wood chock in the doorjamb is better here than between the floor and the door, for the same reasons as above. Best here is a 6D common nail placed in the doorjamb and imbedded by the pressure of lightly closing the door. This will allow the escaping firefighters (should the fire temporarily win this round) to get through the door and shut it “through the nail” as if it were not even there. The main thing here is to maintain the integrity of the door (leave the hinges alone).
Begin the search using the procedures in which you are experienced and based on your size-up, the conditions within, and the life risk: apparent, seen, heard, known.
I begin on the fire floor by getting as close as possible to the origin of the fire. This accounts for the most exposed victim; acknowledges the fire’s type and intensity; and, more importantly, lets you do something to isolate it and gain search time. Close the door, use a water extinguisher (God forbid), communicate the exact location to the huffing-and-puffing engine officer, and search back toward the victims with more time and in the direction of the safety of the public hall.
There are two things to consider concerning the door’s not being left open.
1. The conditions above. If exiting occupants are using the open staircase to the fire floor and below, have the control person intermittently improve conditions for them with the door to the fire apartment. He also accounts and communicates with you.
2. Rollover. You open the door. Except for a little heat and the inability to see, there is no problem. You begin your search. The room in front of you begins to glow, and fire rolls kind of gently across the upper areas to your position. What is that? Rollover!
There is a negative pressure in the stairway caused by venturi created by great vertical ventilation, OR the window in the fire area is opened and the draft that the fire feels has now shifted. You scurry out of the apartment and close the door, and still no engine. You sneak a peek. The fire is no longer there. Where is it? It went back the way it was growing and extending before you opened the door and entered. Now is the moment of truth. You have ventilation, the fire is kind of lazy and happy going where it was going before you arrived, AND you have the risk factor of probable victims—and you have not really even begun to attempt a primary search. Now is the time to enter and (gulp) close the door gently. Leave a member or device to ensure that no civilian or member closes the door to a latching position. Monitor extending fire conditions more closely now, and search—but a lot more cautiously, at least until the engine begins its act.
John Salka, battalion chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: If there is a fire in the apartment and the door has been forced, the door must be closed before the search team enters. There are several safety-related reasons for this: The heat and smoke from the fire within this apartment will vent out through this door if it is left open and will quickly rise up the stairway, contaminating the floor above and endangering any occupants in that area. Civilians may be self-evacuating from the floors above, and this action would prevent them from escaping. This same movement of smoke and heat with an open door will endanger any firefighters ascending the stairway to search on the floor above.
If the windows of the apartment or room have not vented and the apartment door is left open, the fire will naturally be drawn toward this point and quickly vent upward. If the search team that enters and leaves the door open does not quickly find the involved room, the fire may very well outrace them to the door through which they entered or cut off their access back to that door. Leaving the door open will have the exact same effect as venting a window from within the apartment.
The fire does not know the door is an interior opening and will definitely travel in that direction. The open door will also admit a fresh supply of outside air to the fire apartment, which may accelerate the fire growth with the involved room or rooms. This acceleration is also a hazard to the search team within the apartment, who may not have found the fire yet or who may have victims that need to be removed.
Closing the door prevents all of the previously described situations and stabilizes the fire area. By closing doors as we approach a room involved in fire, we are limiting the air available to that fire and preventing the products of combustion from spreading throughout the rest of the building. It is also creating safe areas for firefighters to search and operate, and preventing the creation of a barrier between the involved area in the apartment and the exposed area outside the apartment.
If you are not closing the door because you feel you need an open door to get back to, you had better consider that the fire will be heading toward that same door and that it may get there first.
Peter Sells, district chief— officer development, Toronto (ON) Fire Services
Response: The textbook answer would be that they should not enter without a hoseline in place, but this is a realistic scenario, not a policy exam. So let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of the two choices.
Chocking the door open could allow for smoke to clear, thereby making the environment more conducive to finding a living victim and making the search faster and easier. But it could potentially feed oxygen to the fire and make the situation worse very quickly. The officer in charge of the search team would have to rapidly assess the fire and smoke conditions, especially the potential for fire spread into the hallway.
With the door closed, searchers and the arriving hose team would have a harder time finding the way in or out of the apartment, but this potential problem could be addressed with good, disciplined communication or with the use of Toledo-style oriented search tactics. Leaving the search officer at the apartment door to coordinate the search from an oriented point would increase the searchers’ efficiency and safety.
I don’t see one clear answer to the question. The decision would be made by the search officer based on the following factors:
- What are the fire and smoke conditions in the apartment?
- What is the potential for fire spread room-to-room and beyond the apartment?
- Is it safe for the searchers to proceed without a hoseline for protection?
- Does the search team have a thermal imaging camera?
- Given the expected size and layout of the apartment, and the prevailing levels of visibility, how quickly can a primary search be completed with the personnel and equipment at hand?
This is a lot to digest in a very few seconds to make a decision that affects the life safety of your people and any occupants within the apartment. Exercising critical thinking skills with realistic scenarios on a regular basis, whether by paper exercise, tabletop models, computer simulation, or post-incident review at the kitchen table, is the key to good tactical decision making.
Bob Zoldos, captain, Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department
Response: The mission of this search team is threefold: search for and remove any victims; locate (and confine) the fire; and, most importantly, provide for their own safety. To perform this mission properly, search team officers must base their plan of action on several factors. The construction of the building, the layout of the apartment, and the probable reflex time of the engine company to stretch a line to the fire are all important factors when considering search tactics.
Regarding building construction, Fairfax County has many high-rise residential structures but few mid-rise apartment buildings. The residential mid-rises are quite similar to the high-rise buildings, with center-corridor configuration and standpipes. The majority of these buildings are of noncombustible construction and should provide decent protection because of compartmentalization when operating without a hoseline.
The general layout of the apartment should be known beforehand. This can be accomplished through preplanning, walkthroughs, or even responding to routine EMS calls in the building. The estimate of the reflex time for the engine company to complete its stretch should be based on previous experience and training.
With these factors in mind and in this circumstance, the most appropriate decision would be to close the door and ensure that it doesn’t lock. Closing the door seems prudent for several reasons. The most important is the protection of your means of egress. Chocking the door open may draw the fire in the direction of this opening. You could be easily cut off from the exit if the fire is pulled toward and takes possession of the doorway. You and your crew may find that you are behind the fire when the engine reaches the door. Searching the building in an oriented manner, competent use of a thermal imaging camera, and proper communication should keep these problems to a minimum. With that said, keeping the door closed will deny the fire this ventilation point and protect your means of egress.
Another important reason to close the door after entering is to contain the spread of smoke and fire. Opening and leaving the door open will quickly contaminate the hallway and deny occupants safe evacuation. Occupants evacuating by the stairwells will also suffer from smoke spread, especially if they are using the same stairwell from which the attack line originates. The loss of visibility and the need to don SCBA will also hamper engine companies as they stretch to the involved apartment.
Search tactics must be based on the conditions and situation found on-scene at the time of your arrival. Within the given situation, shutting the door offers the highest probability of success in searching for life and fire and ensuring the safety of your crew.
Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department
Response: It is risky to send firefighters into a burning structure without water. Making this an even more challenging question are some of the details that are missing, such as, Did the truck company clear the other apartments prior to forcing the door? Are there interior or exterior corridors? What are the wind conditions on the exterior? Has the fire vented itself out of any windows? What is the volume of fire? How hot is it? How much smoke is in the apartment? How long will it take for the engine to stretch the attack line?
Leaving the door closed allows us to maintain the integrity of the interior corridor (assumed) to protect those trying to exit the building and the engine company advancing the attack line. Keeping the door closed should also keep additional oxygen from getting to the fire. The materials we are finding in today’s fires are producing 50 percent more British thermal units in simple room fires than 20 years ago. Because of this (and a number of other factors), we are seeing more and more cases of thermal insult to interior firefighting crews in small apartment-like structures than ever before.
Chocking the door open would allow the products of combustion to escape the apartment area and should reduce the possibility of the fire’s “flashing” after the search team has entered. Leaving the door open will damage the integrity of the corridor, making it more difficult to search the neighboring apartments and evacuate occupants.
Normally, our standard operating procedures state that we should not enter burning structures without hoseline protection. This is not a normal situation; it is rare in Phoenix for a truck company to arrive before an engine at a structure fire.
So, what’s the answer? The company officer must quickly assess the survivability profile of anybody inside the involved apartment. If it’s so hot inside that it forces you to the ground while in full protective clothing or the volume of smoke is so great that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, the chance that there are surviving occupants is fairly remote.
If the assessment concludes that occupant(s) inside could survive the event, then enter the apartment and have the company officer stay at the door to serve as an anchor point for the search and monitor conditions inside the apartment and in the corridor. The door must be managed based on many of the factors identified earlier. Assign two firefighters to do a quick search (as a team), changing the conditions inside the apartment, if necessary, by taking out windows. When you find the fire room, search as much as possible, deploy a water can, and shut the door. If the company officer is ever in doubt about changing conditions, gather the crew, exit the apartment, and wait for the engine company (water).
If nobody inside the apartment could survive the conditions, the answer is pretty simple: Force the door, but leave it closed. Do not enter the apartment; the engine company will find the fire and knock it down. Move on to the other apartments, and make sure all of the occupants on the fourth floor are out of the structure.
Larry Anderson, assistant chief, Dallas (TX) Fire Department
Response: The door should be closed but should not be allowed to lock. Smoke and fire are going to follow the path of least resistance, and if that open doorway happens to be the easiest way for smoke and fire to escape the box, it’s going that way. I should mention at this point that communication with other incoming companies is vital in this (and every other) situation. The hose teams must know where the search teams are operating, to support the search and keep from creating a deadly situation for firefighters as well as victims. An incident commander (IC) should be overseeing and coordinating this operation to ensure that efforts underway have the greatest opportunity for success. At this point the IC may or may not be a battalion chief or even a command level officer, but the fact remains that someone must assume responsibility for the operation and ensure that the tasks undertaken support the strategic priorities.
One quick note about the “path of least resistance” statement I made earlier: If you are attempting to achieve proper results from a ventilation operation, make sure that the opening you make becomes the path of least resistance for the smoke, heat, and fire. Remember, heat rises, so try to give it an upward path if possible. If you are using a doorway for horizontal ventilation, try to keep it clear of personnel who like to stand in doorways and interfere with ventilation efforts. A two-by-two ventilation opening will not be effective when a four-by-eight natural opening already exists. In horizontal ventilation situations, the four-by-eight openings are usually doorways. The easiest way to overcome a problem caused by this situation is to close the door. It is amazing how such seemingly minor functions can greatly affect a fireground operation.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire and Medic One
Response: This month’s question was presented to all of our officers and firefighters as a training session. The question generated much discussion about the specific situation, many assumptions, and a few “what ifs.” After entering the room and beginning the search, the general consensus was to leave one firefighter at the door, close the door, and ensure that the door would not lock or could not be locked.
The firefighter at the door provides an element of safety in the absence of a hoseline. The firefighter at the door can do the following:
1. Provide a positive orientation point for the firefighters engaged in the search. This will allow them to exit the apartment faster, if necessary.
2. Listen or watch for changing fire conditions in the apartment and in the hallway, and advise the search team.
3. Listen or watch for the hoseline team or other firefighters, and direct them to action.
Firefighters entering a fire building without a hoseline must consider taking additional equipment with them. Portable radios, axes, bars, hooks, a battle lantern or a light box, and a pressurized water extinguisher can be invaluable in this situation. A 21/2-gallon pressurized water extinguisher can knock down a fair amount of fire. A battle lantern or light box left at the door can be a definitive beacon for other firefighters to follow.
Some thought was given to leaving the door open if a window opposite the door could be opened or broken out to take advantage of natural ventilation and make the task of searching easier and quicker. However, not knowing the exact location of the fire and all of the other factors, such as building construction and wind direction, makes this an unreasonable risk. Our members compiled the following questions and considerations for firefighters who might be working in this situation:
- What are the day of the week and the time of day?
- What are the wind direction and intensity?
- Has incident command been established?
- Has a rapid intervention team been assigned?
- What are the design and type of building construction?
- Who are the potential occupants (e.g., number, age, mobility, disabilities)?
- What is the general location of the fire (e.g., below, adjacent to, or above the apartment to be searched)?
- What other resources are responding, and when will they arrive?
The situation presented requires firefighters to enter the “playing field” without all of their team members. Although this is not desirable, firefighters do not have a choice, since there are no “time outs” when fighting a fire. In this situation, a few extra seconds to size up another aspect of the fire or grab an additional piece of equipment can be critical to the success of the mission.
Bob Oliphant, lieutenant, Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: If I were confident the search could be accomplished with one of the firefighters remaining at or near the apartment door, my inclination would be to close the door until the engine company could advance a hoseline. Ideally, the search team would use an oriented search technique.
Keeping the door closed while conducting the search could yield several benefits. The hallway leading to the apartment would remain clear of smoke and make it easier for the engine crew to advance the hoseline. They could see exactly where they had to go, and the person at the door could probably direct them to the fire. The closed door would prevent fresh air from entering the apartment and slow the fire’s progression. This would aid the search crew and enhance victim survival. Finally, the closed door would create a safe refuge outside the apartment for retreat or evacuating victims.
The obvious concern in this scenario is that the closed door could impair the rapid egress of firefighters from the apartment. Trying to find a door in a smoke-filled environment is difficult. I think the risk of keeping the door closed is manageable, provided someone remains at the door while the search is in progress.
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar-Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: There are many, many factors that would determine the specific tactics involved in searching such an apartment. However, as a general question, with the limited information presented, my answer is CONTROL THE DOOR.
One member of the team should stay inside the door with the door closed (but not latched) while the other two firefighters search. A rubber inner-tube latch strap or a wedge can be used to keep the door from latching. The primary objective is to control the door while not allowing the fire an additional source of oxygen.
Additionally, this would allow the exit firefighter to monitor conditions at the exit, from a separate vantage point than the search crew, which would be advantageous to the team. The exit firefighter might also be able to voice communicate with the search team, coordinating searchers’ efforts and providing them with a reference point for the exit.
Another advantage of keeping the door closed is that the smoke and heat conditions in the hallway leading to the fire apartment would be controlled, which would allow occupants from other apartments on that floor to escape in a “cleaner” environment, the engine crew to advance the hallway without a firefight, and the search team a “clean” environment close to the exit for escape or rescuing victims.
Jim Murtagh, deputy chief (ret.), Fire Department of New York
Response: The purpose of the search is to rescue people who may be in trouble, to find the seat of the fire, and to limit fire spread. The key to answering this question is to recognize how the actions of the firefighters impact the fire conditions, the people in the apartment, and other firefighters.
Let’s look at what is happening inside the apartment: (1) The fire is changing solid and liquid fuels into gas fuel (smoke). (2) The heat energy is causing the gases to expand and fill the entire apartment (assuming there are very limited openings in the apartment). (3) The smoke is becoming pressurized because this unventilated apartment is a confined space. In the initial stages of the fire, there will be sufficient oxygen to let the fire burn freely and produce large volumes of smoke. This noxious and potentially life-threatening smoke will rapidly spread and envelope the apartment. There are a host of what-if scenarios that could be conjured up, but let’s assume the apartment is one of the most difficult types—an open style apartment (there are no closed doors to deter the spread of fire and smoke) filled with dense pressurized smoke.
What happens when the firefighters open the entrance door to the apartment? The first and most important point to realize is that when the door is opened, the firefighters are venting the apartment. The smoke will move directly toward the low-pressure area in the hallway from which the firefighters have just forced entry and will now fill the hall, the stairs, and upper-floor halls with smoke (smoke always moves in the direction of areas with lower pressure). A fresh supply of oxygen will enter the apartment, causing the fire to rapidly move toward the door. The firefighters entering the apartment will be in the direct route of the escaping smoke and fire.
When the hoseline is at the door, ready to advance into the apartment at approximately the same time that the search team is ready to open the door, then the door should remain open. The hoseline team and search team should advance concurrently, attacking the fire and searching for life using generally accepted good attack and search techniques. However, if the hoseline will be delayed, as is indicated in this scenario, the search team should notify the officer in charge of the company stretching the hoseline that the search team is entering the apartment and will be closing the door behind them to limit smoke spread and fire growth. The engine officer and the search team officer are now responsible for making sure the apartment door is not prematurely opened while the search team is in the apartment. This exchange of information and the assignment of responsibility are extremely important actions that must be taken. Both officers must acknowledge receipt of and indicate an understanding of this communication.
Once in the apartment, the firefighters must make sure the door CANNOT be locked. The search officer should insert something small but substantial between the door and the doorjamb (a halligan tool) to prevent the door’s accidental closing and locking.
This door becomes their area of refuge, an emergency exit point if the fire gets an oxygen source and expands unexpectedly. The oxygen source will most likely be a manually or self-vented window that will cause the smoke and heat to travel in that direction. As long as this new vent hole remains the only vent hole, the search team should be able to perform a primary search with a relative degree of safety. Shutting the apartment door removes it as a vent hole. The small opening created by the object (halligan tool) will create a small vent hole near the door. This opening will not have a significant impact on smoke movement and fire travel for several minutes. During this time, a quick primary search can be conducted, and the search team can retreat to the public areas safely.
If more than one vent hole opens up, or if the wind is blowing into the apartment through a vent hole, this should be considered a very dangerous situation and a signal to the search team to move toward their exit—the closed entrance door. When the search team is safely outside the apartment, they should shut the door and wait for the hoseline to get into place and then work together as a search and attack team. If a vent hole is adjacent to or behind the search team, the firefighters will be in the path of the expanding smoke moving toward the vent hole (low-pressure area) and the fresh oxygen supply. The search team should evaluate this condition, as well as the probability of completing the rescue, and consider backing up toward the area of refuge (the closed entrance door). A vertical opening in the roof and the concurrent opening of the ceiling above the fire area will direct the smoke and fire away from the interior of the apartment but may cause the fire to expand and get much hotter. The vertical vent generally improves search conditions. Even though the fire may now grow and intensify, the improved visibility generally makes search and retreating easier and safer. Once the search team has entered the apartment and closed the door behind them, any improper opening of the door and leaving it open would significantly endanger them.
Firefighters are expected to take risks to save lives; however, all risks should be based on sound judgment and an understanding of the circumstances to which they and others are exposed. Opening the door, entering the apartment, and closing the door behind you are relatively new and controversial concepts. Understanding fire growth, smoke movement, ventilation holes, and controlling the firefighters’ actions are the keys to success and safety.
Controlling the firefighter’s actions can be the most challenging aspect of using these concepts. Getting firefighters to hold up on horizontal venting and to advance a charged hoseline immediately into the apartment to attack the fire requires all personnel on-scene and any newly arriving members to be aware of what is going on in the apartment. It also requires that all firefighters know how their actions will support or interfere with the actions of the search team. All firefighters need to know and understand the implications of this procedure.
The search team needs to ensure the door can be readily reopened, but it should be kept in a closed position. The safest method for ensuring that the door remains closed until the search team comes out of the apartment or notifies the IC that it is safe to open the door is to assign a firefighter to keep the door closed. This should be this firefighter’s only responsibility when the search team is in the fire apartment doing the primary search without the protection of a charged hoseline. If control of the door (area of refuge) cannot be ensured, then there is a good probability that the door will be opened and the area of refuge will be compromised. The tactic of closing the door does not apply to secondary search, which must be very thorough and should be done as the fire is being brought under control, when there is maximum ventilation.
Anthony Mikolich, lieutenant, Fire Department of New York
Response: It all depends on the individuals working on the truck on that tour. If you have an experienced and an inexperienced member, it becomes difficult to make the assignment. Do you leave a rookie at the door alone? I don’t think so. Do you leave an experienced, aggressive man at the door while an inexperienced man is hanging onto the officer’s coattail? Is the engine aggressive? A good engine will have the line up there in no time. How about the member in charge of roof ventilation? How aggressive/experienced is he? Mushrooming of smoke on that top floor is critical.
The size-up of this job started at roll call. By predetermining the caliber of firefighters working that tour, the answer to all these questions should have been answered in the officer’s mind before the apparatus rolled out the door.
Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: Considering the scenario provided, several areas need to be considered. First, the fire is on the fourth floor of a five-story building and the hoseline stretch has not begun yet. Our concern would be that if the door to the unit were not controlled or were left open, we could give the fire the chance to light up and move toward the door and possibly out into the hallway. Worse yet, the search team could be trapped inside without a line. This would also substantially increase the threat to occupants on the fifth floor. If we chock the door, we inadvertently vent the fire. The problem is this is not where we want the products of combustion to go. The time it may take to stretch the line to the fourth floor or off the standpipe, if one is available, and the time needed to charge the system and lead out onto the floor would also greatly impact what happens to the fire if the door is left open. I guess a good comparison would be that of a fire in the same building on the same floor. But, this time a fleeing occupant left the door open. As is often the case when we arrive at this scenario, we encounter high heat and poor to zero visibility and have a difficult time just making the hallway on our way to the fire floor.
In the original situation, if we leave the door chocked open, we take a chance that what was just described will happen to us. Considering this situation, the size of the building, and the unit of fire origin, our choice would be not to chock the door open but to allow it to close unlocked in the control of the officer of the search team, if possible. This officer would serve as the control point for the door, a good monitor of conditions, and a “safety valve” for the search team. It makes you a little nervous talking about entering a unit without the protection of a hoseline and letting the door close behind you, but your choices are as follows:
- Chock the door open, possibly losing the integrity of the hallway.
- Let it close behind you unlocked.
- Leave it in the hands of a “control man” at the door.
- Don’t go in until the hoseline arrives.
The last choice might be decided for you by the amount of fire in the unit. Or, it could be that you’ve got one room going that would not impede your search for trapped occupants and could actually allow you to hit it with a pump can and close the door to the room. The bottom line is, we’re going to try to get in, search the room, locate the fire or any missing occupants, and do it as safely as possible. It’s going to be extremely rare that we don’t leave someone at the door.
Joseph Sullivan, firefighter, Lake George (NY) Fire Department
Response: As the search team enters, they chock open the main door to the apartment. Although this provides additional oxygen to the fire and introduces smoke into the hallway, it releases toxic and heated gases from the apartment. This makes the environment more tolerable for the search team and any possible occupants. This will also allow for a quicker and more detailed search because of increased visibility. Closing the door will not only hinder search efforts but will rapidly increase heat and toxic gas levels, resulting in possible catastrophic conditions. In such an event, the team must make a rapid exit; an open door will assist in this effort. A closed door may mean the lives of your search team.
Danny Kistner, battalion chief, Garland (TX) Fire Department
Response: Just saying “It depends …” is not a good answer, but several variables are missing from the information given. I would like to have information concerning the smoke condition, the extent of heat buildup, reports from escaping occupants, the time of day, building construction, and the estimated times of the attack and the positioning of the backup lines.
Having said that, the entrance door should be chocked open. Since no attack line or backup line is in place, fire conditions will only deteriorate. Heat and smoke will build up, driving firefighters to the floor and eliminating visibility. Many fire models suggest a typical apartment will become fully involved in less than three minutes. Closing the door will trap the heat and gas in a confined space, increasing the likelihood of flashover and injury or death to the search crew and civilians in the space.
Leaving the door open will allow some ventilation, possibly inhibiting flashover long enough to allow the search crew to accomplish its mission. It will also provide a known and possibly illuminated exit should a hasty retreat be necessary.
The downside is that fresh air will feed the fire and that smoke and heat will escape and possibly travel to the floor above. This may be advantageous to the search crew by buying them a little extra time to rescue any savable victims.
Murphy’s Law may come into play if we allow the door to shut. We might not intend for it to lock; however, anything can happen. Firefighters in rooms accessed through overhead doors don’t intend for them to come down behind them, either; but it happens unless we take some type of physical action to prevent it.
Decisions, such as this one, that have to be made on the fireground are best discussed and evaluated before the incident. Fires in the incipient stage, as in a one-room contents fire, may be handled in a particular way while a free-burning or smoldering fire involving the structure may put search down on the priority list according to the risk-benefit scale.
Brian Keith Singles, firefighter, Hampton (VA) Fire Department
Response: One member stays by the door, and two other members do a righthand and lefthand pattern search and meet back at the point of entrance waiting for the hose team, leaving the door open in case they have to make a hasty retreat.
Marc D. Greenwood, lieutenant, Akron (OH) Fire Department
Response: The search team responds to an apartment fire. Perhaps armed with sketchy details, they decide to force entry and search for fire and victims. As a rule, search and rescue should be performed in coordination with fire extinguishment, but if the risk-benefit analysis of the officer in command suggests a search, then they should proceed, but they need to advise the incident commander and other responding units of their status.
As the engine company performs its hose stretch, they encounter a door. An attack team wielding a charged line offers endangered occupants their greatest hope for survival and rescue. So they hustle and shag the hose to the fire floor, as a firefighter grabs a doorstopper from the band in his helmet, propping the door to facilitate the stretch. A crimped attack line magnifies the danger to occupants and firefighters. Consider this admonition from John Norman: “En route to the fire area, all members must take care that the uncharged hoseline doesn’t run under any doors that could close over it, restricting flow and movement. This is best accomplished with a chock. If no chock is available, use a rug or a welcome mat.”
Meanwhile, the search team has braved heavy fire and blinding smoke and has maneuvered through a glut of newspapers, boxes, and furniture and has located an occupant. He’s burrowed under a bed seeking protection. Time is everything now. Two firefighters wrap the occupant in a blanket and begin the tough trek down four flights of stairs. Had the engine company left the door shut, it would make the search team’s task harder. Now the firefighters have to attempt to back out the door, kick the door open, or attempt to rouse another firefighter to open the door. Of course, this transpires while they carry a patient delirious with pain and fear. Propping the door expedites rescue efforts and allows quick egress to the awaiting EMS unit and rapid transport to an appropriate medical facility.
Firefighting takes place amid a cacophony marked by controlled bedlam and swirling simultaneous activities like venting, securing utilities, placing backup lines, and so on, and requires unhindered access to the fire building, which is provided by the simple task of chocking the door.
A fourth-floor fire doesn’t require that a ground-level door remain shut to minimize fire’s accelerating oxygen, although it does require personnel to keep the fire apartment door shut to isolate and prevent fire spread until a suppression team packing a charged line arrives.
Josh Thompson, lieutenant, Avon (IN) Fire Department
Response: Delayed hoseline placement is always a possibility on every fireground, in every department. We must look at the priorities at hand: saving savable lives. To do this, we must be able to perform a rapid search of the immediate area threatened by fire. First, this should only be done when there is delayed hoseline placement and viable victims are entrapped—not to avoid deploying a quick and effective hoseline. In multiple-occupant dwellings, you will have a better chance of saving more lives by putting out the fire. Second, what are the proper tools that should be taken by this team? Everyone should have a portable radio, a 25-foot piece of rope, and a hand light. The team should have forcible entry tools, a thermal imaging camera, and a water can. Forcible entry tools must be taken for obvious reasons. Proper training and application must be ensured when forcing entry and there is a potential need for forcible exit.
Control of the door is essential, as is ensuring that the door can and will close back if needed. If you lose control of the door, you may expose other escaping victims to toxic smoke and fire. A thermal imaging camera is one of the most versatile tools for searching for potential victims. It allows you to “see” victims in low visibility, but we should not have tunnel vision. A 21/2-gallon water can is perhaps one of the most underused tools in this high-tech age. The effectiveness of this tool cannot be emphasized enough.
Whether to close or not close the door depends on a proper evaluation of the life safety at risk. If the door is left open, what is the risk to other occupants trying to escape? If you close the door, what is the risk that you will or will not find the way out if things go sour? If you have evaluated the risk vs. reward and have determined that there may be viable victims within the fire apartment, you must go in.
If you have trained in and used the oriented method of search, leaving a person at or within the reach of the door would be a great way to eliminate the second risk. If you do not know what the oriented search is, learn about it. The oriented man can close the door safely and still remain in contact with the searchers and the exit. The 25-foot piece of rope can assist with this; tie it to the exit door, and proceed to the next set of rooms.
Most apartments are not very large but can pose clutter problems. A quick search of this apartment must be done, but not at the potential expense of other building occupants. Another idea that can go along with closing the door is to leave something, such as a mark on the door or a small light at the floor of the door, that will identify the fire apartment for the hoseline crew. When evaluating this situation, keep in mind that the actions you take will affect the preservation of savable lives. If you leave the door open, you can potentially expose other escaping victims to the perils of smoke and fire, thereby increasing your victim load.
Hugh Stott, deputy chief, West Chicago (IL) Fire District
Response: Like so many other fire problems, there are no absolutes. The variables such as wind, ventilation, construction, and degree of fire intensity are all to be considered. I am identifying my three-member search team as the officer, the can man, and the irons man. The officer should direct the can man to attempt a knockdown of the visible fire with the portable extinguisher. The door must be controlled to ensure that (1) fire will not be drawn toward the exit door and cut off the search team, (2) the engine company can identify which apartment the search team is in, (3) the search team can readily locate its exit path, and (4) the door can be used to limit the fire to the balance of the apartment.
We must also keep the door controlled to keep fire from extending into the hall and stairway. The officer should stay near the door; control its access; observe the visible, dynamic conditions; and be able to communicate with the other two members who are doing a rapid, primary search of the apartment. He must communicate those conditions. On completing the search, the team must close the door but not allow it to lock. This will allow the attack hoseline to enter the apartment without delay.
Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy
Response: A three-man forcible entry team arriving at a fire in an apartment on the fourth floor of a five-story multiple dwelling should consist of an officer equipped with a thermal imaging camera or hand lantern and an A-tool; an irons man equipped with an eight-pound flathead ax, a halligan tool, and a hand lantern worn on a quick-release sling; and a can man carrying a six-foot hook and a 21/2-gallon pressurized water extinguisher.
The inside team should attempt to obtain information from the occupants as to the exact location of the fire; get the keys, if possible; and then locate the “line of the apartment” on the way up—for example, if the fire is reported in Apt. 4C, find Apt. 3C, and count the number of doors back to the attack stairwell; get a quick look into Apt. 3C, if possible. The ladder officer should notify the engine officer of this information and on which side of the hall the fire is located. He should also report to the engine company whether there is a standpipe.
On arriving at the fire door, some advise feeling the door to see if it is hot. I say assume that it is, and use a utility rope tied around the handle to control the door, should it be necessary to close it again because of heavy fire conditions. Once entry has been made, fasten a door strap around the doorknobs to prevent the door from locking behind the search team. The irons firefighter should remain at the apartment door while the officer and can man conduct a primary search. Should conditions deteriorate, it would be relatively simple to return to the apartment door by listening for the irons firefighter to call out. By closing the apartment door behind the searching firefighters, the public hallway and interior stairs remain relatively clear, allowing civilians to be evacuated and the engine to stretch a line more easily and quickly.
Kai W. Rieger, firefighter/paramedic, Jackson Township (OH) Fire Department
Response: Door control is always a critical factor. If we critique our past fire disasters, many times loss of door control played a major part. Unfortunately, we may not dig deeply enough to discover this vital clue. We may erroneously blame the operational failures on another area.
Many voices around the country say, “Never search without a protective hoseline.” “Never” is a dangerous word in the fire service. Many times we can get a search team without a hoseline into the fire area much more quickly than waiting for all that goes into stretching a line. With a water extinguisher accompanying them, the search team may be able to get into the room of origin, discharge the water can, and close that door. Now the fire is knocked down, the room of origin door is controlled, and we bought time to search the rest of the fire apartment.
As far as the fire apartment door is concerned, close it without locking it. We close the door for many reasons. The door drastically cuts down on the fire, smoke, and toxic gases that can fill the hallway and diminish visibility, making it harder for the engine company to get to the fire apartment. It also plays a huge part in fire control. If fire apartment windows are open or have failed, leaving a door open to the hallway can produce a blowtorch effect if high winds are present. We tragically saw that effect when an occupant left a door to the hallway open in Brooklyn, New York, in December 1998, causing three brother firefighters to lose their lives. Leaving the door open also hampers the occupants’ escape route off the fire floor and on the attached stairways.
If the search team is carrying a long-handled hook and determines that it is not immediately needed because of the apartment’s size or layout, it can be left in the hallway to mark the fire apartment door. Rarely do occupants leave a six-foot hook leaning against a doorframe. A turned-on flashlight can also accomplish this.
If the search crew thinks the door might self-lock, an object can be placed in the wood doorframe so it will not close completely and still serve as a barrier between the fire and the hallway.
Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain, Aurora (CO) Fire Department
Response: Scenario: Truck 1 is the first unit on the fire scene. Light smoke is seen coming from the fourth-floor window of a five-story apartment building. I give a size-up report and assume command. We stage our aerial on the corner in case it will be needed for rescue/egress. The four of us enter the building. I call for a second alarm, per standing operating procedure with smoke showing; tell Engine 1 to marry up with Engine 2 for water supply; and become the Fire Attack Group. There is no standpipe. We go to the alarm panel, which shows Apartment 412’s smoke detector going off. I assign my driver as Lobby Control; he will control the elevators. As IC, I identify the east stairwell as the fire attack stairs and the west stairwell as the evacuation stairs. My two firefighters become the Rescue Group, carrying forcible entry tools and two water cans. They hike up the east stairwell.
The Rescue Group checks the layout on the third floor and proceeds to the fourth floor. They see light smoke in the hallway. They meet occupants who are leaving their apartment and ask them if they have any smoke inside. They say no. The firefighters tell them to stay in their apartment until they come back and give them further instructions. The Rescue Group will direct any other people in the hallway to the evacuation stairwell.
The Rescue Group proceeds to Apartment 412. They verify the fire unit door with the heat gun and thermal imaging camera; it’s hot, all right. They radio me that they are at the apartment and ready to make entry. They force the door, making sure not to break the door off the hinges. It’s smoky, and they see a red glow. The crew goes in and closes the door behind them. They make for the fire in the bedroom, hear the familiar hissing noise as they sweep the ceiling and the base of the fire with the water cans, and then immediately shut the bedroom door to use the water’s steam expansion capacity. The firefighters then vent the windows and complete a primary search in the remainder of the apartment. The Rescue Group radios Command that they have the primary search complete and fire under control.
Note: Keep the doors closed in apartment fires. You will only give the fire air and will draw the fire to yourself if you leave the door open. You will also extend more smoke and heat into the hallway and, therefore, add to the occupants’ confusion (which normally will be your biggest headache in these types of fires) as well as add to your ventilation problem. If for any reason you cannot hold the fire with water cans (or a hoseline), retreat, and make sure the door is closed. The only time you hold a door open with a wedge or chock is when you have a hoseline going through the door or you need to hold it open for PPV. With a three-person truck crew arriving first on-scene, send your driver and firefighter to the fire floor while you remain as Command in the lobby area until relieved by the incoming chief.