It’s 3 a.m. and as the bells alert you and your crew to a structure fire, it sounds like there’s going to be working tonight. While en route, the dispatcher provides updated information indicating numerous phone calls reporting victims trapped. You feel a surge of adrenaline as your engineer turns onto the block and heavy smoke is seen moving across the road. As you arrive on scene, a frantic mother informs you that her child is trapped in the upstairs bedroom. You observe a two-story, split-level home with heavy fire showing out the front door. Clearly the primary path of egress for the upstairs bedrooms has been cut off by the rapidly extending fire. The words “please save my baby” are the last thing you hear as she falls to her knees and sobs helplessly. In the perfect world, we would be able to accomplish search, fire attack, ventilation, and a decent command and control structure in a coordinated and simultaneous manner. Unfortunately, most of the fire service does not operate in the perfect world.
Vent, Enter, Isolate, Search (VEIS) was previously known as Vent, Enter, Search (VES) and is a time-tested and extremely valuable tactic in which we simply put ourselves where the victims are. Long before I entered the fire service, VES, as it was called, always included the isolation aspect. As more of a traditionalist, that is ok with me. In an attempt though to perhaps “jog” the memory of someone who is getting ready to perform this tactic (and possibly forget), adding the “I” for Isolate is also ok with me. A sage old Chief once put it, “I don’t care if we have to put the alphabet soup in front of it for someone to remember the Isolation aspect, we’ll do it.”
In the case listed above, we should expect to find this child in an upstairs bedroom. VEIS can simply be defined as a sometimes difficult rapid search technique conducted through an exterior position using the means necessary. It has been my experience that tells me that often times VEIS may be the safest and most effective means to remove trapped occupants who are cut off by smoke and fire. When considering VEIS, the old moniker “risk a lot to save a lot” can be adjusted to: “risking a little, often saves a lot.”
Before we get more specific about the tactic of VEIS, the most important thing to remember with victim rescue is simple. A second or two can be the difference between someone living and dying. As we embrace that fact we can focus on two specific operational responsibilities to help us minimize the time factor: the obligation to train and the obligation to responsibly try.
Credible information for victims
When approached by a family member or bystander, engage the individual directly. As you move to the fire building without delay, ask specific questions. Have them show you, and when possible, point directly to the bedroom where the trapped subject is. This will give you the ability to focus your search in an area with a high probability of life and save time. Ask how old the victim is because searching for a 4-month-old is different from searching for a 4-year-old. Keep in mind that as you complete your search for that 4-year-old, include sweeps under the bed and in the closet.
If they are not found, it would be sensible to assume that the child fled the targeted room in an attempt to make it to mom and dad’s room. An easy question begs to be asked to mom or dad as you prepare to ascend the ladder: “Where is your room in relation to your child’s?” Based on conditions in the hall, and the hopeful progress by the engine company, it will then be your decision whether to depart from the original room and give it a shot. Traditionally speaking, VEIS is not the starting platform for a search like this, but during desperate times, citizens expect us to make sensible decisions.
Additionally, be careful with predictions of who is and who is not home. The words vacant or abandoned, the time of day or night, cars in the driveway or not, and reports from other public safety officials should not be what discounts the possibility that someone is home. Conditioning ourselves to assume people are not home as opposed to the opposite often times does not result in a favorable operational tempo, thus resulting in a slow and unfavorable outcomes. Many times no information will be available to you, with no bystander or family around. In this instance, as you evaluate the fire building, look for things that appear out of the ordinary. An open window on a cold night, when all the others are closed should be a distinct clue. For that matter an open window on a hot night can indicate the same. A smudge on a steamy window from a disoriented sweeping hand would be a high target for VEIS as well.
Training for VEIS
Perhaps the most important and ignored aspect of any traditional search or VEIS training drill is attitude. As you drill, and as you operate on the fireground encourage an attitude of conducting your search expecting to find someone at any moment. Adopting this attitude alone will improve your search. Just the same, a crew attitude that expects and wants to go to fires will outperform a crew that does not expect or want to go to fires all day long.
A very simple back-to-basics type training approach is what’s going to save time and benefit the trapped subject. Understanding fire behavior, accurately reading smoke and building construction specifically related to where bedrooms are located, rapid and accurate donning of PPE, assembling of basic tool packages including appropriate ground ladder deployment, and rapid delivery to a target are the backbone of a quality VEIS. If these areas are a struggle, it is very likely the VEIS will struggle and be slowed significantly.
The search position
It is my opinion that a two-person team is ideal with one as the searcher, one at the window sill. As the searcher ascends the ladder and completely takes out the window, they observe the smoke condition. This observation should indicate whether or not there is an open or closed door entering the hallway. At this point, to confirm integrity of flooring, and to check for a victim below the sill, a Z-sweep and sounding of the floor with the pike pole/hook is recommended. They should use the thermal imaging camera (TIC) to scan the room completely looking for a few things: the victim, the bedroom door, closets, and any other target areas. We have found it helpful to leave the TIC secured at the tip of the ladder for later use by the partner at the sill. Depending on the width of the window and the dexterity of the searcher, a head-first or a feet-first entry can be made into the room.
If the door is open, once in the room a low purposeful and direct movement to the door is of utmost importance. It is imperative that the door be controlled and closed in order to avoid an unfavorable flow path. If a victim is encountered en route to the open door, it may be necessary to crawl over them in order to shut the door to buy time. Being aware that it will be natural for a searcher to become distracted by the victim and forget to close the door is important to avoiding this predictable pitfall. If no victim was located in the targeted room that was searched completely, it is advisable (but condition dependent), to open the hallway door and check the immediate vicinity for the victim that attempted to flee. Once the room and hallway are clear, the searcher exits through the window and down the ladder.
The sill position
The sill person ascends the ladder after assuring the butt of the ladder is secure. They use the TIC that was left at the tip of the ladder and immediately locates the searcher and verifies the door is closed. If the searcher has been distracted by the victim, it is imperative that the sill position immediately corrects this issue by communicating with the searcher. The sill position is keeping tab of the big picture while his partner is extremely task oriented and may be very stressed. Most times, not only in training but also on the job, a phenomenon called “auditory exclusion” prevents the searcher from hearing their partner’s instructions. Understanding that this will occur goes a long way in attempting to avoid this dangerous circumstance. In this case the partner may have to “change the cadence” in order to reconnect with the searcher. This phenomenon is real and it is imperative that we have this realization and thus increase our awareness of it.
The sill position is responsible for communicating with command. If a victim is located, more help is needed, or conditions change, this is immediately communicated. Just as important, the sill position communicates with the searcher and offers encouragement. The key point here is practice with your partner in order to gain confidence and trust. If a heavy victim is located and the searcher cannot remove them alone, the sill position will enter to assist with the removal. As this happens it is urgent that the sill position communicates his entry with command and additional help is directed to the sill for assistance in removal of the victim down the ladder.
Numbering the interior walls of the bedroom being searched provides the sill position the ability to let the searcher know where they are in relation to the window that was entered. The confidence of the searcher in knowing that they are in view of their partner at the sill does a lot to add confidence and speed to the search. As the smoke lifts, the sill position may be able to see an area and communicate that there are no victims located there. Keep in mind that the exterior lettering of A, B, C and D remains the same and that it is likely to confuse incident command if you begin communicating numbered locations to him/her while searching.
With an intimate understanding of your department’s mission statement and as a leader and a decision-maker on the fireground you are bound by an obligation to try. This is clearly what our citizens expect of us. Again, plainly stated, there is no avocation of senseless operations here. Even before you can try though, having the ability to make a good, solid, clear, tactical decision starts with committing yourself to learning, practicing, and developing your crew as a functional team in training. A team that has the primary mission of the citizen’s lives as its focus and functions as a cohesive unit in training and on the fireground is a team that will have the opportunity to try. This gives the team the opportunity to succeed, thus benefiting the victim.
Arriving at 3 a.m. with a frantic parent yelling for you to save their child for many will be the Super Bowl of all incidents. It is the hope that you have prepared for this incident individually, as a leader, and have prepared your crew for this as well. As a leader of firefighters, or as an individual firefighter, the most important realization is that sometimes, despite the most unbelievable and horrific conditions, chance lives. It is our job to give our citizens just that. That’s what they expect and whether we call it VES or VEIS is irrelevant to this expectation.
See Lewis at Firehouse Expo 2016—Kevin R. Lewis will be the lead instructor for the “LIVE FIRE / Principles of Modern Fire Attack” hands-on session and presenting “Expecting the Best: Today’s Vent, Enter, Search” at Firehouse Expo, Oct. 18–22, in Nashville.
KEVIN R. LEWIS has served with Cobb County, GA, Fire & Emergency Services for 20 years. He is currently a captain at Truck Company 4. He holds a BA from the University of Delaware and has taught at Firehouse Expo, Firehouse World, and extensively throughout the Southeast. He is a member of the NFPA 1931/1932 Technical Committee for Fire Service Ground Ladders and a founding member of the Georgia Chapter of the Terry Farrell Firefighters Fund.