From the time I started in this business (circa 1985) until just recently, I gave no thought to opening the front or rear door and leaving it open while lines were being stretched from the rigs to the building, other units were arriving, etc. Looking back, I recall numerous fires in which fire was lapping out of the top of the front door within a couple of minutes of opening up. There were many searches done under that fire that was headed to the open door. There were a few times when it got a little hairy, but for the most part it was no big deal; it was the way we did-or sometimes still do-things.
Open Door = Ventilation
So, at the same time I am operating in this mode, I am also teaching and advocating vent-enter-search (VES) as one of the most effective search methods, a method that gets you to the victim’s location fast instead of all that right hand, left hand stuff from the front door. “I could get to four victims before you even make it out of the living room,” I would say. In teaching VES, I taught what I was taught, which was the first thing you must do is go and shut the door to the room you have entered. Thirty years ago, it was explained to me that if you stepped on a victim, even saw a victim, it did not matter because you had to shut that door first. If not, the fire would be drawn to you and burn you and the victim up before you could get out. Not bad advice, even for 30 years ago, from a guy who never read a National Institute of Standards and Technology or Underwriters Laboratories report.
So, if an open window requires an immediate closing of a door to block the draft created that pulls the fire your way (now widely understood as the flow path), what is the difference in opening the front door? Well, there is no difference. An opening is an opening, and all openings are ventilation. Once again, the lightbulb above my head lit up when hearing ole Baby Face Kerber saying, “Opening the front door is ventilation.” It’s not that it wasn’t known. It’s not that I didn’t know it. It’s just that it was out of context and never explained to me or many of you in the context of how we operate. Yes, I would shut an interior door to isolate a fire to a room. I would shut the door to stop the draft to the room where I was doing VES but never ever think about the effects of the front door being open.
A quick scroll through the hours of good fire videos on the Web captured by helmet cams, dash cams, and cell phones proves that not many others have been thinking about that front door being ventilation either. Person goes up, pops the door, and waits and waits and waits while line is being stretched from the rig. Before water is on the line, the fire is rolling out the front door, across the porch, and up the vinyl siding. Crews open up, knock the fire back, and make entry (a transitional attack? I won’t go there yet, but think about it).
We can’t get in the structure without opening it up, so no one should suggest that we don’t open the door, window, wall, or whatever we have to do to get in. Just like vertical ventilation, what we need to be thinking about is when we make the opening. At every forcible entry class I have ever been to, been involved in, or watched, I can hear FDNY Captain (Ret.) Bob Morris saying, “You have to maintain the integrity of the door and control it!” Why is that? So, you can close it and cut off the oxygen to the fire, block the fire by shutting off the flow path, protect yourself, and prevent fire extension.
Many including myself laughed at the campaign adding the “I” to VES, making it VEIS. We all said that everybody wants to make a name for themselves and try to come up with a newfangled thing. “Everybody knows that you have to close the door (isolate) when doing VES!” we hear over and over. Well maybe it’s not such a bad idea to put some emphasis on it, because some folks spent a lot more time training on the headfirst ladder bailout as a firefighter escape method to be used when you forget to shut the door to (isolate) the room you are in. Somewhere along the way, the message got lost.
Once again, research has reinforced things that we already know but maybe didn’t put in the perspective of our operation. We have taught the public to put a lid on a grease fire to extinguish, to sleep with doors closed to keep your house compartmentalized, but have we understood the implications for our own actions on the fireground like opening a door and leaving it open when we have no attack line charged and in place?
During the open door/closed door experiments in both the one-story and two-story houses, there was a tremendous lesson that every firefighter and fireground commander needs to keep in mind. In the one-story house, on average it took 80 seconds from ventilation (opening the door) to a rapid escalation of temperatures. In the two story, it took on average 160 seconds. This tells us that once we open the door or window, we have about a minute and a half to get water on the fire before things start to rapidly deteriorate in a one story and approximately 2½ minutes in the two story.
Here are my lessons learned from the front door:
- Making an opening of any kind in the structure is ventilation.
- Follow the old lessons, open doors, but maintain control of them.
- Closing interior or exterior doors can isolate fires and, in some cases, may extinguish the fire. The truck crew can close a lot of doors during a search. (If done right, we may not even need the engines anymore. The truck crews will be able to search and extinguish the fire. The can man will be able to handle any overhaul.)
- Don’t make an opening you can’t close unless you have a charged line in hand or you’re making an opening to pull someone out.
If you do go in to knock out a quick search before the line is ready, consider shutting the door behind you based on the circumstances and how long you need.