The very basis for the act of ventilation is to “facilitate firefighting operations.” Being a supportive function, ventilation must, in essence, be executed purposefully, with the resultant effect serving as an expedient toward the achievement of a specific objective. Historically, ventilation has been employed as a means to address the two foremost incident priorities of life safety and fire extinguishment; precipitating the common expression “vent for life and vent for fire.” To further assert the tactical nature of its application, that old adage has been more aptly rephrased to as “vent for search and vent for extinguishment.” This seemingly trivial, semantical alteration serves as a blatant, yet necessary, reminder that ventilation is task-oriented; requiring sound judgement to ensure any actions taken are calculated and aid in the success of a particular operation. Given the continual changes (detriments) to the modern fire environment, the need for such prudence has never been so crucial.
The effect of ventilation has been widely misinterpreted, prompting its frequent misuse. This deficiency has tragically resulted in numerous close calls and line of duty deaths. Operational competency is more than merely possessing the physical ability or technical proficiency necessary to execute a given tactic (the “how”), it is equally dependent on cognitive aptitude (the “where, when and why”). To be truly effective, we must marry knowledge, obtained through research and education (the “science”), with skill, developed through training and experience (the “art”). Thankfully, due to the extensive work of both UL and NIST, we now have substantial empirical data detailing the dynamics of fire and the impact of firefighting operations, most notably, ventilation. With this information, we can develop the comprehensive understanding necessary to close those gaps; creating firefighters who are not only capable, but smart.
Even with the best intentions, ventilation can have negative implications if certain variables are not accounted for and the subsequent precautions are not taken. The fact is often lost that ventilation, by its very design, increases air flow. If the flow path is not managed (limiting the air supply), until extinguishment efforts are effectively underway, the creation of a low-pressure ventilation point will allow for greater air exchange and draw the fire to that location; intensifying the fire and deteriorating conditions, rather than improving them. To prevent such an occurrence, the decision to ventilate must be predicated on the following: the conditions present (building construction and layout, fire location and extent, wind speed and direction); life hazard; progress of the interior crews; and the desired effect. Only when these factors are properly evaluated, can the appropriate actions be taken.
Venting for search has, traditional, been a rather loosely applied tactic. There were never any formal regulations established or procedures for its use, with the exception of VE(I)S. The only real guideline set forth was simply that if the (interior) search effort was inhibited, due to high heat or low visibility, windows could be taken to improve conditions; with the intent of enhancing orientation and increasing efficiency. This unrestricted discretion to vent, so long as it was done so under the guise of life safety, gave search crews a “license to vent.” With little to no insight or consideration given to its potential effect on the fire, this “vent first and ask questions later” approach can be a recipe for disaster. Venting for search, when conducted appropriately (communicating intentions, coordinating efforts and managing the flow path – door control), can be highly effective and reap the ultimate reward – saving a life. Executing this tactic, prior to confining the fire, however, comes with great risk and should be reserved for situations where actionable intelligence of a known life hazard is received; the potential benefits outweighing the consequences. Members engaging in these operations are fighting the clock and must enlist the highest degree of situational awareness and operational proficiency; limiting their exposure (and that of the victim) to the increasingly unstable environment.
Venting for extinguishment requires an equal degree of diligence, as it carries the same inherent risks if not applied correctly. The use of this tactic is intended to provide an outlet for the (by)products of combustion and steam generated by the stream from the hose line; relieving conditions and aiding in the advance of the engine company. The success of this operation is contingent upon the ability to effectively control the horizontal openings (doors and windows) within the area of involvement until the application of water on the fire. When effective extinguishment efforts are initiated, more energy will be absorbed by the water than generated by the fire; the subsequent cooling of the fuel packages inhibiting the combustion process. Upon which, the inlet of fresh air and exhaust of the residual heat and smoke will substantially increase visibility and decrease temperatures – enhancing tenability.
Upon entering FDNY’s training academy (“The Rock”), you are greeted by a sign that reads, “Let no man’s ghost come back to say, ‘My training let me down.’” As we conduct ourselves on the fire ground, we must not forget that every decision we make will, in some way, directly impact the course of the incident and the livelihood of all those involved. To paraphrase Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “for every action there is a reaction.” Understanding the impact of our tactics is essential to the decision-making process and ensuring the appropriate interventions are selected to address the situation at hand.
To be continued…