Much has been written and discussed about the tactical implications of ventilation, or anti-ventilation of structural fires. One big change is a heightened awareness of the timing and the flow path of ventilation – ensuring that the fire department controls both, when possible, in order to limit oxygen infiltration and influence the direction of the flow path to their advantage.
Search is one tactic that was acutely affected by the recent recommended changes based on UL & NIST studies, including tactical sequence recommendations, such as SLICE-RS1 and DICERS-VO2. The recommendations clearly contraindicate pre-attack ventilation to aid search, in the absence of water application, given the propensity of the fire to grow and flash over quickly, limiting the chance of a successful outcome.
While trying to keep the fire environment “rich” until water application through door control, and putting conventional ventilation on momentary pause, search techniques may have to be altered to more “targeted search” tactics. Compatible search tactics prior to or in parallel to fire attack will require limited pre-search ventilation of the fire compartment. However, limiting ventilation keeps visibility low, keeps toxins, buoyant fuel (smoke), and extreme heat present in the structure, making search more difficult. If allowed to spread, the smoke and heat will eventually impact interior victims.
The rich environment, if read improperly from the exterior, may even lead to accidental flashovers or backdrafts while personnel are inside with the door closed searching for an elusive fire. When a window fails due to heat, allowing a bolus of fresh air to enter, firefighters may be caught off guard. In fact, I predict that this will be the cause of future fire service casualties both on real incidents and in training. Timing is literally everything, and if water application is delayed for any reason, the situation becomes primed.
Fortunately, in the grand multitude of structure fires, especially residential, the fire department is quick to respond with adequate resources, and is well practiced at the average bread-and-butter single family dwelling fires involving a room or two and some contents. On the other hand, this is the lullaby that lulls us to sleep. An 1 ¾” handline and a quick knockdown, being our 90-percenters, can get us in trouble on the McMansion, or the lightweight apartment building that is filled with smoke, heat, a report of trapped victims, and a hidden fire seat.
Saving lives being our first mission, we should focus on what we can and should do to maximize our search performance. Maximizing search performance in the new fire environment will maximize survivability of victims, while limiting flow path induction, and not compromising fire attack. Attack, ventilation, and search must work hand in hand, and must be more coordinated now than ever.
So, how do we search simultaneously with fire attack while also limiting the affect on ventilation and not operate in the flow path? In general, we switch gears to a more targeted search – a search that will least affect the flow path and keep firefighters and victims out of the flow path as much as possible. We use search methods that will bring us to the survivable and occupied spaces more quickly and more often. Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search (VEIS) is one such search method that was tested alongside suppression techniques in the UL/NIST studies, and was found to be compatible.
VEIS, or just VES (traditional acronym), limits effect on the flow path, isolates the fire area from the search area, and prevents the search area from becoming part of the flow path. Performance-wise, VEIS has been used successfully for decades upon decades to target survivable areas for search. In fact VEIS becomes very organic the moment you see a victim waiving from a window.
VEIS requires ground ladder and truck ladder proficiency, tools proficiency, TIC work, teamwork, and coordination. All firefighters must become more proficient with ladder carries, placement, transition into and out of windows, and moving victims down ladders. Any firefighter on the scene can be called upon to conduct a VEIS at a moment’s notice. When training on VEIS and other associated methods is provided, personnel safety is also positively affected by limiting time in the IDLH.
VEIS need not be limited to upper level windows. Even on the ground level, utilizing doors and windows around the structure to effect VEIS may be necessary and a proficient use of search resources. The rules are the same. Get in, shut the door, search the area, get out. Communicate. Maintain awareness of the structure, other teams, ongoing attack efforts, and the clock relative to fire growth throughout.
Flow path obstruction search techniques need not be limited to VEIS. Interior conventional search can also be re-thought a little to reduce the chances of getting caught in or influencing the flow path. For example, train personnel on reducing flow path induction during conventional search where the door behind the search team is closed while they search a room or an apartment. Opening windows in that space as they go, identifying their own egress, communicating progress, and closing up after they clear the space are good, valuable bits of practice. Tactical curtains can be hung to provide simple egress, hoseline advance, and search while limiting flow path induction.
Small teams can and should be working with hoseline-based extinguish-and-search-as-you-go techniques to maximize their limited opportunities for a rescue, while maintaining orientation with the hoseline as a lifeline, and enabling fire attack.
Think about the time it will take to get water on the fire. Think collectively and critically about the effect on the fire, firefighters, and victims should a window fail, or a door get opened unexpectedly in the meantime.
We continue to have a responsibility to get to the victims as quickly as possible, reduce their suffering, and get them out of the environment that is incompatible with life, which is why the “R” is still first in RECEO and REVAS.
Many times fires are contents-only and controllable, and we are fortunate to have things fall in our favor. The fire gets knocked down while ventilation is taking place and search is subsequently completed very quickly. The h*** is being cut, or the window being taken out in the exhaust segment of the flow path as water is being applied, and primary search is completed post-haste. In a fully staffed urban fire department, simultaneous operations will be the norm due to the organized staffing and placement of experienced crews and their coincident arrivals on scene. DICERS-VO happens due to years of practice.
But in other venues, and in other circumstances, there will be fires where discovery and response is somewhat more delayed, and the structure fire gets very ventilation-limited or even partially escapes the structural envelope. Consider the small city, suburban, or rural fire departments, where lack of staffing, travel distance, and water supply are daily factors of life. This creates an environment where search of the entire structure through the attack entrance under low-to-zero visibility conditions is more time consuming, more dangerous, and lower in production. Fire growth and the limited opportunity to rescue are relative to the arrival of the equipped, staffed, fire department – solid game plan aside.
Small city, suburban, and rural departments have more challenges to a successful outcome. Due to longer response times of the combination of required resources (Attack, Search, Ventilation, Command), advanced fire growth, less visibility, more victim time in the toxic atmosphere, and less controllable fire, are all common realities. Small departments have to do more with less in most cases. Training on coordinated attack, ventilation and search techniques that will limit flow path into uninvolved structural areas, maximizing opportunity and limiting fire growth. Although there is no substitute for personnel and equipment, SLICE-RS/DICERS-VO training is vital to success, and will likely result in more effective use of limited resources than ever before.
SLICE-RS is not a re-invention of the wheel, and neither is DICERS. They are just the wheel polished-up. They are processes to better organize our tactical toolbox for effectiveness on the more intense fires of the twenty-first century. With a little thought, we can embrace them while creating a safe, situationally aware, high-performance fireground.
Search, being the tactic that supports our highest calling, may need to be polished-up itself to synergize with the revised tactical toolbox. The risks are higher than ever.