Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search: A New Approach

The incidence of flashover has greatly increased in the past two decades, and it can be directly attributed to these materials and the excessive amount of smoke and other by-products that are produced as a result of incomplete combustion.

By Eric Dreiman

The tactic of vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) has been around for several decades. Its root are securely anchored in East Coast firefighting. The original tactic of vent-enter-search (VES) was developed and perfected to allow firefighters alternative means to access and remove victims trapped in burning buildings. Many of the concepts associated with VEIS draw on the original skills and abilities that were developed with VES. Given the latest scientific research and the significant differences between the modern fireground and the firegrounds of the past, it has become necessary to update this rescue tactic. I will go into many of the differences and similarities between the concepts of VEIS and VES and why they are necessary. There are four basic factors that have contributed to the development of VEIS: modern building construction, occupancy layouts, fire loads, and scientific research.

Modern Building Construction

Few factors have had a greater impact on the fire service than the advent of modern lightweight building construction. Today’s modern structures require firefighters to adjust the decision-making process. Structures today are built of lighter weight materials that burn faster and fail sooner. Energy efficiency is also a factor that influences the modern structure. Houses and businesses are sealed tighter and retain heat and smoke more than they did in the past. This will have an impact on our size-ups and can also lead to ventilation-limited fires. Double- and triple-pane windows add to the difficulty that we face when gaining entry to a bedroom to do a search. Because these modern windows are sealed so tight, they also add to the amount of heat retention inside of a structure and limit the ability of the products of combustion from exiting the structure. Homes and buildings today are being constructed with larger open floor plans, which contribute to fire spread. These open floor plans can also reduce our ability to locate the fire initially, allowing it more time to spread and consume the contents and structure itself. Open floor plans have a limited amount of doors. This prevents firefighters from being able to isolate the fire area from the rest of the structure. Open floor plans typically lack hallways that can serve as a guided means of egress, making searches more challenging. Lastly, with modern building construction, there is a trend to build structures with open stairways that do not tolerate exposure to fire and have a tendency to fail faster. Open stairwell also allow for greater vertical smoke and fire spread to occur inside of a structure.

Fire Loads

Fire load is, in my opinion, the single greatest factor that is influencing the way fires burn and behave today. We all know that more or less everything we find in a modern residential structure is at least partially, and maybe completely made of a hydrocarbon-based material. These hydrocarbon materials are causing fires to burn hotter and faster. The incidence of flashover has greatly increased in the past two decades, and it can be directly attributed to these materials and the excessive amount of smoke and other by-products that are produced as a result of incomplete combustion (photo 1). Modern materials produce heat at a much higher rate than the natural materials typically found in homes prior to the early 1990s. Modern contents also produce a “toxic soup” of chemicals when they burn. This toxic soup is not only extremely dangerous to anyone without a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) but many of them are, themselves, extremely combustible.

The Science

Let me start off by saying that I am not going to delve too deeply into the debate over the latest scientific testing that has been produced over the past five to 10 years. I can tell you that much of this information is valuable and is worth reviewing and understanding. I would encourage all firefighters to take the time to look up and review the research material that has been produced. I have found that reviewing the research gives firefighters a better understanding of what is really going on at a structure fire and why things progress and occur the way they do. It is important for us to realize that regardless of which side of the debate you come down on with respect to this research and its recommendations, our first priority at a fire should be to locate and remove viable victims. The science has shown us that most fires today are ventilation-limited. When we remove a window to make entry and perform a VEIS, we are ventilating the structure and potentially contributing to the growth and spread of the fire. The research has also shown us that fires are progressing from incipient to flashover nearly 10 times faster than fires did just 20 to 30 years ago. This means that many fires will likely be much larger and at or near the fully developed stage by the time the fire department arrives on scene. When fires are in an advanced stage and taking over a structure, the need for seeking alternate means of entry for search and rescue will be required.

Flow Paths

One of the newer terms that we hear talked about in the fire service today is flow path. Flow paths aren’t new (they have always been present at fires), but what is new is their identification and the impact they have on how we operate on the fireground. When we talk about flow paths, there are two distinct types that firefighters should understand. The two types are the unidirectional flow path and the bi-directional flow path. I am going to focus on the unidirectional flow path in this article because it is the flow path that is typically created once we remove a window for VEIS and the door to the room is still open. We know that if we create an opening in a structure (open a door, break a window, cut a hole in the roof), there will be a resulting influence placed on the fire. We can pull the fire through the structure to uninvolved areas and add to the problem, we can improve the temperature/visibility for the attack crew, and we can give victims a better chance of survival. When we open or remove a window to perform VEIS, we are going to influence the fire burning in the structure. This is where door control comes into play. The first priority of a firefighter entering a room to perform VEIS is to locate and shut the door. Until we get the door closed, we are drawing the products of combustion and potentially the fire itself into the room we are occupying. Figure 1 shows an example of a unidirectional flow path and the potential result if the interior door is not located and controlled. Once we locate and shut the door to the room we want to search, we have isolated ourselves from the rest of the structure. By isolating ourselves, we have limited the potential for fire spread into the room. Temperatures inside the room should begin to cool off and visibility will improve. This will also improve the odds of victim survival.

Figure 1 shows an example of a unidirectional flow path and the potential result if the interior door is not located and controlled.

Putting It All Together

Prior to performing a VEIS, we need to size up the fire scene and ask ourselves some questions. Where is the fire and where do we think it is going? Which areas of the structure require searching first? Where are the bedrooms located in the structure? What equipment am I going to need to access the rooms and complete a VEIS? Studies have shown that most victims are found in or near bedrooms in residential structures, regardless of the time of day. As we are sizing up the fire conditions, we need to consider the color, volume, and velocity of the smoke we are seeing. We need to be able to look at the exterior of a residential structure and identify the bedroom windows. Firefighters will have to determine the areas with the highest potential for viable victims. It is important to remember that VEIS is a high-risk tactic with a proven track record of success, but it does require a significant amount of thinking and planning not only on the fireground but prior to ever attempting to perform this tactic. It will take practice and much more learning on your part if you want to perform a safe and effective VEIS.

Let’s look at the needed equipment and steps that are required to perform a successful VEIS. First is the placement of a ladder to the sill of a window. The ladder must be placed so that the tips are right in line with the sill or just slightly below the sill. This is important for getting yourself and a victim in and out of the window without needing to worry about getting over the ladder tip. Ladder angle is very important also. I perform VEIS with a shallower angle to the ladder. This shallower angle is often referred to as a “rescue angle” because it allows a firefighter to more safely manage a fire victim when bringing the victim down the ladder.

Once you have placed the ladder at the window, the two firefighters who will be performing the VEIS should done their SCBA face pieces and begin to ascend the ladder. The first firefighter up the ladder will be responsible for removing the window glass. We no longer advocate using the tip of the ladder to initially break the window out. The reason for this change goes back to the concept of the flow path. If we break the window and then have to reposition the ladder tips, gather up our tools and equipment, climb the ladder, and then finish clearing the glass and window furnishings before we ever enter the room, we have allowed an uncontrolled ventilation point to potentially pull the fire into the room we are getting ready to enter (photo 2).

If we break the window and then have to reposition the ladder tips, gather up our tools and equipment, climb the ladder, and then finish clearing the glass and window furnishings before we ever enter the room, we have allowed an uncontrolled ventilation point to potentially pull the fire into the room we are getting ready to enter.

In addition to the ladder and their PPE and SCBA, firefighters performing a VEIS will need some basic tools to complete their task. A flathead ax, a 6- to 8-foot pike pole, and a thermal imaging camera (TIC) are all you need. Once, the window has been cleared, the first firefighter can sound the floor with the ax and prepare to make entry into the room to search it. Remember to stay low while you are entering the room. The temperature at the top of the window could be several hundred degrees higher than at the sill. The pike pole is placed on the windowsill and extended into the room as a point of reference for the searching firefighter. If the firefighter becomes disoriented in the room and comes across the handle of the pike pole, he will be able to follow the handle back up to the window. Once the searching firefighter has entered the room, his first priority must be to control the door. Even if you encounter a victim on your way to close the door, you still need to make sure the door is shut prior to attempting to remove a victim. When you locate the door, briefly check outside the door for a victim and assess the fire conditions. If you find the door to the room already closed, open it briefly to make sure a victim isn’t lying on the floor just outside the door and assess the fire conditions. Only after the door has been controlled and the room isolated can the search for victims begin. The second firefighter should remain on the ladder with the TIC. The second firefighter’s role is to guide the first firefighter and use the TIC to assist in searching the room and also to monitor any changes to the fire conditions that may be visible through the TIC. If a victim is located, the second firefighter will be ready to assist with getting the victim out of the room and down the ladder.

Important to Practice the Tactic

The tactic of VEIS has been around in one form or another for several decades. It is important to understand how to apply this tactic and the thought process behind it. It is even more important to practice this tactic to become proficient at it. Remember, this tactic is what we would classify as a high-risk/low-frequency event. Many lives have been saved other the years by this tactic. You don’t have to be from a large urban department to use this tactic. Any two firefighters can perform a VEIS regardless of their apparatus assignment. Please take the time to read up on the latest research that has been done on modern fire behavior. Take some time to practice this technique and become proficient at it. You owe it to yourself and the citizens that you protect to be prepared and capable of conducting a successful VEIS. 

Eric Dreiman is a captain with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department. He started his career in 1990. He serves as an adjunct instructor to the Indianapolis Fire Academy and the Officer’s Development Program. He is a licensed paramedic and has several state and national fire service certifications. He has a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and serves on several fire service committees and boards for the State of Indiana. He teaches a wide variety of fire service courses both in Indiana and around the country.

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