The forcible entry team of a ladder company climbs the stairs to the fifth floor of a 100-year-old tenement building and begins to use its tools to gain entry into an apartment which contains several rooms of fire.
After quickly opening the door with the help of a hydraulic forcible entry tool, the firefighters observe thick, black smoke pushing out into the hallway and feel the heat of the fire coming from the left as they enter the occupancy. A last quick look back toward the stairway reveals that the engine company has not arrived with the hoseline yet, so the truckies enter to begin their search.
At this point, a major firefighting decision must be made by the firefighters entering the fire area. Should the entrance door to this apartment be chocked wide open or should it be chocked so that it can close but not lock or latch? What advantages are there, if any, to leaving the door wide open or closing it?
Let's take a look at this situation and its possible effects on the safety and survival of the firefighters involved.
Leaving The Door Open
Firefighters who prefer to leave the door open after entering state that it allows for a rapid retreat from within the fire area if conditions worsen rapidly or if they become disoriented once inside the fire apartment or area; searching firefighters often want reassurance of their position and can retrace their steps back toward the entrance door more easily if the door has been left open. The sounds of other firefighters' activities out in the hallway can also be utilized when the door is open rather than closed. These factors are enough reason for many firefighters to leave the door open when conducting a search without the protection of a hoseline. Leaving the door open may allow the smoke to lift enough to improve visibility at the floor level where the searching firefighters are moving in. This improved visibility may make the difference between locating or missing a victim. Leaving the door open does, however, cause some other problems for the firefighters entering the area.
Closing The Door
Firefighters who choose to close the entrance door after entry into the fire area cite several safety reasons for this tactic. The first is that it confines the fire to the area of origin and prevents fire extension and smoke contamination to interior sections of the structure. While firefighters are entering and searching the fire occupancy, other occupants are exiting the building via the interior stairs, which could rapidly become untenable if the door to the fire area is left open.
The second reason for closing the door after entry is that this open door actually becomes a horizontal ventilation opening, similar to opening or ventilating a window from outside the apartment. Once the door is opened, the hot and smoky atmosphere within the apartment quickly exits toward the hall and stairway while the cooler fresh air from the hall rushes into the fire area, feeding the fire within.
The fire inside the apartment does not know that this opening is a door into the interior of the building. The fire reacts to this opening the same way that it would act if a window was removed by a firefighter from the exterior of the building; it moves toward it. This phenomenon creates a dangerous situation for firefighters, since the route that they are following in is the same route that the fire and heat will now follow out of the fire area.
Photo by Dan Riedlhuber/The Edmonton Sun
Conditions on the fireground can change rapidly. Here, a fire captain in Edmonton, Alberta, is forced to dive for safety through a window.
This situation is dangerous enough but it can be multiplied if any windows in the fire area have been vented. If a second opening is made from the outside, any wind or air movement into the fire area could result in the fire being fanned to blowtorch proportions.
Using the information from the previous paragraph, imagine the following scenario. You have just forced the entrance door to an apartment on the second floor of a four-story multiple dwelling. The engine company has not arrived on the fire floor yet, so you and your partner move in to conduct a primary search.
Just before entering, you think to yourself, "should I chock this door wide open or let it close using a latch strap?" You decide to leave the door open in case you need to make a rapid retreat and so the engine can more easily locate the fire area. As you proceed farther and farther into the apartment, you can sense the increasing heat as you come closer to the fire room. Just as you are about to enter the room, the fire self vents through the window to the outside air.
There is a brisk 10-15 mph wind blowing into the now-opened window. The fire rapidly accelerates fed by the oxygen from the outside air and roars out of the room toward you. You and your partner instantly turn and scramble down the hall knocking over furniture and bouncing off the walls until you reach that open door and dive out into the hall.
Once outside the apartment, you quickly reach back to close the door behind you as the engine arrives with a charged hoseline. After the fire is extinguished, you think to yourself, "boy, it's a good thing we left that door wide open, we might not have made it out of there!"
Let's look at a slightly different strategy for this same situation. The same conditions exist as in the previous scenario except that when you ask yourself whether or not to close the entrance door, this time you apply a latch strap and close the door after entering for your search.
After you move into the apartment, the heat can be felt as you approach the fire room. You have an uneasy feeling about closing that door behind you so you move slowly. As you reach the involved room, the fire is burning throughout but like anything else in that apartment, it's starving for air. Since you did not chock that door wide open, allowing the cool fresh air from the hallway to enter as the heat and smoke pushed out into the hall, the fire is burning but not rapidly extending.
At this point, a firefighter on the outside of the building hears on the portable radio the engine company call for water from its position in the hallway. He vents the window of the fire room from his position outside and radios to the officer that horizontal vent has been completed. You hear the breaking glass and see the fire begin to intensify but it is not coming toward you. Instead, the fire begins to roll out the window.
Even with a mild wind blowing in the other end of this area, the entrance door is closed, which does not allow the fire to extend in toward another remote horizontal opening. The engine company advances its hoseline into the apartment to your position and extinguishes the fire. No rapid retreats, no furniture knocked over, no bouncing off walls, no close call for the firefighter. Why? Because the door was controlled.
Knowing how horizontal ventilation will affect the way a fire will extend is important for firefighters. The entrance door to a fire room or area is a horizontal opening.
Just as firefighters are taught not to randomly vent windows from the outside of a building, we must not violate this rule from the inside either. Untimely horizontal ventilation of the fire area will cause the fire to extend toward that opening. It is bad enough if we allow a fire to extend toward or out a window prematurely (without a hoseline in position first) but to allow an interior structural fire to extend into the building by leaving the entrance door open is a major tactical error.
This error will not only make the conditions on the floors above the fire more difficult to operate in and remove occupants from but it could literally place the firefighters operating in the fire area directly in the path of the uncontrolled fire.
Using basic search techniques such as following walls, staying orientated and even retracing our path back toward our entry point are much safer and reliable methods of conducting a search. It must be remembered that if you leave the door to a fire area opened prior to the advancement of a hoseline, it not only provides an easy escape for the firefighters but also for the fire itself. And who among us wants to race the fire to the door?
John J. Salka Jr., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 15-year veteran of the FDNY and the captain of Engine 48 in the Bronx. He is an assistant chief of the South Blooming Grove, NY, Fire Department, an adjunct instructor at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, NY, and an instructor at the Orange County, NY, Fire Training Center.