Controlling The Door

John J. Salka Jr. discusses the advantages and disadvantages of choosing to leave a door open or closing it when searching in a structural fire.


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...


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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.

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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.

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