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T he fire service has used various forms of ventilation at fires for decades with the belief that ventilation will lift smoke, which lets us search for victims, makes the environment more tenable for occupants and firefighters and makes getting the line into place easier. We have also used various forms of ventilation believing it will help control fire spread. A recent study published by Underwriter Laboratories, Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Construction, must make one question our ventilation evolution on the fireground (see Safety & Survival, “Fire Growth and Venting: What the Research Reveals,” in the March issue). Properly ventilating a fire is imperative. I experienced the impact of improper horizontal ventilation at a fire.
My truck company was dispatched to a fire a few blocks from the firehouse. The buildings in this part of our response district are mostly very large, ordinary-construction, historic, single-family residences. These are very big, ornate, graystone/limestone homes.
Enroute, we saw smoke down to the street, so we knew we had something. On arrival, we found just what we expected – a large, 2½-story, historic, limestone structure with heavy smoke showing. The building is set back from the street just far enough that our 100-foot aerial ladder could not reach the roof. (We were lucky the aerial didn’t make it because a portion of the roof collapsed very early in the incident).
We went to work. The lieutenant and two firefighters from the engine, with a charged hoseline, plus the lieutenant and a firefighter from my truck made entry through the front door to search for and extinguish the fire on the first floor. They encountered heavy smoke, which slowed their progress. To assist the entry team with their advancement, horizontal ventilation was initiated on the first floor. The roof team (which never made the roof) noted heavy smoke coming from the chimney and thought we might have a basement fire. The basement door was forced and windows were taken out, but the basement was found to be clear.
As companies continued operations on the first floor, we went into the building to do a primary search above the fire. We ascended a very wide decorative staircase to the second-floor hallway, where we encountered “lazy” fire burning on a wall, but very little heat. We started our search. The first bedroom, behind the burning wall, was clear – no fire, very light smoke and unoccupied. We continued to the second bedroom – again, no fire, light smoke and unoccupied. We continued to the third bedroom. The room was large, but clear.
All of a sudden, we heard windows breaking. Someone was venting the windows of the room from the outside. We felt a rush of fresh air, followed by rapidly increasing heat. We knew we needed to get out of there fast!
Fire intensifies quickly
In the hallway, the fire on the wall was quickly growing in intensity due to the influx of fresh air, and the heat was becoming unbearable. Our ears were starting to burn under our hoods. The carpet we were crawling on melted to our pants and gloves. We reached the large stairwell we had ascended and made our way down to the landing, where we waited for a line while the fire and heat intensified. Another member brought in a 2½-inch line. The line was charged and we started to go after the fire. We felt we were making good progress because we made it back up to the hallway, but moments later, the chief ordered a complete evacuation of the building due to fire conditions he witnessed from outside. We went defensive. Three elevated master streams, multiple handlines and many hours later, the fire was out.
In the incident above, horizontal ventilation was done in an area of the building that was burning, but where there was no hoseline to counteract the effects of ventilation. The UL study substantiates what we experienced at that fire – we must be aware that poorly placed or untimely ventilation openings may increase air supply, causing rapid fire growth and fire spread that in turn may endanger occupants and firefighters. We must be very cautious when, where and how we ventilate.