Ventilation of Today's Fire Buildings is Crucial

May 21, 2007
If we do not have a place to push the heat and smoke out of the building and we introduce water to extinguish the fire then all of the heat and smoke will be coming back on the interior team.

Ventilation is how members of the fire service can make a fire building do what we need it to during a fire situation. Firefighters and officers on the scene cannot control the time the fire has been burning, the fuel load or the type of construction material used to build the building.

What we can control is how we coordinate and control the ventilation of the building. Fires are hotter today then they were 20 and 30 years ago due to increased use of plastics and synthetic materials. Fires are hotter because plastic furnishings and contents burn two to three times hotter than natural materials and the newer buildings are constructed tighter, holding in the products of combustion. Plastic produces 500 times more smoke than natural material and what is smoke? It is unburned fuel waiting to ignite when the right mixture of oxygen, heat and fuel is reached. This does not always make for a safe or easy entry into the fire building. The question now has become, how have our tactics and procedures changed with the changes in the fire environment?

The basic premise of ventilation at a fire is to remove the products of combustion from the structure. This tactic has one main benefit, which is to protect the firefighters and officers inside the building trying to extinguish the fire because we let the fire, heat and smoke out of the building. If we do not have a place to push the heat and smoke out of the building and we introduce water to extinguish the fire then all of the heat and smoke will be coming back on the interior team. That will not only be dangerous, it will possibly also allow the fire to spread to uninvolved areas of the structure. If we do not create a path for the smoke and heat it will create it owns path and we might not like the results.

Ventilation must be coordinated and controlled. Does your department have procedures to control your venting? A review of your department's Standard Operational Guideline for ventilation may be necessary. The way we make the fire building behave and do what we want it to is if we use proper ventilation techniques that are coordinated and controlled. The ventilation must be controlled by someone. Some departments use the incident commander to coordinate and control the venting and others use the first officer inside the structure. Either way the ventilation is controlled by some who has been in communication with the officer in charge of the inside team, so the ventilation decisions are made with the knowledge of conditions inside.

Captain Dugan TrainingLIVE: Join Captain Dugan as he presents "Lightweight Building Construction for 2007", a TrainingLIVE webcast on July 12. Register soon!

Members must have knowledge of fire and smoke behavior and understand what the smoke is telling them. Smoke that rises rapidly is under high heat and is ready to ignite. The deeper and richer the color of the smoke is the more fuel it contains and the fire is in close proximity to this smoke. As the smoke travels away from the point or room of origin the smoke will cool and the cooling will allow the fuel contained in the smoke to be deposited on walls and ceilings. The deep color will start to reduce. If we work with the firefighters and officers in our department to understand the smoke, we will be able to recognize what the fire is telling us.

Ventilation can also be overcome by factors outside of our control. Some fires will self vent and sometimes the windows will fail. These problems might be recognized early by doing an aggressive and proactive size-up, but we might not always recognize them. Wind is a factor that can overcome all the ventilation that we attempt. Wind can intensify the fire to epic proportions and has been a contributing factor in past line-of-duty deaths. The firefighter assigned to the venting position on the exterior of the building should understand the importance of the wind and communicating the presence of wind to the interior fire forces. Even if the exterior firefighter does not vent a window, they should pass on the information about the severity of the wind outside the fire building to the interior team. Then, should a window fail that information will help insure that the interior team will have a path of retreat or an area of refuge. The importance of the information cannot be overestimated.

Remember that ventilation is how we make the fire building behave. It is what we can do to have a positive impact on the fire building and the interior conditions that our people will encounter. The ventilation must be coordinated and controlled. The fire will not forgive or forget improper ventilation.

Learn from Captain Dugan Live:Captain Dugan will be presenting Engine & Truck Company Operations: Overcoming Problems on the Fireground Hands-on Training at Firehouse Expo in July. Captain Dugan will also present Search Techniques & Team Safety With a Fire Building and Portable Ladders & The Fire Service classroom lectures at Firehouse Expo in July.

Michael M. Dugan is a 22-year veteran of the FDNY, serving as the Captain of Ladder Company 123, in Crown Heights Brooklyn. As a Lieutenant, Dugan served in Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx. While assigned as a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, in Spanish Harlem, Firefighter Dugan received the James Gordon Bennett medal in 1992 and the Harry M. Archer Medal in 1993, the FDNY's highest award for bravery. He is also a former volunteer firefighter, with the Halesite Fire Department. He has been involved with the fire service for 32 years.

He was an instructor at the inception of the FDNY's Annual Education Day and has developed programs currently taught to all FDNY members during Annual Education Day. He is the lead instructor for "Engine and Truck Company Hands-on Training (HOT) programs at Firehouse Expo and Firehouse World. He is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine. Captain Dugan has been a featured lecturer around the country and at both the Firehouse Expo and the Firehouse World on topics dealing with truck company operations and today's fire service. You can reach Michael by e-mail at: [email protected] or contact him through his website:

About the Author

Michael Dugan

Michael M. Dugan, with over 33 years in the fire service, recently retired from FDNY as the captain of Ladder Company 123 in Brooklyn. He is a Firehouse Contributing Editor and a longtime fire service instructor.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!