Focusing on the “V”: Ventilation is perhaps the most important—& hazardous—part of VES

By Michael M. Dugan

If you boil down truck company tasks to the basics, you see that ventilation, entry and search (VES) make up our core functions—functions that support the engine company’s advance on and extinguishment of the fire. This article will focus primarily on ventilation, perhaps the most important—and dangerous—aspect of the job. But before we delve into that, let’s briefly address the other two functions: forcible entry and search.

Forcible Entry
The truck company should force the door so the engine company firefighter(s) can stretch a hoseline for fire attack. The crew usually enters through the main entry (the front door) into the structure, unless fire conditions don’t permit this. Why? First, most adults will enter and exit a building using the same route, even if the building is on fire. Second, the front door is often not as secure as other doors. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the front door usually gives us quick access to the stairs.

The truck company performing the primary search for fire must alert the engine company of its location and the fastest access to it. Once the fire is located, the truck company can start a primary search for victims from the fire area outward. The members conducting a primary search should be careful to not advance past the fire without a line in place. If you’re moving past the fire without the protection of a hoseline, then you need to identify a secondary means of escape—something you should know before advancing, unless you have a known or suspected life hazard; in that case, you could make a calculated move to effect a rescue.

Once water is on the fire, it’s time to start the secondary search, a thorough search for all possible points of extension and victims. Note: When conducting a secondary search, make sure you open up as much of the structure as necessary. Although we don’t want unnecessary damage, it’s better to be safe than sorry when searching for extension or potential victims.

Ventilation can have significant effects on the fire—effects that can be extremely dangerous to the personnel inside the structure. Thus, the coordination, control and communication related to the ventilation process are key. Everyone, from command to forces working in and around the fire building, must know what we’re doing or planning to do in the fire building.

There are two types of ventilation—one for life and one for fire. Venting for life is done immediately to supply fresh air to the lower levels of the building and increase the survival time of potentially trapped occupants. This type of venting involves taking windows, opening doors and possibly opening the roof to remove as much of the smoke and products of combustion as possible.

In most cases, these actions will intensify the fire and allow it to grow and gain more headway. That’s why this type of ventilation is only done when we know or reasonably suspect that there are victims inside the fire building. Additionally, members must be alert for any changes in the fire conditions due to venting. If conditions change inside the building as a result of ventilation, then command must be notified immediately—especially if the venting is having a negative impact on interior operations and unit safety.

Venting for fire is done when the engine company has water in the hoseline and they’re in position to begin fire attack. The initial venting involves removing a window or door. Once primary ventilation is complete, we might have to open the roof to check for fire and extension.

All members must be ready to advance when the hoseline is charged and bled. The status of the water supply must also be known. Ideally, there will be a secure water supply; if there’s not, the attack team should be made aware of the limited water supply. Additionally, communications between the attack team and truck members venting the building are essential and must be acknowledged. If the inside team calls for a vent, the venting team must acknowledge that message and complete the task.

Venting a fire building is one way to maintain some control of the fire building. How long the fire has been burning, the types of material used in the building’s construction and the fuel load in the area are all out of our control. However, we can somewhat control where and how we vent and move the products of combustion in or out of the fire building. This control is even more important when we have members operating inside the building.

A good vent creates a channel to allow the fire, heat and products of combustion to leave the building. If we create the opening, it prevents the fire and heat from moving around the room and returning to the other openings we have created when we made our entry into the space.

Another important issue related to ventilation: timing. Someone on the fire scene must be in charge of the ventilation and make the call as to the proper time to vent the building. Members must be in place to vent prior to the start of attack, and the line must be in position. Members of the venting team must carry a radio and be in communication with the members on the inside.

The most important part of the ventilation process: designating someone to coordination and control the ventiliation. This person must know when members are inside the building and the effect venting can have on fire conditions. If the interior team is just getting into position to close a door or confine a fire, and another member vents the fire area and allows the fire to substantially increase in size, this will greatly impact the safety and egress of the interior team.

The person responsible for coordinating the vent process must also communicate wind conditions to the interior members. If a wind condition strikes a member standing outside the building, they must be aware that if they take the window, the wind will now flow through the building, increasing the volume of fire inside.

Final Thoughts

Ventilation is an art and must be performed at every fire we go to. It’s vital to get smoke, fire and heat outside of the building so it can’t threaten our forces working inside. Uncontrolled and uncoordinated ventilation efforts are often contributing factors in line-of-duty deaths. Firefighters and officers have been overcome because of rapid fire involvement or flashover due to improper venting. Members have also been caught above a rapidly progressing fire when unaware of what’s being done to the fire below them. As noted, because we have members inside the building, we must be in control of the venting taking place.

Michael M. Dugan is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a 23-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), currently serving as captain of Ladder Company 123 in Brooklyn. As a firefighter in Ladder Company 43, 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 was an instructor at the inception of the FDNY’s Annual Education Day and has developed programs currently taught to all FDNY members during the annual event. Dugan is a member of the IAFC Safety, Health & Survival Section. He serves as a HOT instructor at Firehouse Expo and FDIC, and is a regular contributor to fire service magazines. He also lectures at various events around the country on topics dealing with truck company operations, building construction, scene size-up and today’s fire service. Contact Captain Dugan at or visit his Web site,

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Comment by Doug on July 11, 2009 at 6:17pm
Excellent article, thanks for posting it.

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