A great dinner-table question that will get the crew talking: What would you do if you were the first to arrive (in a ladder truck) to a house fire with a known rescue but without a water source? Answers usually range from “never go in without a hoseline” to “charge into the house immediately.”
Firefighters are notorious for acting, especially when there’s a rescue at hand. The truth is, whether off-duty and driving home with no equipment or arriving on scene in a ladder truck, firefighters are going to enter a structure when lives are at stake.
Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search (VEIS)—formerly called VES prior to recent changes stressing the importance of isolating the area—is used by many departments, and it can be extremely effective when firefighters are properly trained and can implement the tactic appropriately.
VEIS, which was developed by the FDNY, has proven successful in single- and multi-story structures, as well as buildings where multiple points of entry are needed for rescue. It’s an extremely good tactic for a ladder company to become familiar with, as ladder trucks are often the first to arrive on scene and are forced to make decisions related to rescues without hoselines or water on the truck. Note: Going into a structure without the presence of a hoseline is extremely dangerous, and I want to emphasize that every effort should be made for one to accompany any crew going interior. Crews may be faced with needing to take immediate actions to pull of an imminent rescue, and when this occurs, it is important that the crew makes a calculated risk utilizing the resources they have at hand.
Further, fires in residential structures claim the lives of more civilians every year than those in any other type of structure—and even more people are seriously injured in such fires. Upon arrival at these structures, we usually make access via the front door; however, we need a back-up plan when the front door is not an option.
With all this in mind, this article will address both the steps of VEIS and some key factors in a scene size-up when a ladder truck pulls up to a house fire with victims trapped.
At the Beginning
When pulling up on scene, the most important decision a company officer will need to make—and a difficult one at that—is whether or not the conditions drive a viable rescue; in other words, could a civilian still be alive inside the structure?
Completing a 360-degree walkaround of a house is an absolute necessity, as many houses have been called “defensive” only because heavy fire was coming out of the front portion of the structure. But walking around the structure will often expose tenable rooms and/or balconies that may have potential victims who need rescue.
The company officer should report what they see immediately, but follow up with what they are doing to finish their size-up. For example, “Heavy fire coming from the front of the building and completing a 360 to recon the rest of the structure.” Further, it is important that each crewmember is familiar with their individual VEIS-related role and responsibility.
VEIS is most effective when pre-determined positions with specific functions have been established. The positions below—searcher and point person—are for the two interior firefighters performing VEIS. The two remaining exterior firefighters will assist in extricating a potential victim, and address any other needs that the interior rescue crew may have.
The searcher is responsible for throwing the ladder, breaking the window and advancing up the ladder, and they are the first one in the room; however, the searcher should only enter the room if conditions indicate that a victim could survive. It is extremely important that the searcher clear the window, observe conditions, clear the floor below the window for victim(s), sound the floor, enter the room and immediately control the door. The searcher should be an experienced firefighter with good situational awareness. They should remain in constant communication with the point person.
The point person serves as a “lookout.” This position should be filled by an experienced firefighter, and should maintain contact with the searcher inside the room. They should remain on the ladder at the window with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) in hand. They are responsible for continuously monitoring the conditions in which the searcher is operating and communicating pertinent information to the searcher. Once the searcher has located a victim, the point person then enters the structure and assists in the packaging and rescue of the victim.
As the first step of VEIS (the walkaround) is being conducted, look for key factors outside that would indicate a situation where firefighters could initiate a rescue. Signs of life may include moving blinds, cries for help, bystanders telling you “someone is in that room,” windows that are open or broken (windows broken from heat are often too hot for civilians to survive), or even handprints through the soot on a window. Look for rooms that show survivable conditions, and read the smoke to determine the probability of survival. If smoke is showing signs of high heat or imminent flashover, we wouldn’t expect any civilian to survive those conditions.
Once a room has been identified as having a high potential of civilian survivability, it’s important that the company officer announce over the radio that VEIS will be implemented and the exact location of the house. This should cue incoming companies that this is a rescue operation with potential victims who may need medical attention.
During a VEIS operation, crews are venting for life. In the “vent” portion of VEIS, firefighters usually obtain access to the room they need to search via a window. It is important that once the window is removed, firefighters read the smoke conditions to determine the probability of victim survivability and the severity of conditions inside the room. In single-story applications, breaking the window and removing the window frame normally isn’t an issue. In multi-story structures, the window may be broken by throwing the tip of the ladder into it or having a firefighter break the window while working from the ladder. Note: When breaking glass or clearing the window, it’s important that firefighters not place themselves directly in front of or immediately below the window to avoid a potentially dangerous atmosphere.
Once the window is broken and the room is vented, it’s important to determine if conditions inside would allow for a viable rescue. Consider that human skin is instantly destroyed at 162 degrees F, and temperatures inside of a post-flashover room can reach 1,100 degrees F.
Once the room has been vented and it has been deemed that a victim could survive the conditions, the searching firefighter enters the room. Firefighters may enter a room from ground level or above-ground level. If entering a window on the first floor that is difficult to reach, the firefighter may make access using a Halligan or rescue loop to assist in the step up into the window sill. Note: Attaching a rescue loop to the Halligan will allow the firefighter to pull the tool into the room once access is made. If accessing a room higher than ground level, the ladder should be placed below the window sill in the rescue position to provide the firefighter with adequate room to enter the window. The first firefighter entering the room should check to see if there is a victim below the window (visually or with a foot sweep) and confirm that the floor is stable prior to fully entering the room.
The firefighter entering the room should be careful not to shock load the floor. The favorable method is to enter the room feet-first, allowing them better control and the ability to get out of the room quickly if needed. Note: In narrow windows, a firefighter may enter head-first, but they must understand that they are committed to the entry once that method is chosen, and an emergency exit out the window may take more time than the feet-first method.
Once the searching firefighter has entered the room, before conducting a search they should look below the smoke to get a general layout of the room and, most importantly, determine the location of the door into the room. As the searching firefighter enters the room, the point person climbs the ladder and posts at the window sill. The point person monitors the location of the searching firefighter, the room’s environment and the tenability of building construction. Note: The company officer will need to determine if they feel that the TIC is best suited with the searching firefighter or the point person.
Immediately after entering the structure, the priority of the firefighter becomes to control the environment that the operations are taking place in by isolating it from the rest of the structure. Controlling the room’s environment becomes a tactical priority, and even if a victim is found, the searcher should note where the victim is, and complete isolating the room. This is achieved by simply shutting the door to separate the searched room from the rest of the structure. This controls the room from the elements of the fire, making condition more survivable for both the potential victims and firefighters. The firefighter who is controlling the door should consider checking outside the door for victims as well as rapidly evaluate the conditions just outside the door. This process should be extremely brief and the priority remains with isolating the room from the rest of the involved portion of the structure.
Once the door is secured and the room is isolated, priority becomes conducting a rapid search for victims in a quick and methodical manner. When a victim is found, the searching firefighter must communicate with the point person, and it must be announced to command that this is an active rescue. The point person will then enter the structure to assist the searching firefighter with packaging and rescuing the victim while the other firefighters outside the structure prepare to assist with extricating the victim from the structure. Both the searching firefighter and the point person remain inside the room and coordinate with the exterior team that is removing the victim from the room.
Once the room is completely searched and it is determined that multiple rooms still need to be searched, a decision needs to be made if rooms will be accessed from the exterior windows or via hallway doors. Conditions of the hallway and building stability should drive this decision.
Just like many tactics in the fire service, VEIS is a page in the playbook that firefighters can effectively utilize when there is an immediate chance for rescue. As in many coordinated operations, VEIS should be trained on and only implemented once a true understanding of building construction, reading smoke and searching techniques has been established.
Sidebar 1: Primary VEIS Steps
VEIS procedures can be broken down into the following priorities:
• Complete a 360-degree walkaround and size-up the structure
• Determine the entry point
• Vent the window/entry point
• Enter the structure
• Control the door
• Search the room
• Extricate the victim