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Controlling the flow path: How to handle door control with limited staffing

Evaluating door control options, including door curtains, to improve interior conditions

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For some departments, door control is easy to add to the operation, as they have the staffing to position a firefighter at the door. But there are many fire departments that do not have the necessary staffing, making it harder to apply this step on the fireground.

Photos/Chris Baines/Cobb County

By this point, no one can debate the impact of door control. In fact, we’ve been preaching door control during fire prevention talks for many years, and truck companies have been practicing door control during vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) for many years. It just took more time for us to apply this step to our bigger-picture tactical mindset, beyond simply trying to keep fire in its compartment.

Door control, for many, is the piece that has been missing in their operational playbook. For some departments, door control is easy to add to the operation, as they have the staffing to position a firefighter at the door. But there are many fire departments that do not have the necessary staffing, making it harder to apply this step on the fireground.

So, how do we accomplish door control on the fireground with varying staffing levels? The easy answer is to have someone close the door behind the advancing company and maintain that position until the water is flowing. Then secure the door open and move to another assigned task. But how do we accomplish this if we do not have a firefighter whom we can assign to this position?

Door control options

Some have suggested a proactive rapid intervention team (RIT) can position one of its members here. While this would work, I am also hesitant to employ this method. I believe in proactive RIT; however, if there is a smoke condition, the door control firefighter needs to be on air, and it is not advisable to have a RIT member using up their air during proactive assignments.

Others have suggested to just close the door and not place a firefighter at the door. This suggestion is troublesome. If interior companies need to rapidly withdraw, there could be trouble when they reach the door. In the case of residential fires, the entry door will be inward-swinging, meaning the companies that are rapidly exiting could end up piled up behind the door. This is the exact reason why fire codes require commercial doors to be outward-swinging with panic bars. The other factor to consider is that the door will not be controlled. It will simply be closed onto the advancing hoseline. This can interfere with the stretch, therefore defeating the goal to get water on the fire.

Fire service manufacturers have worked to address this issue. Their answer, adopted from the European fire service, is to use door curtains (or block aids as they are referred to in Germany). Door curtains may not be the answer either, but they are something to consider.

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Photos/Chris Baines/Cobb County

Photos/Chris Baines/Cobb County

Putting a door curtain to the test

I recently had the opportunity to teach a flow path management class where we incorporated a door curtain. In groups of two, the instructors took students into the burn building. Upon entry, the door was opened and the flow path was immediately visible. The students crawled down the hallway to the door of the burn room. Here we discussed the neutral plane and bi-directional flow.

At this point, a second crew placed a curtain at the entry door. The students were able to see a decrease in the flow path, and after a brief period, we witnessed a slight decrease in temperature. The temperature was not monitored with any remote equipment. The instructors utilized thermal imaging cameras to monitor the temperature. The students quickly visualized a decrease in the velocity and movement of the smoke and products of combustion.

The students were then brought into a room of the hallway where we discussed searching in the flow path. We focused on door control during search, walking the walls and numbering the walls to incorporate a search plan.

When the search was complete, firefighters moved back to the hallway where they immediately noticed a change in conditions. We saw decreased visibility from the blocking of smoke. The smoke did not have an outlet, so there was no flow path. The crew then crawled down the hallway and exited through the curtain.

Lessons learned from the experiment

The students had the opportunity to observe how a flow path can be affected by door control. We also discussed some fire behavior observations, such as neutral plane and bi-directional flow and uni-directional flow path. This highlighted the need to close doors when searching ahead or above of a hoseline until water is flowing.

The students and instructors were also able to see what happens to the interior environment when a curtain is put in place to control the flow path. These were valuable lessons as we all look forward to adapting our ever-changing firegrounds.

What is the future for door curtains?

I believe there is a positive future in the American fire service for a door curtain. Consider interior doors in the attack stairwell of a high-rise fire. Consider smoke control in nursing homes, hospitals and multifamily dwellings – each an opportunity to use a door curtain to stop smoke spread into remote areas.

Curtains also have a place on the fireground for minimally staffed departments that may not have the ability to position a firefighter at the door. However, a door curtain should not be used in the place of a door control firefighter! Door control is more than just closing off the inlet. It is one of the most important jobs on the fireground, and we need to be sure that our most experienced firefighters are controlling the flow path whenever possible, whether it’s with a door or a curtain.

Find what’s right for your department

This is a revolutionary time in the fire service and an exciting to be part of it. It is our job to learn from the scientific research, then bring the science to the streets, adapt our tactics if and when necessary, and share our experiences with each other so we can all benefit from the knowledge.

Not every tactic will be appropriate for every fire or every fire department. You need to take all the relevant factors into consideration, evaluate your situation, resources, staffing, building, etc., and adapt as appropriate. That is when you can select a plan that incorporates the science, plus your training and experiences, into a tactical model that is the best for your citizens and the members of your department.

Sean Gray is a fire captain with Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services in metro Atlanta. Gray has been a member of multiple technical panels involving firefighter safety research and is an appointed member of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute advisory board. He is also an NFPA committee member for Fire Hose and Fire Service Training Facilities. Gray’s work has been featured in multiple fire service publications, and he recently co-authored the book “The Evolving Fireground.” He operates the website, and delivers evidence-based tactics training courses across the country. Gray has a bachelor’s degree in fire safety engineering and is currently working on his master’s degree at the Naval Post Graduate School.