While the title of this post might sound like a joke, it is a deadly serious fact that leaving a door open while searching a structure in fire conditions can lead a very bad ending, as we will see.
While at a fire recently in a two story single family dwelling,with fire on the second floor and searching the room across the hallway from the room on fire, I decided to shut the door behind me to search the bedroom. It’s not something I normally do, as we’re fortunate enough to have aggressive companies who get water on the fire quickly and trucks who aren’t afraid to open up; so the need does not usually arise. However, beating the first due engine in and with a report of people trapped, we made our way to the second floor.
After getting into the bedroom, my partner and I shut the door behind us. That’s a pretty nerve wracking thing to do: shut a door in a house you’ve never been in and can’t see a thing in. It’s easy to miss a doorknob on the wide expanse of wall when trying to make your way back out of that door. Anyhow, even though there was zero visibility and we were conducting our search on feel, it was a great comfort to feel the heat subside A LOT. It bought quite a bit of time on my mental search clock that lets me know when it is time to go. Thankfully, the engine was there quickly and we could hear them getting a knock on the fire.
The reason I mention this is that it really sunk in to me how much of the ongoing fire problem was eliminated for me just by shutting the door. So I started looking around at the importance of keeping doors shut while performing a search. Unfortunately I did not have to look far or in the distant past. My looking about took me to my old department, Baltimore County, to a fire that killed FF Mark Falkenhan on Jan 19, 2011 who died from injuries sustained while searching on the top floor of a 3 story garden apartment.
The fire started as a first floor kitchen fire and rapidly spread to the two upper floors, ultimately entering the unit where FF Falkenhan was searching though an open door to the unit.
Two units, two very different results. The difference is that the unit on the left had the door closed during the fire. This was a powerful picture for me.
If you’re short on time, go to the 21:45 mark of the video below. There are also two reports; one from the ATF and one from Baltimore County. Towards the end of the ATF report are the pictures of the conditions of different units from the fire.
The forward in the Balt. County internal report by the Fire Chief states that they essentially could have done nothing different and that everything went pretty much according to plan. This despite the fact that they:
Have only 3 Battalion Chiefs for a 612 square mile area. It took the Batt. Chief 23 minutes to arrive on scene.
Had no good report from the rear about vertical fire extension.
No engine crew covering the search operation.
No back up hose line for initial attack crew.
Companies split laying on a working fire.
NO RIT TEAM!!
It’s easy to be an armchair fireground analyst, but these are systemic things that have not changed since I worked there for a short time in the late 90’s.
Here is a video from the ATF from the modeling on this fire:
Things start going bad around the 21:45 mark of this video:
Towards the end of the video is are two alternate scenarios showing what might have happened with different doors being closed.