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Control measure
Consider employing tactical ventilation

Control measure knowledge

Ventilation is one factor amongst the many tactical considerations that the incident commander will need to consider and implement as part of their overall incident plan. When planned and performed correctly ventilation can contribute to, and assist in, saving lives, improving firefighting conditions to support firefighter safety and reducing damage to property.

In simple terms ventilation can be defined as:

'The removal of heated air, smoke or other airborne contaminants from a structure or other location and their replacement with a supply of cooler, cleaner air'

In fundamental terms ventilation is something that will occur naturally as part of the fire development/decay process. It will have an impact on the development of a fire both pre- and post-arrival of firefighting crews at an incident scene, where they may encounter or be presented with fires in various phases of development. However, ventilation is also a valuable tactical intervention tool/option that fire and rescue services and incident commanders should consider as part of any overall firefighting strategy.

Historically, the traditional approach to ventilation focused heavily on ventilating after the fire to clear residual smoke and heat from buildings or structures. The subject of ventilation has however seen significant research and development over a number of years with new techniques and technologies becoming available to help improve the understanding and application of ventilation tactics.

When applied and managed correctly, ventilation can provide significant beneficial effects to any firefighting strategy by:

  • Replenishing oxygen and reducing carbon monoxide levels
  • Controlling temperature and humidity
  • Removing moisture, dust and other airborne contaminants
  • Improving visibility and aiding navigation

Tactical ventilation is a planned intervention that requires the co-ordination of fire and rescue services to open up buildings and structures to release the products of combustion and can be defined as:

'The planned and systematic removal of heat and smoke from the structure on fire and their replacement with a supply of fresher air to allow other firefighting priorities.'

As part of an overall firefighting strategy, incident commanders should always have a clear and informed objective before commencing any form of ventilation activity. This will ensure that the full range of benefits of ventilating can be realised including:

  • Improving conditions for the survivability of building occupants
  • Improving conditions for firefighters to enter and search
  • Reducing the potential for rapid fire development (flashover, backdraught, fire gas ignition)
  • Restricting fire and smoke damage to property

In broad terms ventilation can be separated into two basic types:

Natural ventilation

This is the process of supplying and removing air through a structure or space without using mechanical systems. In firefighting terms this refers to managing the flow of air (flow paths) into and out of a structure or location, using the prevailing atmospheric conditions such as wind strength, speed and direction via structural openings such as windows, doors and vents, to clear any smoke or hot fire gases.

Forced ventilation

This is the process of using fans, blowers or other mechanical means or devices to assist in creating, redirecting and managing the air flow into and out of a structure or location so that heat, smoke and fire gases are forced out.

In both instances, additional factors related to climatic and atmospheric conditions such as temperature and pressure will have an impact on the relative success of any ventilation process.

Type of forced ventilation


Positive pressure ventilation (PPV)

This is achieved by forcing air into a building using a fan. Using the fan will increase the pressure inside the building relative to atmospheric pressure.

The most appropriate tactic for PPV will depend on whether the inlet vent is also being used for access/egress. If the fan has to be placed further back because of operations at the entrance to a building, the fan may be less efficient.

The efficiency of smoke clearance will depend on a whole range of factors including the wind direction and strength, the size, type and number of fans, the proportion of the fan's air that enters the building (fan performance), the relative sizes of inlet and outlet vents, the size of the compartment to be cleared and the temperature of the fire gases (smoke) in the compartment.

Firefighters should always be aware of the potential risk of increasing the level of carbon monoxide (CO) in other areas of a building when ventilating, either when directing/forcing fire gases through a premise or, in particular, where using petrol driven PPV fans. Firefighters should ensure that fans are positioned to prevent any build-up of CO.

Negative pressure ventilation (NPV)

Negative pressure ventilation refers to extracting the hot air and gases from the outlet vent. This will reduce the pressure inside the building relative to atmospheric pressure. This can be achieved by fans or water sprays.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and Fire Engineered systems

These systems are often engineered into buildings so that, in the event of a fire, they can be operated to ventilate public areas and support safe evacuation as well as improve conditions for responding firefighters. These systems are normally automatic but can also be operated by a manual override.

Powered smoke and heat exhaust systems

These systems are generally operated automatically and are likely to be operating before the arrival of firefighters. They can also be operated manually but this will need careful consideration by incident commanders as part of the firefighting and ventilation tactical strategy.



Figure 7: Positive pressure ventilation

Source: Building Research Establishment


Figure 8: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in an atrium

Source: Building Research Establishment


Figure 9: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning system

Source: Building Research Establishment

The success of any ventilation plan or strategy will to a greater degree depend on the techniques employed to effectively plan and manage where air will enter a building, structure or location (inlet vent) and where hot gases and smoke will leave a building, structure or location (outlet vent), including the route that they will take (flow path).

Fire service personnel should be aware that creating a vent in a previously under-ventilated compartment can increase the risk of creating a backdraught.

In broad terms, two basic techniques may be considered, which present both barriers and enablers to the ventilation process:

  • Vertical (or top) ventilation: making an opening at high level to take advantage of the natural characteristics of hot gases and smoke - for example, buoyancy - allowing them to escape
  • Horizontal (or cross) ventilation: making openings in external walls using doors and windows to aid removal of hot fire gases and smoke

Both of these techniques can be employed using natural or forced means of ventilation.


The ventilation strategy implemented at any fire will be affected by a whole range of factors but in broad terms, the strategy should initially be based around either one or a combination of the following:

  • Offensive ventilation: close to the fire to have a direct effect on the fire itself, to limit fire spread and to make conditions safer for firefighters
  • Defensive ventilation: away from the fire, or after the fire, to remove heat and smoke, particularly to improve access and escape routes and to control flow paths to areas of the building not affected by the fire

Whatever strategy is adopted, an incident commander should always consider the benefits, impact and effects of ventilation in relation to the situation. Many factors will influence an incident commander's decision in this context, including any priority rescues, the presence of hazardous materials, processes or conditions and the effects of any pre-existing ventilation, as well as the design and layout of the building or compartment, climatic conditions and how these may affect any tactical ventilation activities.

It is also important to consider the impact that fire loading will have on ventilation activity in a fire situation. The nature and diversity of the substances and materials that may be encountered in buildings can have an impact on the process of combustion and fire development, which may increase the likelihood for peak temperatures to be reached at a faster rate. This is important from a firefighting perspective, as this can mean that firefighters may be more likely to encounter rapid fire development conditions at an incident.

Fire and rescue services should consider the benefit of information gathering in pre-planning activities and on arrival. This may prove to be of great value in formulating the ventilation strategy as well as any overall firefighting strategy. These information sources may include:

  • Site-specific risk information
  • Local knowledge
  • On-site plans
  • On-site responsible person (or appointed competent person)
  • Scene surveys
  • Fire protection plans and operational information
  • Building management and monitoring systems, for example HVAC, CCTV and fire-engineered systems

Once an incident commander has gathered any initial information, a critical decision must be made in developing a plan of attack: whether or not ventilation is to be used or appropriate.

Where an incident commander decides that ventilation activities are not to be used, they may choose to contain or isolate the heat and smoke in the fire compartment (anti- ventilation). For example, this can be achieved simply by closing doors or windows to unaffected routes and protect other areas of a building or structure. This tactic may enable occupants to escape via unaffected routes and limit further damage and limit rapid fire escalation.

Conversely, where the incident commander decides that ventilation or an appropriate tactic is to be used, it is generally most effective when considered or integrated in the early stages of firefighting activity. This allows efficient search and rescue operations to be undertaken and improves the working environment for firefighters.

The incident commander should be aware that any uncontrolled or unplanned movement of smoke and hot fire gases can increase the potential for fire spread. The decision to use or commence tactical ventilation activities must be part of an overall strategy and should invariably be undertaken with a simultaneous combined fire attack or suppression plan. Ensure that the appropriate firefighting media is available, including any supporting media such as covering jets for external fire spread.

Locating the fire

For an incident commander, the process of locating a fire is critical in formulating a robust, safe and effective ventilation strategy. The following factors should be considered:

  • Be aware that the location of the fire may be clearly evident on arrival, but it is possible that the fire has developed in unseen areas or that it may not be visible at all. It is vital to identify any routes of potential fire development and any flow paths that may be created, taking into account the impact on firefighting operations and their potential to create or intensify undetected fire development.
  • In the majority of incidents, ventilation should only be used when a fire has been located and an assessment of the likely impact of ventilation has been taken into account. However, in circumstances where the location of the seat of fire is difficult for crews to establish, tactical ventilation may be used to clear adjacent compartments, corridors or staircases etc. to assist firefighters in identifying the seat of fire, maintaining safe access and egress routes to and from a risk area and also mitigating or reducing the potential for phenomena such as fire gas ignition.
  • In many instances, fire crews will be able to use their human senses, professional judgement and experience to locate the fire. However, monitoring systems such as automatic fire detection systems or CCTV along with thermal scanning with thermal imaging equipment may assist with this process.

When planning and developing any ventilation strategy it is vital that due consideration be given to the impact that any unplanned or poorly considered ventilation can have. This can happen in a number of ways and may be as a result of one or more of the following:

  • Self-ventilation caused by fire damage to the building or structure
  • Fire crews carrying out inadvertent and uncontrolled ventilation, such as unplanned opening of vents, doors, windows
  • Failure to take the creation of new flow paths into account when carrying out firefighting operations
  • The effect of automatic ventilation systems (HVAC or powered heat and exhaust systems)
  • Air movement created by the movement of lift machinery, stock or vehicles
  • Air movement created by fire crews or escaping occupants opening internal and external doors and other openings
  • Changes in wind speed and direction

The safety of firefighting crews and any building occupants is vital when forming a ventilation strategy and it is important that the impact and effects of the ventilation/fire conditions process are constantly monitored and reassessed and, where appropriate, tactics are adjusted accordingly.

The incident commander should make the safety of fire crews and any building occupants the primary concern when formulating and implementing a ventilation strategy. The benefits and effects of any planned ventilation must be considered together with:

  • Location of the fire
  • Location of any occupants, and protection of escape routes
  • Access routes for fire crews to fire compartments
  • Internal/external layout and design of the structure; including any fire engineered solutions
  • Likely fire dynamics and development
  • Natural ventilation, local topography that may affect wind effects and pressure differentials
  • Effect of HVAC systems incorporating smoke control, sprinklers and design features such as atria and smoke curtains (see figure 9)
  • Impact of natural fire phenomena on fire development/conditions, for example Coandă, stack, trench, piston effects or wind-driven fire
  • Potential for a dust explosion:
    • Give due consideration to the possibility of dust explosion when determining the overall incident plan, as well as the ventilation strategy, if an incident occurs in a compartment, building or other structure
    • Identify any potential dust explosion risks as part of information gathering in the initial stages of an incident
    • Pre-planning may have identified this as a potential hazard - it can be reasonably expected that control measures in any industrial processes will be in place and adequately maintained
    • Take the potential for a dust explosion into account in the ventilation strategy - ensure that any ventilation activities do not create movement of air that may agitate dust particles to the extent where an explosion occurs

The Incident commander should re-assess any actions to ensure that safety is maintained and that any planned ventilation activities are supporting the overall incident plan, considering relevant factors including:

  • Wind direction, strength
  • Whether ventilation is appropriate and/or the correct ventilation tactics
  • Whether effective communications are firmly established
  • The need to withdraw firefighters whilst ventilation takes place
  • Location of outlet vents - ideally downwind and at a high level
  • Whether external covering jets are in place
  • Whether an inlet vent is created and kept clear (ideally as soon as possible following creation of the outlet vent)
  • The requirement to constantly monitor the effects of ventilation


Figure 10: Smoke curtain

Source: Building Research Establishment


Figure 11: Smoke and heat exhaust ventilation system

Source: Building Research Establishment

Post-fire considerations


  • Using ventilation post-fire to assist in clearing any smoke and other airborne particles as part of the salvage activities.
  • Ensuring that bullseyes (hot spots) are identified and fully extinguished before the fire scene is handed over - turning over and damping down will assist in identifying such areas.
  • Noting the movement of any items and passing details to a fire investigation officer if in attendance
  • Advising the fire investigation officer or other agencies of any ventilation activities undertaken during firefighting operations, as this may have some relevance to the subsequent fire investigation in respect of fire development and post-fire indications

Strategic actions

Fire and rescue services should:
  • Produce policy guidance for the operational use of offensive or defensive positive pressure ventilation for fires in buildings
  • Develop tactical guidance and support arrangements on the hazards and actions to be taken for the ventilation of fire gases in buildings
  • Provide crews with information, instruction and training in ventilation techniques and tactics

Tactical actions

Incident commanders should:
  • Provide appropriate ventilation for any smoke and fire gases
  • Consider using tactical ventilation to improve conditions and maintain access and egress routes

  • Consider the effect of firefighting tactics and the flow path of smoke on evacuation routes
  • Monitor the effect of wind and ventilation on the fire development, smoke and fire gases
  • Consider the flow path of smoke and fire gases and the potential for fire spread
  • Put covering jets in place prior to the creation of exhaust vents, where possible
  • Consider using appropriate ventilation techniques for any products of combustion

  • Assess impact of tunnel on smoke travel and identify location and effectiveness of exhaust vents