How cops can help firefighters close the door on fire

Cops often arrive first on the scene of a residential fire, playing a crucial role in keeping residents safe until the fire department can arrive and evacuate victims


By Steve Kerber and Don Mandeville

Over the last 40 years, the pace at which a fire races through a home has increased at a dramatic and deadly rate. People once had an average of 17 minutes to escape a burning home after the activation of a smoke alarm. Today, that window has shrunk to about three minutes or less. Natural furnishings and building materials have given way to synthetics, which burn much faster. Combine that with the popularity of open floor plans and it becomes the perfect habitat for an escalating fire.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 379,000 residential structure fires in the U.S. in 2017, resulting in 10,600 civilian injuries and 2,630 civilian deaths. The numbers show that one home structure fire was reported every 88 seconds, one civilian fire injury was reported every 36 minutes and one civilian fire death occurred every 2 hours and 34 minutes. These numbers are staggering, especially when it comes to injuries and deaths.

Public safety campaign demonstrates how the simple behavior of closing the doors in a house can have a potentially life-saving impact on those trapped inside. (Photo/FSRI)
Public safety campaign demonstrates how the simple behavior of closing the doors in a house can have a potentially life-saving impact on those trapped inside. (Photo/FSRI)

But firefighters aren’t always the first on the scene of residential fires. Police officers often arrive first, and when that happens they can play a crucial role in keeping residents safe until the fire department can arrive and evacuate victims.

Close Before You Doze campaign

As part of its third-annual “Close Before You Doze” campaign, the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute (FSRI) is working with police officers to streamline procedures and increase collaboration between the fire and police departments.

The campaign demonstrates how the simple behavior of closing the doors in a house – particularly before bedtime – can have a potentially life-saving impact on those trapped inside.

Not only does FSRI research show that closed doors dramatically decrease heat and CO levels – which provide trapped occupants more time for help to arrive – it also shows that closing a door left open by escaping occupants can slow or even extinguish a fire prior to the fire department’s arrival. Closing doors is especially important at night when people are vulnerable and disoriented with little time to react.

But promoting closed doors is only one step in a well-rounded fire safety plan. To ensure police officers are prepared for anything, here are five steps they can take if they arrive first on the scene of a house fire.

  1. Upon arrival, immediately block the surrounding area from bystanders without impinging on suppression needs, such as access to the building or nearby fire hydrants.
  2. Learn as much as you can from any bystanders on the scene. Find out if anyone is home or trapped, where the fire might be located and the fastest route to access the fire. If there is anyone who is particularly knowledgeable about the home, instruct them to stay nearby so, if necessary, the fire department can gather more information from them upon arrival.
  3. If you’re able to communicate with someone who is trapped, tell them to close all accessible doors immediately and seal the base of those doors with towels, sheets or blankets. Oxygen intensifies fires, so closing the doors will starve it of the oxygen it requires to grow.
  4. If the front door is open and accessible, call out to see if anyone is inside. If you receive no response, close the door immediately. If you do receive a response, evaluate the situation and determine if you’re able to safely sweep the home for a victim. If no one is found, get out and close every door behind you. You should only enter the home if you can do so safely.
  5. Once the fire department arrives, quickly and efficiently pass along the information you were able to collect from victims or bystanders. Up front, let them know if there is anyone trapped inside and where they are located.

Beyond these steps, it’s also important for police officers to know what not to do when on the scene of a fire.

  • Don’t break or open any windows or doors. As previously mentioned, fires are fueled by oxygen. If oxygen is entering the home through open doors and windows, the fire will spread much faster.
  • Never instruct a victim to break any windows. If possible, have them quickly hang a sheet or towel out the window and close it immediately. This will signal their location to the fire department.
  • If you do enter the home to do a sweep for victims, don’t close the door until you exit the building. Police officers are not dressed for the harsh environment of a burning structure. Closing yourself inside with limited visibility and no hoseline could result in a seriously dangerous scenario.

Saving the lives of civilians in any emergency situation is a team effort. The more first responders know about residential fires, the better equipped they are to help those in danger.

For law enforcement personnel who want more information on how to prepare for residential fires, see UL FSRI’s police toolbox.


About the authors
Steve Kerber is director of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute. He has led research with the fire service in the areas of ventilation, structural collapse and fire dynamics. Steve is a 13-year veteran of the fire service with most of his service at the College Park Fire Department in Prince George's County Maryland, where he served at ranks up through deputy chief. He received his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Fire Protection Engineering from the University of Maryland and is currently working on his doctorate at Lund University in Sweden. Steve has also been appointed to the rank of honorary battalion chief by the FDNY and was named the 2014 ISFSI and Fire Engineering George D. Post Instructor of the Year.

Captain Don Mandeville is the bomb squad commander and supervisor for the Montgomery County, Maryland Fire and Explosives Investigations Unit. Don is a 35-year public safety veteran with over 30 years of service in Montgomery County. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, fire apparatus operator and officer, dispatcher, public safety instructor and for the last eleven years as a fire investigator, police officer and bomb technician.

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