Positive or Negative:
Perspectives on Tactical Ventilation

This post reviews articles on positive pressure ventilation written by Watch Manager Gary West of the Lancashire (UK) Fire and Rescue Service and Battalion Chief Kriss Garcia of the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Gary, Kriss, and I were recently in Australia for a meeting of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) Compartment Firefighting Special Interest Group and to present at the 2009 International Firefighting Safety Conference hosted by IFE-Australia.

Gary and Kriss are both strong advocates of positive pressure ventilation (PPV) and its use to support fire attack (positive pressure attack (PPA)). In August 2008, Gary’s article Positive Thinking was published in Fire Risk Management Journal and October 2008, Kriss’s article The Power of Negative Thinking was published in FireRescue magazine. While the titles appear to be contradictory, both of my colleagues had a common theme; the importance of education and training to ensure safe and effective tactical ventilation on the fireground.

Common Elements

Gary and Kriss both emphasize the benefits of effective use of PPV while cautioning that education in practical fluid and fire dynamics and tactical ventilation concepts must be integrated with training in PPV/PPA tactics.

Positive Thinking

Gary provides an overview of the three phased approach to PPV training and implementation commonly used in the UK. This approach is designed around building understanding of key concepts and competence in tactical skills while minimizing risk.

Phase I-Post Fire Control PPV: In this phase, PPV is limited to clearing smoke after the fire has been controlled. In many respects this is the simplest and safest application of PPV.

Phase 2-Defensive PPV: In Phase 2, PPV is used during firefighting operations to clear smoke logged areas not involved in fire. This approach requires confinement of the fire using structural barriers (e.g., closing doors) and placement of hoselines. This tactical approach is less common in the United States, likely due to differences in construction. However, use of PPV to clear and then pressurize attached exposures can be an effective tactic in limiting smoke and fire spread.

Phase 3-Offensive PPV (PPA): In the third phase, PPV precedes fire attack and has a direct influence on fire behavior as well as clearing smoke from the entry path and uninvolved areas of the building.

Gary concludes with reinforcement of the importance of education and training prior to implementation and the criticality of ongoing training and development:

It must be understood that PPV is a tool that will save the lives of casualties, and also reduce the risk to firefighters, if used correctly. Initial training should cover all aspect of fan configurations, the different phases of PPV, and include an understanding of the way in which fire behaves generally [emphasis added], among other things.

However, it cannot be emphasized enough that, if used incorrectly, PPV is a potentially life-threatening and, as such, an ongoing training and development programme ought to be available to all users [emphasis added] (P. 49).

Critique of Positive Thinking

Gary provides a solid overview of the three phased approach to PPV training and implementation used in the UK and advocates for progression to Phase 3, positive pressure ventilation in support of fire attack. However, I take exception to two statements made in this article.

The first relates to the relationship between the size of inlet and exhaust opening. “It is widely understood that the size of the exhaust(s) must add up to less than the surface are of the inlet in order that positive pressure is achieved.” This is incorrect. As outlined in my previous post, Positive Pressure Ventilation: Inadequate Exhaust, the exhaust opening should be at least equal to the size of the inlet and preferably two to three times the area of the inlet opening.

The second statement relates to water application technique. “Students have a temptation to apply water using pulsing and gas-cooling techniques. However, it is not necessary in this mode of PPV [Phase 3]. While of less concern than inadequately sized exhaust openings, use of PPV does not necessarily negate the use of gas cooling. Depending on firefighters operating location and conditions encountered, cooling hot gases may still be necessary, particularly away from the path leading from inlet to outlet. Nozzle techniques and water application should be determined based on conditions, not the ventilation tactic being used. However, that said, Gary is correct that excess steam produced during attack in the fire compartment will be carried out the exhaust opening.

Negative Thinking

Kriss shares much of Gary’s perspective regarding the value of PPV and in particular its use to support fire attack (Phase 3/PPA).  However, the main focus of The Power of Negative Thinking is on the practical aspects of the fluid dynamics involved in PPV. Kris points out that the application of positive pressure at an inlet simply adds a slight amount of pressure to direct the flow of fire effluent from the inlet to the exhaust opening(s).

Kriss states that “When PPA goes wrong, it’s usually attributable to one or two conditions, or their combination. First, mistakes result from a lack of coordination and control on the fireground including a lack of department wide training and education in the use of PPA.

Second, problems may arise from insufficient or not forward exhaust. When products of combustion are emitted under pressure adhead of the attack crews, substantial exhaust is need (P. 39).

One of the most important points that Kriss raises in this article is the importance of reading conditions at the inlet opening (which he refers to as the “ventilation” opening). “If heavy smoke and/or fire is returning to the attack entrance [and] exhausting above the blower, do not enter (p. 39) [additional emphasis added].

This article also outlines initial considerations for using PPV in support of fire attack Phase 3/PPA). Of particular importance is training and educating members in theory, application, and precautions involved in the offensive use of PPV. In addition, departments training and implementing the use of this tactic must define when it will be used (e.g., fire conditions, building types).

Critique of Negative Thinking

This article raises important points in developing an understanding of why PPV works (e.g., pressure differences) and provides a straightforward explanation of its safe use in support of fire attack. However, Kriss indicates that the pressure generated by the blower is less than that created by the fire and expansion of steam due to fire control operations. This is inconsistent with the results of research conducted by NIST (Kerber & Madryzkowski, 2008; 2009). On a related note, Kriss’s assumptions regarding pressure generated by steam expansion are dependent on excessive or inappropriate water application during fire suppression operations (which is not necessarily a given).

Final Thoughts

In these two articles, Gary and Kriss raise a number of important points and focus attention on the importance of understanding not simply what and how, but why. Kriss’s emphasis on the importance of having a decision-making framework and assessing conditions to determine if PPV is working prior to entry is absolutely critical. Sometime in the next couple of months I will expand on the topic of command, control, and coordination of fire control and ventilation.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


West, G. (2008, August). Positive thinking. Fire Risk Management, 46-49.

Garcia, K. (2008, October) The power of negative thinking. Fire Rescue, 38-40. Retrieved May 24, 2009 from http://positivepressureattack.com/images/pdfs/PowerOfNegativeThinking.pdf

Kerber, S. & Madrzykowski, D. (2008).Evaluating positive pressure ventilation In large structures: school pressure and fire experiments. Retrieved May 17, 2009 from http://www.fire.nist.gov/bfrlpubs/fire08/PDF/f08016.pdf.

Madrzykowski, D. & Kerber, S. (2009). Fire Fighting Tactics Under Wind Driven Conditions. Retrieved (in four parts) February 28, 2009 from http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/Research/Wind_Driven_Report_Part1.pdf; http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/Research/Wind_Driven_Report_Part2.pdf; http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/Research/Wind_Driven_Report_Part3.pdf; http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/Research/Wind_Driven_Report_Part4.pdf.

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One Response to “Positive or Negative:
Perspectives on Tactical Ventilation”

  1. laurence delorme Says:

    hello Ed,

    great thread,as usual.in France,i talk about the guys and the gals of the FD of my town,they use “post fire control PPV” like you described it:

    “Phase I-Post Fire Control PPV: In this phase, PPV is limited to clearing smoke after the fire has been controlled. In many respects this is the simplest and safest application of PPV.”

    PPV is pretty limited in our small FD,i mean,if we compare to huge FD in France like Paris.

    this article is “food for thoughts”.thanks for sharing.

    best regards.

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