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10 things cops need to know about fire

It would be convenient for police to say, “Fire is the fire department’s problem,” but that’s often not the case


Police training programs fail to teach the basics of fire science or provide useful instruction on how to operate in a fire environment.

Photo/John Odegard

When a deranged killer launched a series of deadly attacks in Nova Scotia in April, he set fire to multiple homes and vehicles during his rampage. While 13 of his victims were killed by gunfire, Canadian police reported that 9 of his 22 victims were killed in the 7 fires that engulfed their homes.

Fire has been used as a weapon since man first learned to control it, and remains a significant threat for law enforcement to deal with today. Fire can be used by the enemy to murder innocents, commit arson, promote terror, create a diversion, block police from making entry, commit suicide to avoid capture, or provide a screen to mask a getaway, among other things.

Fire is easy to employ, dramatic in its effect and damage, and difficult to counter. As such, police officers can expect to see it used with continuing regularity by criminals and terrorists in the future.

Capability gap

Despite this, the overwhelming majority of police officers are ill-equipped to deal with fire. Their training programs fail to teach the basics of fire science or provide useful instruction on how to operate in a fire environment. Officers also lack the proper protective equipment to work in or near fires.

We don’t need to train cops as firefighters, but they do need an appropriate level of education, training and equipment to deal with this known threat. It would be convenient for police to say, “Fire is the fire department’s problem,” but that’s often not the case. Police often arrive on scene before fire personnel, so they need to understand what they can do to help stabilize the situation, and not make it worse. Additionally, there may be tactical situations where the fire department cannot deploy until police make the scene safe for them to work.

To help educate officers about the significant risks and hazards involved with these operations, Fire Captains Jon Payne and Gil Pedroza of the Glendale (California) Fire Department addressed the attendees of the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO) annual conference to provide some helpful tips for police officers.

Throughout, the Captains emphasized that police officers need to be aware of the significant risks associated with fire, the real dangers to their health and safety, and the potential that their good faith efforts to help could make the fire worse. The following tips are not designed to encourage police officers to enter fires, but rather to help them better understand the environment if they become trapped in a fire, or find themselves in a tactical situation where dealing with a fire is otherwise unavoidable.

When every second counts, the first actions at a fire scene can save lives. Learn what law enforcement officers should do (and avoid) when arriving before the fire department to help manage the situation effectively.

1. Burn risks

Payne and Pedroza explained that human skin begins to feel pain from heat at approximately 111 degrees Fahrenheit, begins to suffer first-degree burns at 118 degrees Fahrenheit and is instantly destroyed at 162 degrees Fahrenheit. Since ordinary home fires can generate heat between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit near the ceiling, it’s easy to see how dangerous it can be for a police officer to enter this environment without the protective equipment that firefighters regularly use. Officers need to understand that ambient temperatures can easily exceed 162 degrees Fahrenheit, even when the room itself is not on fire ‒ the superheated air inside the room can destroy unprotected skin, even in the absence of flame.

2. Modern materials increase fire dangers

The materials used in the construction of homes, furniture and consumer goods are different today than they were generations ago. There’s a higher percentage of plastics, polyester and polyurethane inside our homes, and these materials have different burn properties than wood and other traditional materials. The polys burn faster, creating large temperature spikes and a greater amount of smoke. The smoke from these materials is also much more volatile and toxic. Police officers must understand that fire spreads rapidly in modern homes full of synthetics, and they may not have as much time as they think to enter and exit before the home is engulfed in flames, or they are overwhelmed by large amounts of toxic smoke;

3. Smoke is fuel

Flame is not the only danger in a fire. Sometimes, the smoke can be as bad as the fire itself, particularly in an environment where there’s a lot of synthetic products burning. Not only is the smoke from synthetics more toxic to breathe, the particulates that make up the smoke are also more volatile ‒ more likely to catch fire, themselves. Modern house fires generate plenty of heat and smoke, and sometimes all that’s necessary for the smoke to ignite is for it to find a source of oxygen ‒ a window that breaks from the heat, or an external door that gets opened. The absence of flame is not the absence of danger!

4. Uncoordinated venting can increase danger and feed a fire

As mentioned, modern home fires generate lots of heat and contain many products that are an excellent source of fuel (including the smoke itself). In many cases, the only thing that’s necessary to create more fire is a source of oxygen, and an officer could unwittingly provide that if they break a window or open a door in a misguided effort to “vent the smoke” or lower the internal temperature. Fire crews may selectively vent a home to change the flow path of the fire, but these efforts are carefully planned, executed in conjunction with water application, and not done haphazardly. Police officers need to understand that uncoordinated venting of a home that’s on fire can accelerate the fire and make conditions worse, instead of better, so it should be avoided.

5. Applying water

We put fires out with water, right? Yes, but applying water can also create large amounts of steam, fog and pressure, so it’s important not to apply water haphazardly in a fire. If a police officer needs to apply water to a fire in the absence of fire personnel (very possible, if the police officer arrives first, or the tactical situation requires officers to fight the fire before the scene is considered safe enough for firefighters to deploy, such as during a barricaded shooter incident) they should use the narrowest spray pattern possible to avoid generating unnecessary steam and fog.

6. Close doors!

To avoid providing an oxygen source for the fire, police officers are encouraged to close doors in burning buildings and practice door discipline. If you limit the supply of air, then you limit the fire, so keep doors closed. If you have to make entry into a burning building, it’s safer to close the door behind you after you go in, than to leave it open. Not only will this help to starve the fire of badly-needed oxygen, but it will also help you to avoid getting trapped between the fire and the supply of oxygen behind you ‒ essentially, placing you in the middle of the flow path of the fire, which will seek the oxygen source and draw the fire towards you. It may feel wrong to close the door if there are victims or rescuers inside, but it’s safer for them if you do.

7. Vent for life

If it’s deemed necessary to vent a burning building to preserve life, it’s vitally important for the occupants to isolate the compartment they are in before the vent is opened. For instance, people trapped in an upstairs bedroom should close the door to the room and seal it off to the best of their ability (seal off the area under the door with towels, etc.) before they open a window to let the smoke and heat escape. If the window is opened or broken before the room is isolated from the fire, it will seek the supply of oxygen and burn towards the room. If a police officer enters a room through an outside window or door, the first thing they should do once they’re inside is secure and seal the interior door, before trying to evacuate those inside. If there’s no interior door to provide isolation, the room will not be viable for long.

8. Read the neutral plane

The neutral plane is the level in a structure where you’ll find (relatively) clear air below, and smoke above. Fresh air is flowing into the structure below the neutral plane, and smoke/gases are flowing out of the structure above the neutral plane. Police officers can use these phenomena to help evaluate where a fire is located in a building when a door is opened. Open the door, and let the initial burst of smoke exit. After things stabilize, if the neutral plane is in the middle of the door (from top to bottom), then the fire is probably on the same level of the house as the door. If the smoke lifts entirely and none is exiting out the top of the door, then the fire is probably located on a level above the one where the door is located. Conversely, if the smoke doesn’t lift at all, and the entire doorway is filled with it from top to bottom, then the fire is probably located on a level below the one where the door is located. This kind of information may help an officer make a better decision about whether it is safe to enter the building through that portal.

9. Conducting rescues

The decision to enter a building to make a rescue attempt must start with some questions. Is there a reasonable chance of success? Is the risk worth the possible gain? Will my actions be helpful, or just increase the risk to others (i.e., by feeding the fire with additional oxygen from a door that’s opened)? If a police officer determines a rescue attempt is warranted in the absence of help from the fire department, Payne and Pedroza encourage them to consider the following:

  • Get as much intel on victim location and condition as possible before you go in;
  • Determine the best entry point;
  • Determine the best exit point, and a secondary exit point, in case the first is compromised;
  • Try to make entry in teams ‒ having a partner will increase safety and capability;
  • Advise Dispatch, Command Post, other officers, or the fire department that you are going in, and identify where you are going to enter the building;
  • Evaluate the neutral plane before entry;
  • After going in, close the door or window behind you;
  • Stay in contact with the walls and your partner;
  • Close doors as you conduct your search inside;
  • Stay out of the flow path of the fire (between the fire and where it’s moving).

10. If you’re trapped inside

If you become trapped inside a burning building:

  • Identify the flow path and evaluate the smoke conditions to choose the best location to seek refuge;
  • Do your best to separate yourself from the fire and smoke, by closing and sealing doors;
  • Communicate your location to personnel outside;
  • Stay below the neutral plane, if possible, for breathing air;
  • Have a contingency plan for evacuating your location.

Seek additional training

Captains Payne and Pedroza encourage police officers to seek additional help and resources to become better educated about fire risks and tactics.

The most accessible help is probably in your own fire department’s training section, but external resources like the Underwriter Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute (UL FSRI), the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) “Safe Law Enforcement Operations on the Fireground” class, the website and training materials like David W. Dodson’s video, “The Art of Reading Smoke” are also excellent, and encouraged.

The use of fire as a weapon or criminal aid isn’t going to stop anytime soon, so the more police officers can learn about this subject, the better prepared they will be to deal with it.

The author would like to thank Captains Payne and Pedroza, the Glendale (California) Fire Department and the California Association of Tactical Officers for the opportunity to learn about this subject and share these vital lessons with the Police1 audience.

NEXT: The ABCs of fire as a weapon

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.