By: Kevin Legacy
Detectives always look at a suspect’s means, motive and opportunity (MO) when building a criminal case against him. It’s the foundation of the why’s, when’s, and how’s of the perpetrator’s committed crime. Although law enforcement principles are often mutually exclusive to the fire service, it should consider adopting some of them during fireground search operations. Search is agreeably categorized in two ways: searching for life, and searching for fire. By utilizing the MO doctrine, we establish three viable reasons to validate our search decision. Although many fire departments consider their searches aggressive, they may in fact only be active or passive-style searches.
Aggressive search is conducted outside the purview of the advancing hose line, either ahead of its advance, or in an off-area not immediately protected by it. Active search however, is conducted simultaneously around the advancing hose line in areas actually protected by it. Finally, passive search is conducted after the fire has been knocked down to allow for more a more tenable, systematic search. Aggressive, active and passive search hence become search’s sub-categories. This article will focus on one of these specific sub-categories in particular, aggressive search.
Perhaps the most recognizable method of aggressive search is vent, enter, and search operations (VES). When evaluating the risks vs. benefits of VES operations on the fireground, the incident commander (IC) should look to build an analogous case, in reference to our detectives mentioned above, to determine if the why’s, when’s, and how’s of such an operation could be safely and effectively ‘committed.’ In other words, the firefighter(s) performing VES should already have clear means, motive and opportunity prior to attempting it.
The term “aggressive” often derives a negative connotation in the fire service. Perhaps that is why many departments opt out of VES operations entirely when it is described as such. This has prevented many fire departments from taking advantage of a specific search tactic that has been proven to save lives on the fireground. Many also opt out based on a rationalized argument of staffing constraints due to staffing shortages.
However, it is easier and safer than you might think for a couple of reasons: First, active and passive search are attempted at every fire, even without a known life hazard; structural and fire conditions permitting. Moreover, VES should always be conducted based on present and suspected fire conditions. Second, aggressive search should only be conducted in areas that are target-specific while strictly adhering to two-in-two out protocols. What does target-specific mean? Remember the fact that occupants and bystanders routinely point to bedrooms or areas of the dwelling that (might) contain an unaccounted occupant. Although we should not always take occupants’ word as sound truth, they do know the targets and occupancy better than we do. Consider the following:
It’s 3am and as you respond in your apparatus with an “under-staffed” engine, perhaps a driver and officer, maybe. You pull up to a bi-level ranch house with fire showing from a garage on side one with a moderate smoke condition showing from the rest of the house. As you pull up, a hysterical mother meets us at the end of the driveway screaming that “my child is in that bedroom right there,” pointing to the window above the garage on side 4. Now I don’t know too many firefighters that are going to pass on getting in that window, and do their best to save that child. How many are going to stand there and tell that mother that they can’t do it because we don’t have enough staffing? In reality, they may put that ladder up, take the window, and enter to save that child. Unfortunately that firefighter may have never trained on aggressive search operations or more specifically, VES, and may get in trouble. Knowing this scenario presents means, motive and opportunity, it is time to understand how to safely and effectively commit the act of aggressive search. It is imperative that VES operations are not to be conducted without a hose line stretched via the primary means of egress and successful advanced to the fire area. This will be addressed specifically in the proceeding text.
Committing to VES, or any aggressive search operation for that matter, is to follow sound principles and a clear departmental order of operation. Having the means, motive and opportunity does not simply mean we have permission. We need to follow a plan that everyone on the fireground understands, expects and allows. Not adhering the proceeding, basic steps and principles of VES will surely place a searching firefighter and victim in harm’s way. That is definitely not part of the plan, however, proper training in VES will ensure the benefits most often outweigh the risk. What should be part of the plan is as follows:
- Let everyone on the fireground know what you are doing. This is based upon the motive for your aggressive search decision. Choose the correct ladder for your target-specific objective (window). Enroute to your window, monitor the fire building for any changes in conditions since you made your decision.
- Place the ladder’s tip below the window sill for rapid entry and egress.
- With full personal protective equipment (PPE) donned, ascend the ladder with a six foot hook or pike pole and a halligan.
- Climb the ladder until you can reach the glass of the top sash with the hook. Now is the time to make your intentions clear to everyone on the fireground. If it’s a go, take the glass with your hook.
- Start with the top sash glass and clean out the rest in the window thoroughly.
- Give the room you are venting a few seconds to “blow.” That is, let the heated air, smoke and fire do what it wants to do, escape via the top portion of the window.
- If conditions still permit, ascend up to the window sill itself and determine what obstacles may obstruct victim removal and firefighter egress. Consider what’s in front of the windows in most dwellings, furniture and beds. Determine if either will prevent your rapid egress should conditions deteriorate.
- Make sure there is a floor with your hook and be mindful of potential victims who may have succumbed to smoke conditions before you probe.
- Enter the window one leg at a time. This way you can step back out onto the ladder if conditions deteriorate. Have a second member on the ladder to assist you with victim removal and self-evacuation if necessary.
- Place the hook’s head on the window sill, the shaft angled-down into the room. This becomes a reference point, or beacon back to the window. Stay low and take a look around the room.
- If there is visibility, look for the bedroom door. Make a bee-line for it and close it immediately. This provides you a margin of safety should fire make its way to your position. Most bedroom doors in dwellings are directly in line with the room’s window. Now conduct the search.
- If you come across the victim before the door is closed, you must ensure the bedroom door is closed before you attempt to remove the occupant. Victim removal always takes more time than anticipated so keeping the room as tenable as possible may afford us this time.
- When you find a victim, make your radio transmission alerting everyone on the fireground. Remove the victim the way you came in if possible to prevent interior companies from having to leave their assigned positions. The engine company should ensure the hose line is able to darken-down the fire area(s) and protect the interior stairs if window removal is impossible.
The above thirteen steps or operation always require that the searching firefighter continuously monitor conditions and listen for radio transmissions affecting same. The above steps were sequentially numbered to allow you to train specifically on each to ensure that your VES operation follows a plan every time. You also now have thirteen more drill topics.
Personal Safety Benchmarks
Finally, incorporate the following into your VES or aggressive search operations, as they become benchmarks to measure your personal safety inside the room:
- Smoke begins to lift and visibility improves.
- Smoke lightens due to steam.
- The feel of a hose line stream hitting the ceiling beneath you.
- Any decrease in heat.
- Smoke does not lift and changes density and color.
- ‘Rolling’ black smoke moving down from ceiling to floor level.
- Any increase in heat.
- Visible fire in room or extension to your area through the floor.
- Weakening or ‘spongy’ floor.
- Engine company(s) having difficulty locating the fire or ANY type of water problem.
Searching for fire and life are operations that must be conducted at every fire. However, when searching for life, determine what sub-category of search can be safely conducted based upon evidence gathered on arrival. Law enforcement does it, so should firefighters. If you determine that you have the means, motive and opportunity for aggressive search operations, ensure that you follow the plan and declare your intentions to everyone. Aggressive search operations are not haphazard or reckless attempts to rescue trapped victims. Rather, it becomes a sub-category of search that, when done safely in a specific target, can afford fire victims a greater chance for survival.