Quick Task Accomplishment: Engine Company Primary Search

Indy firefighters respond to a vacant structure fire that injured five members
Photo courtesy Indianapolis Fire Department

Let’s face it—most departments do not ride with five on an engine and six or seven on a ladder company. The Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department (my department), I’m happy to say, is one of the better staffed mid- to large-size metropolitan forces. The mounting tasks that we must perform at fires do not change because we simply bring more to the table. I’m not speaking to the nature of managing entire operations, job delegation, resource summoning, and so on; those directives are far beyond my scope. Rather, I mean to address some of the small things we can accomplish tangentially to our primary task. In doing so, we must be vigilant not to lose sight of our primary job. For example, when discussing primary search for the engine, the amount of effort you put into it can in no way adversely affect the suppression effort if, in fact, your job is suppression.

Stretching a line into the fire area does not exempt you from completing a primary search. If a ladder or rescue company is right on your tail, you can focus directly on suppression. However, suppose you are at a fire around the block from your single-engine house? Or, what if you are operating at a greater-alarm fire and “have a building to yourself”? Out on the air, off-duty training, mechanical issues, staffing, and other similar situations are all instances where you may find yourself getting water to the fire area before anyone else even shows up. In such cases, you must conduct a primary search without affecting suppression.

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Primary Search: Accomplish the Mission

There are a few things you can do on and off the line that will help you perform a sufficient primary search. It’s not going to be as “pretty” as a search conducted by a dedicated team, but it will do the job for a primary.

Tools and Tactics

Using a thermal imaging camera (TIC) and light scan under the smoke is invaluable and perhaps the best way to get a “visual footprint” of any area you are in. However, through the mayhem of an immediately dangerous to life or health environment, changes in current flow; misinterpretation of a TIC screen; temperature differentials; and, most importantly, partitions, making physical contact with as much of said area as possible is the most surefire way to radio back, “Primary complete, negative.” Personally, I would want to contact as much area as possible. Again, when tasked with this on an engine, there are a number of things that have to be in place before you can do so.

The line must be in a position to attack the fire before you can “peel off” for a search—i.e., stretching, flaking, donning, and so on. You also cannot start the primary search on an unconfirmed life hazard until this is done; this is the area you want to contact anyway. For your own protection as well as that of any potential victims, this line needs to be ready to go. Let’s look at a few ways you can contact the fire area and adjacent rooms without taking away from your job on the line.

At the entrance to the bedroom, living room, kitchen, and so on, the officer or backup member must make visual or physical contact with the area on both sides of the door—quickly. Without a tool, and not wanting to turn attention from guiding the nozzleman, the officer can thrust his foot back toward the wall behind the door. Contact with anything less than something solid can merit further investigation. Better still, the backup man, pushing the line in and “shouldering in” to the nozzleman, can get a quick peek back at the door/entranceway as he assists. For this reason, it’s a good idea for the backup man to be perpendicular to the line instead of just directly in line.

Expected Obstructions

Furniture. The officer can operate free from the line to check in and around furniture quickly. However, if he is guiding suppression and trying to make it to the window, he can’t be distracted. Make sure your crew finishes the knockdown and starts pushing that atmosphere out the vent point. Do an “arm sweep” of the couches and chairs as you move past them and a “foot sweep” behind chairs while staying with your crew. Again, the backup man (if it’s not the officer) can accomplish the same tasks (in fact, he must) if you are alone. Don’t forget to sweep the area between a couch and a coffee table; people can slide off a couch when overcome. When making these sweeps, it is important not to disturb a lot of the furniture. Companies coming in will need them for orientation—and you may need them, too.

Windows. Generally, as you knock down the fire and move, windows are opened to ventilate and remove heat. Take a knee by the window and sweep the ground around it. If you have any type of visual, try to look back from the window and into the room. Note the exit or closest piece of furniture. Peoples’ instincts often betray them. For instance, if the couch is closer to the window than the room exit, a person awakening to a room fire may try for that window, even if it’s on the fifth floor with no fire escape. If a bed abuts a window, the victim may have gone for the window even though salvation lay at the door. By quickly noting where the furniture is in relation to the exit, you can make a quick guess as to where the potential victim may have bolted. When at a window, make that mental map as you look back at the fire area.

Beds. On the engine, searching a bedroom during the knockdown of a bedroom fire can be tricky. It is likely you do not have a tool to sweep underneath beds. You do not want to take away from the aggression of the push because, if someone is in there, removing the fire from the room is as important to saving their life as finding them.

Start by doing a foot sweep under the bed. Next, sweep the top with your left or right arm. Then, sweep underneath with the same foot. Is it a big bed? Do the same as you go to the other side. Search closets in the same manner. We are all taught not to enter closets for good reason. By keeping one hand in contact with the outer wall, you can sweep fully inside with your lower body and then slide back out.

Remember, this is a primary search in the fire area. During post-knockdown or when conditions are lifting, you can relax taking some of these precautions.

Partitions. If suppressing a fair amount of fire, look at the area around partitions in a similar manner. Physically contact any place someone may have taken refuge. As you push in that line, the officer or backup man should glance or foot sweep behind and around corners and bends.

A likely spot can be the base of the wall just off to the left or right of where fire is blowing out. People overcome by heat, smoke, or a drop in blood pressure can often make it to the point where their body says, “OK, it’s safe to shut down now.” In zero visibility, as you turn a corner to get into the heart of the fire, quickly sweep the base of that wall as you push in the line.

Much of what I have laid out here applies solely to the primary search of the fire area as you are pushing in that line. Taking a look and relying solely on the visual are often not enough. By sweeping, making educated guesses concerning exit paths, and staying with that line, you can cover a considerable amount of area.

Before you start to fog vent a window as you knock down, take a listen. I say this at this point in the article because it is the same point where the team has stopped moving, the fire has stopped roaring, and the windows have stopped breaking. Also, your radios are likely not blowing up with transmissions. Basically, it’s the one point at a fire with the highest likelihood of silence.

As conditions lift, listen for any movement or moaning before you start the rush of air out that window. Again, if the ladder crew is there in conjunction with the attack, all the better. If not, get after it, because there’s no excuse for not getting it done.

ALEXANDER DEGNAN is a 16-year member of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department (JCFD), where he is the captain of #618 Squad Co. 4, a position he has held since 2015. Prior to his captain’s position, he was a 10-year firefighter with the JCFD’s #1013 Squad Co. 4.

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