Employing Oriented Search

BY STEVE SHUPERT

Oriented search does not work for every situation. It does not solve all our search problems any more than compressed air foam systems have solved our fire control problems. But it is a good technique that firefighters need to know as well as how, when, and where to apply it.

From our department’s experience, we have found it works best in hallways with two or more bedrooms or in a hallway with several small apartments on each side of the hall. We have many buildings like this in our jurisdiction. By training on this technique, we can now complete a primary search of an entry area, a hallway, and four rooms in less than five minutes. This gets us in and out of the immediately dangerous to life and health area faster and makes us available for reassignment to another task as needed.

Essentially, in an oriented search, you provide a level of supervision and accountability inside the burning building. This supervisor or search officer needs to maintain crew accountability, watch for deteriorating conditions, and listen and maintain awareness of fire control efforts. Furthermore, this officer must organize the search to maximize the potential for making a rescue. This is an alternate system to using the walls of a room to help the searching firefighter maintain orientation. Instead, the search team leader, through voice and visual contact [or, in low visibility, using a thermal imaging camera (TIC)], keeps the search team members from getting lost. If you do not have a TIC available, use a powerful flashlight to shine light under and through smoke to mark the entry path of rooms.

Oriented search works best with at least three firefighters to work this assignment. One is the search crew leader; the others perform the physical search. If using only two firefighters, they can rotate positions in the hallway, as long as one firefighter watches the hall and everyone keeps track of rooms that need to be searched. We have also blended this with TIC-led techniques and rope, if used in commercial or other large buildings where the crew may be working far from an exit.

The oriented firefighter or search team leader stays in a position to count doors and keep track of search progress and searchers. The searchers count walls as they sweep individual rooms to help them keep track of their position. If the interior rooms are large enough, put both searchers in the same room, one on the right-hand wall, the other on the left-hand wall; this will take more communication and make the wall count more important. We have found that for larger rooms/areas, this technique may not allow for rapid search.

Preplan the apartment complexes and houses to which you would apply this system. If there is any doubt about the ability of a single firefighter to search a room alone, the search team leader must reconsider the feasibility of using this tactic. Similarly, the searching firefighter must report back to the search crew leader and inform him of the larger room. An assessment of the survivable conditions for this larger space must be prioritized in the larger strategy of the fire attack. Additional resources may need to be assigned.

Another twist to applying this technique is to start the search at the dead end of the hallway (in a long apartment hallway with multiple units) and work back toward the exit to keep crew members from retracing their path when they complete room/apartment searches.

You can also employ this technique with a rope or a hose to help members maintain orientation. The rope or hose would stay with the oriented firefighter. Searchers would just know the rope/hose was in the hall, or they could attach a length of rope to the rope/hose in the hall and then enter their assigned area.

Figure 1 represents an oriented search in its most basic form. This is the best application for this technique. The search crew leader monitors radio traffic, knows the location of searchers, knows where they need to search next, and watches smoke and fire conditions in the hallway.

Figure 1. Oriented Search

After working this technique, one of the things we learned was that firefighters felt they could work more effectively at searching because they knew someone “had their back.” Each firefighter also liked getting his own room to search. Each individual felt empowered because he knew that it was up to him and no one else to find someone in his area. This technique also led to more aggressive searches because the crew members felt that they were getting searches done fast enough to have a shot at saving someone.

If you organized an oriented search using a four-person crew, you would be able to cover more rooms more quickly. We have never drilled using more than four members because our staffing seldom allows us to have a larger crew. Clearly, supervising more than three searchers places additional responsibility on the search team leader.

If you have only one TIC, assign this tool to the search team leader. The leader should pass the TIC to the searching firefighter at the entrance of the room or area to be searched. Before entering, the searcher scans the room with the TIC to determine the room’s size; layout; and specific details such as closets, windows, and bunk beds. The searcher then hands the TIC back to the crew leader or to the next searcher, who scans his assigned room in the same manner.

If you do not have a TIC or if it is out of service, you can still apply this technique. You simply assign the searchers to their room without the benefit of the TIC scan prior to entry. Some of you may be skeptical (I know I was), but give it a try. This is not theory—we have performed this in the field, and the search assignment was executed more quickly and safely than ever before.

Use your leg to sweep under beds to quickly and more fully clear this area. Keep in mind that we search with our hands; I do not recommend swinging a heavy forcible entry tool along the floor to try to find a human, since it may cause additional injury to any victims found. This technique will also often slow the search, because when you do contact an object, you take your hand from the tool and feel the object. If it is a cushion or a table leg, you’ll need to refind your tool and resume the search. Hand tools for the search team can be held by the search team leader or placed in the entry door of the area being searched to indicate that a firefighter is in the room working.

Oriented search offers some great advantages in saving time, which translates into saving lives. The oriented person position enhances the safety of all interior operations.

STEVE SHUPERT is a lieutenant and a 20-year veteran of Miami Township Fire Department in Montgomery County, Ohio, assigned to the second platoon, Engine/Rescue Company 48. He is a member of the Ohio urban search and rescue team, Ohio Task Force 1 (OH-TF1) and serves on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security USAR Rescue Working Group.

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