Large-Area Search: Lessons Found in a “Big Box”

LAST FALL, THE VIRGINIA BEACH (VA) Fire Department conducted a “Big Box” Company In-Service (CIS) exercise at an acquired anchor store in Lynnhaven Mall. The mall’s management company, General Growth Properties, Inc., cooperated with the fire department to provide access to a vacant Lord & Taylor store, which was planned for demolition. The property was being razed to make way for an expansion and reface of the mall (photo 1).

(1) This vacant Lord & Taylor mall store, scheduled for demolition, was used for the large-area search exercise. (Photos by author.)

Finding a suitable location for large-area search and rescue training had been difficult, and at one point the department considered renting space for such an exercise. Fortunately, space became available at Lynnhaven. The mall’s first-due company, Company 3, has a positive working relationship with mall security and mall management, and they were asked to allow the fire department access to the building for haz mat and company-led evolutions. The department’s fire training division recognized the benefits of conducting live practical training evolutions in a commercial building, and an agreement was reached with the mall for access, with limited restrictions, to the 134,000-square-foot anchor store (photo 2).

(2) Exercise restrictions inside the Big Box store included no steady water flow from handlines, no production of smoke (live or machine-generated), and no exterior wall breaching or roof cutting.

A work group was established to formulate and deliver the CIS. Over several months the work group met, gathered data, and developed practical scenarios at the property. While developing scenarios, it had to ensure the delivery met the guidelines and preferences of mall management and mall security. Restrictions included no steady water flow from handlines inside the structure, no production of smoke (live or smoke-machine generated), and no exterior wall breaching or roof cutting.


The work group designed the CIS to exercise and measure incident command, air management (individual and company), Mayday procedures, rapid intervention, company officer decision-making processes, communication techniques, crew accountability, searching by following attack lines, and the removal of downed firefighters (photo 3).

(3) The work group developed an incident action plan that was consistent with the initial strategy. (Photos by Maynard Scales.)

This in-service training also was designed to emulate drills conducted by the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department after the loss of Firefighter Bret Tarver at a commercial fire in a supermarket. Phoenix Deputy Chief Todd Harms provided guidance and direction during the development phase of the company in-service. 1

The work group developed the following objectives:

Strategic Objectives

  • Ensure strong command presence.
  • Develop an initial strategy and ensure the incident action plan is consistent with the strategy.
  • Escalate the incident as conditions dictate.
  • Ensure overall incident safety.
  • Forecast needs: early deployment of staged resources.
  • Ensure appropriate response to Mayday.

Tactical Objectives

  • Create and implement an action plan for each operating group/division/branch.
  • Communicate the plan to operating companies (entry and exit plan).
  • Establish and maintain communications with operating companies.
  • Respond to situation, location, intent, PAR, and air supply reports by disoriented firefighters.
  • Manage accountability and work cycles.
  • Ensure adequate resources are available to complete the incident action plan.
  • Ensure appropriate response to a Mayday (develop search and rescue plans, and ensure all staged resources are assigned).

Task Objectives

  • Companies must perform search and rescue.
  • Companies and officers must maintain crew accountability.
  • Management of air supply (photo 4).
  • Provide quality progress reports.
  • Complete tactical priorities (search and rescue).
  • Respond to a Mayday event.
  • Use audible search techniques.
  • Use of search rope/tag lines as needed.
  • Maintain effective crew communications.



(4) The exercise assessed management of air supply, including air supply reports by disoriented firefighters.

For two months, the Virginia Beach Fire Department committed all resources and personnel to this in-service training exercise. Each session took four hours, with the schedule consisting of the following three 20-minute practical stations on SCBA re-familiarization, RIT/drag bag, and search rope/tag line procedures (photo 5). Then all companies participated in battalion-led evolution scenarios requiring following handlines, searching, air management, tag/search lines, RIT, responding to a Mayday, and removing downed firefighters.

(5) Three 20-minute practice stations, such as the one pictured here, were set up to focus on SCBA refamiliarization, RIT/drag bag, and search rope/tag line procedures. (Photo by Maynard Scales.)

The work group became the “instructors” for the duration of the two months of evolutions. This provided consistency in the delivery and in gathering data and information. The data collected were be evaluated and used to recommend changes to existing procedures.

The items needed for delivery included a commercial “Big Box” building; adult manikins dressed in turnout gear and SCBA; 1,000 feet of hoseline (three-, 2 1/2, 1 3/4-inch with appliances and nozzles); air fill station(s); attack pumper; communications (portable radios); and props to simulate collapses and entanglement. Two “downed firefighters” (manikins) were placed off hoselines, and one “wandering/disoriented” firefighter was roaming the interior. A scenario script was followed to provide for accurate and consistent communications between the instructors and the companies involved in the rescue. All handlines were charged and the second floor of the anchor store was considered immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). Anyone who was on the second floor wore full personal protective equipment, including SCBA.

All lights were secured, and everyone except the company office placed wax paper in their face pieces to obscure vision (photo 6). The company officer could use his thermal imaging camera, and heat signatures were placed throughout the structure to lead the companies. No participants used handlights, and predefined smoke and heat conditions made all participants crawl while on the second floor.

(6) All participants in the exercise, except the company officer, placed wax paper in their face pieces to obscure their vision. (Photo by Maynard Scales.)

Five companies (three engines, a ladder, and a squad) and two or more command officers participated during each scenario. This provided approximately 24 participants for each session. To avoid confusion, the five companies involved in the CIS only rescued the downed firefighters and did not participate in any firefighting evolutions. All handlines were prestretched and in place off an attack engine. To add realism, the work group developed a script that built a fictitious fire in the store while fictitious companies acted out the first-alarm assignment.

The companies participating in the in-service listened and were activated as part of the second-alarm assignment. They were activated to rescue three downed firefighters who issued “Maydays” on the tactical channel. This was an important part of the CIS. Many members have never heard a Mayday issued, and this opportunity to hear and react was invaluable. The command officers were in charge of the rescues and were integrated into the ICS organization as a “rescue branch” or “rescue group.” They managed the five companies and the rescue of the downed firefighters.


This CIS had 442 participants, including the TRFA 109 recruit academy. The instructors collected data, including time to locate the downed firefighters and time on air for each company. Benchmarks were recorded and collected, including additional Maydays issued by companies rescuing the downed firefighters and the time the downed firefighters were located and placed on air.

The average company was on air for 19.6 minutes (Figure 1). It took an average of 31 minutes to locate a downed firefighter, 34 minutes to place a downed firefighter on air, and 48 minutes to remove the first firefighter. There were three “Maydays” issued by participating companies in the evolution. These Maydays were issued by companies who ran out of air while performing rescues or locating the downed firefighters. They provided an excellent learning point to the participants.



Communications. Communications, at times, were difficult between command and other members in the company. Overall radio discipline was identified as a necessity, but technological solutions are available to enhance the communication process as well. The work group recommended investigating in-mask communications and speaking amplifiers. Response of an enclosed command unit is recommended because communications can be obscured by outside noise (jet aircraft), making it difficult for the command officers to hear the companies or critical transmissions.

RIT drag bags. The work group recommends standardizing all RIT drag bags. All ladder and squad companies in the Virginia Beach Fire Department have RIT drag bags (photo 7) assigned, but they often are customized to the needs of each station. All members in the department are expected to use these bags, and the bags may be shared or handed over during rescues. Standardization will allow for a more predictable outcome through ease of use.

(7) One of the recommendations of the work group was that drag bags, such as the unit pictured above, be standardized to allow for a more predictable outcome and ease of use. (Photos by Maynard Scales.)

Placing a face piece on a downed firefighter is difficult, so removing the nose cup from the face pieces will ease that task. Finally, having some type of identification on the firefighter other than his helmet unit designation sticker is desired. Once the helmet is removed, lost, or damaged by fire, rescue crews cannot define whom they are rescuing. During the scenario, three firefighters were “lost.” Command and the interior rescue crews had a difficult time identifying whom they had found or rescued.

It is important to distinguish which compartment contains the RIT drag bag. By placing a sticker or other distinguishing marking on these compartments, anyone on the fireground can find the RIT drag bag and other rescue tools on the ladders and squads.

Air supply/NFPA 1404.2 Many departments use 1,200-liter, 4,500-psi air cylinders, which provide approximately 30 minutes of air. Based on NFPA 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, crews must know work times and define when it is acceptable to use emergency air. Because of the limitations of the 1,200-liter air cylinders, departments are choosing 1,800-liter or 2,400-liter (45- or 60-minute units, respectively) air cylinders for increased work time. Data from this CIS indicate the average company was on air for 19.6 minutes, with many using emergency air to reach that number. A fire involving a 134,000-square-foot-structure cannot be searched and attacked in the same way as an incident involving a single-family, 1,800-square-foot structure. “Big fire, big water” is what we are repeatedly told at the fire academy, so we must expand this to “big fire, a lot of air” if we expect crews to be successful in a big-box interior fire operation.

Command structure. The work group recommends looking at our policies and procedures to define terminology and processes in the established RIT manual. Developing a RIT tactical worksheet and exercising updated procedures on the worksheet at future training and in-services are recommended. Looking into the possibility of having a line-of-site channel always on at the command vehicle is recommended to overcome the difficulty of communicating in a large commercial structure (photo 8). If a firefighter cannot reach the repeater on the assigned tactical channel, turning the portable to the line-of-sight channel will enable the command officer to hear the transmission.

(8) Because communications are difficult in a large commercial structure, a line-of-sight channel should be switched on in the command vehicle throughout the operation.

Future training. Develop and implement future company in-service and battalion-led training, self-survival and individual emergency procedures, air management procedures, and Mayday and RIT scenarios. Encourage company officers and operations battalion chiefs to continue to perform company and multicompany training on air management and survivability.

Mayday/survivability. Reevaluate the need for search ropes, and recommend the use of tag lines (photo 9). Search ropes were cumbersome and entangled the crews in this exercise. With the use of thermal imaging cameras and sound-search techniques, tag lines can assist firefighters who move off walls and hoselines. The work group recommends that every firefighter carry 40 feet of cordage (7-8 mm) with a spring-loaded carabiner to use as a tag line. The tag line will provide confidence and security to make a rescue.

(9) Search ropes can be cumbersome and entangle the crews, so the application of tag lines was demonstrated. (Photo by Maynard Scales.)



1. Harms, Todd, Deputy Chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, “Sector Management On-Deck Resources and Response to a Mayday Event,” May 2006, and “Operations Training Block #3,” June 2006, Phoenix Fire Department training documents.

2. Gagliano, Mike, Seattle (WA) Fire Department at

MICHAEL J. BARAKEY is a battalion chief and chief of training with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department. He is a Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VA-TF2 Urban Search and Rescue) haz-mat specialist, Virginia fire instructor III, and national registered EMT-paramedic. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Old Dominion University.

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