Search and Rescue in Single Family Dwellings, Part 2

Search and Rescue in Single Family Dwellings, Part 2

No matter what the time of day, the bedroom search is a high priority. In conventional floor plans, bedrooms are typically reached by a hallway off the living room or a stairway at or near the front door. (The location of bedrooms in new or remodeled homes can be anyone`s guess.) (Photo by John Mielcarek, 911 Pictures.)


Part 1 was published in the August 1998 issue.

A view of the outside of a house can give you an idea of how it`s laid out on the inside. Developing the proper search plan for a house will depend heavily on knowing the structure`s size, age, and floor plan–particularly for searching its most critical areas, the bedrooms. With some notable exceptions, bedrooms tend to be grouped together, either at the opposite end of the house from the kitchen, utility room, and garage, or on the second floor (in a two-story house) and are reached by a hallway off the living room or a stairway at or near the front door. When bedrooms of average size are grouped together, it is often possible for two or three firefighters to search them rapidly and stay within voice contact [as mandated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations]. Remember, the sleeping area of most houses, two to four bedrooms, is not very large. And keep in mind that the reason occupants became trapped in the first place is that fire and smoke blocked the dead-end hallway or single open stairway leading to the sleeping areas. There`s only one way in and one way out. Firefighters can use this defect in design to their advantage. An officer can position himself with a powerful light at the beginning of the hallway leading to the bedrooms or at the top of the stairs and maintain voice contact with his members as they search, directing one to the left, one to the right. Firefighters, following the walls in and out of the bedrooms, have to return to their officer because, again, there`s only one way in and out of the bedrooms.

Of course, this plan may not work in large homes with several bedrooms because search team members may have to venture too far away from each other, and we know that bedrooms are not always grouped together. Cape Cods, for example, typically have a bedroom on the first floor in addition to the bedrooms on the second floor. The design of many new suburban homes makes them more difficult to search than older, conventional houses. Many new homes feature a wide-open floor plan with high vaulted ceilings. The kitchen, dining room, family room, and living room are essentially one big open area with very few dividing partitions. Additionally, the master bedroom in many new homes is separate from the rest of the bedrooms. It is either at the other end of the house or on another floor, and the stairway to reach the bedrooms isn`t always at or near the front door. Modern floor plans make it difficult to locate the bedrooms and for one crew to make a rapid search of all the sleeping areas. When confronted with a large, wide-open floor plan, consider calling for additional search teams and deploying search lines as a guide in and out of large areas. When bedrooms are not grouped together, it is often easier to locate and search them from the windows rather than from the interior.


The first-arriving engine company. Unlike a ladder company, an engine company first to arrive at a house fire doesn`t have many options pertaining to where to enter and what to do. With few exceptions, the most effective life-saving effort they can take is to advance a hoseline through the front door and attack the fire. This action accomplishes the following objectives:

–The fire is controlled and the production of heat, smoke, and toxic gases is stopped.

–Confining and controlling the fire make it much safer for search teams to pass or operate above the fire.

–Once water is on the fire, firefighters can vent more thoroughly and aggressively, with less fear of the additional supply of oxygen`s intensifying the fire.

–An engine company that advances its line through the front door stands a good chance of locating a victim attempting to exit. Don`t be surprised if you push open a front door and find that it opens only a couple of inches. It`s probably blocked by someone who passed out before he could use his keys to unlock the door.

–Once the line is in position and operating on the fire, engine company members can often begin a search for victims in the immediate area. Always keep a firefighter on the nozzle. He is your protection if the fire lights up again, and he becomes your anchorman. Don`t venture too far away from the nozzle. Rather, search along the hoseline that leads back to the nozzleman or out of the building. This plan works extremely well for a fire in sleeping areas, where engine company members can search the bedrooms and remain in close proximity to the hallway, hoseline, and each other.

–It will generally protect the interior stairs, placing the line between the fire and the trapped occupants.

Two exceptions to advancing the attack hoseline through the front door are (1) when a house is divided into separate occupancies and the fire cannot be reached via the front door and (2) when someone is trapped at a window by burglar bars and will burn to death without the immediate application of water through the window.

The ladder company. The term ladder company is used here for lack of a better name; many suburban and rural departments today don`t have a ladder company. I`m referring here to firefighters who are not directly engaged in advancing and operating hoselines. This often places them at greater risk than engine personnel because they may have to search and operate without the protection of a hoseline. “Never search without a charged hoseline,” you say. That`s fine if you have the personnel to advance hoselines and search. But realistically, it is almost impossible to drag a hoseline into every area to be searched. That`s why it is so important for that first-arriving engine to get water on the fire–to make it safer for firefighters who search without a hoseline. Firefighters operating without a hoseline must be continuously aware of fire conditions and their location in relation to the fire and their means of escape.

Twenty-five years ago when I became a firefighter outside of Chicago, we seldom used breathing apparatus. Looking back, this was foolish because we had SCBA, but “real firefighters” didn`t need them. As much as I would never advocate fighting fire without SCBA, we were actually safer in the old days in some respects: We were always acutely aware of where and how far we had to go to a door or window to get a breath of clean air or get out of the building. Our predecessors operating without masks knew the value of good ventilation and admittedly smashed a lot of glass so they could breath. But this also made conditions more tenable for trapped victims, who also were not equipped with SCBA.

We`ve gotten away from this with SCBA. Breathing in comfort, it has become too easy to operate in heavy smoke without adequately ventilating and to penetrate deep inside a structure without noting where to escape if something goes wrong. Awareness and ventilation are the keys to operating without a hoseline.

Option 1: Ladder Company

Begin to search immediately on entering the house. Choosing this option must be preceded with a decision of where to enter, which is determined by the size and location of the fire and the layout of the house. Here`s some examples of where this option works well:

Bedroom fire in the rear of one-story houses. The engine company attacks the fire and handles the search of the bedrooms. Later-arriving companies begin their search as they enter the front door, searching the living room, kitchen, and utility room.

Heavy fire in possession of the front of the house. This is the Christmas tree fire that turns the living room into an inferno. Searchers can`t enter the front door or pass through the living room until the engine company controls the fire. But, possibly, they can enter through a rear door and search the uninvolved areas. This plan is more appropriate for houses that are deeper than they are wide, but it is possible only if fog streams and PPV are not used in the front. Entering and searching the rear have the added advantage of being able to drag a victim out the back rather than through the fire area to the front door.

Option 2: Get to the bedrooms!

Because it is highly probable that occupants will be found in the bedrooms, bedrooms deserve a high priority for search. Search teams on their way to the bedrooms also stand an excellent chance of locating an unconscious victim at the front door, hallway, or stairway leading to the sleeping areas. In the following circumstances, an immediate search of the bedrooms can pay off:

Fire in the kitchen, utility room, or attached garage. The engine company advances its line through the front door and attacks the fire, thus protecting the bedrooms and, within its capabilities, begins a search of the fire area. Subsequent-arriving companies are directed immediately to the bedrooms.

Fire in the basement. The engine company takes its line to the top of the stairs leading to the basement and advances down to the fire or at least holds its position to check upward extension and protect search personnel. Search teams proceed directly to the bedrooms. Searching the bedrooms can be very productive in one- and two-story homes, but doing so places firefighters at risk because they may have to pass or go above the fire. It is critical, therefore, for the first-arriving engine company to rapidly attack the fire and protect the uninvolved areas. Further, search personnel must remain continuously aware of fire conditions and be informed immediately if efforts to control the fire become questionable.

Option 3: Enter and search through bedroom windows.

Recently, one of my department`s rescue squads was returning from its 20th medical call of the shift when it received a call for a house fire a couple of blocks away. Arriving within seconds, they found a one-story, ranch-style house with fire blowing out of every front window and frantic neighbors who told them that the homeowner was home and must be trapped inside. It was 4:30 a.m. The company knew that if anyone was still alive, he would have to be in a rear bedroom. But the company would have to operate alone for five to six minutes before help arrived and had no suppression capability to fight the fire and reach the bedrooms from the inside. The company officer took a calculated risk based on the high probability that lives were at stake. He proceeded with his company to the rear of the house and began feeling each bedroom window for heat, knowing that the room could “light up” when the glass was broken. His crew found a soot-stained but relatively cool window, broke it, and cleared out the aluminum frame. He then directed one of his firefighters to climb, head first, into the window and to close the bedroom door immediately on entering to isolate the room from the fire. The firefighter searched the bedroom and found an adult male lying between his bed and the wall. With great physical effort, he lifted the unconscious occupant out of the window.

The preceding scenario illustrates the advantages of entering and searching bedrooms through the windows:

–It is often easier to locate bedrooms from the outside instead of searching for them on the inside, particularly in new homes where bedrooms are not grouped together.

–Windows provide direct access to the bedrooms.

–Windows provide a means of escape within a few feet.

–Entering through a bedroom window allows you to bypass fire blocking the interior route to the sleeping areas.

–If a victim is located, he can often be removed through the window instead of having to be dragged through the inside of the house.

–It`s usually the only way to safely and effectively perform a rescue without the protection of a hoseline.


For window entry and search to be safe and effective, follow these guidelines:

Examine window glass before you break it. A glow or extremely hot glass is indicative of a room that will probably “light up” when it receives the additional supply of oxygen.

Clear out the frame to enlarge the window opening.

Before entry, probe with a tool for the integrity of the floor and the presence of a victim directly below the window.

On entering, immediately close the door to the bedroom to isolate it from the fire.

Search only the bedroom you entered from the window. Note conditions in the hallway at this time. Venturing out of the bedroom can get you into a dangerous maze and too far from your means of escape.

Entering and searching through the windows may be your first options when you know or if it is highly probable that someone is trapped in a bedroom, but it is not a substitute for an interior search because it doesn`t cover other areas of the house. Entering through the window and searching are excellent options to use in conjunction with an interior search, especially when fire conditions or the size and complexity of a house prevent interior search teams from rapidly reaching the bedrooms. n

(Top left) People are creatures of habit and will attempt to escape from fire by the means they normally use to exit their home. Unfortunately, some occupants become fire victims when their normal means of egress is blocked by fire, smoke, burglar bars, or double deadbolt locks. (Photo by Paul Blake.) (Top right) The officer take a position at the top of the stairs or in the hallway leading to the bedrooms and directs his firefighters to search the bedrooms–one to the left, one to the right. (Photo by George Izquierdo.) (Bottom right) When bedrooms of average size are grouped together, it is often possible for two or three firefighters to rapidly search them and remain in voice contact. (Photo by Michael Heller, 911 Pictures.)

The first attack hoseline should not be advanced through the front door when a victim is trapped by burglar bars and will burn to death without the immediate application of water through the window. (Photo by Chris Mickal, 911 Pictures.)

(Left) Windows provide direct access to the bedrooms and a means of escape within a few feet. Entering through the window usually is the only way to perform a rescue without the protection of a hoseline before the fire is under control. (Photo by author.) (Middle) Before entering, probe with a tool for the integrity of the floor and the presence of a victim directly below the window. (Photo by author.) (Right) On entering the bedroom, immediately close the door to isolate the bedroom from the fire. (Photo by Raul Torres.)

n BILL GUSTIN is a captain with the Miami-Dade County (FL) Fire Department and lead instructor in his department`s officer training program. He began his 25-year fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in the Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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