BY JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN
Search has always fascinated me. As a recruit, I listened to my drill officers explain a few basics. Later, as a young firefighter, I would follow as the officer and other crew members assigned search crawled into buildings. Search patterns were present but somewhat disjointed. The thought that comes to mind is “bulls in a china shop.” However, we found victims.
The officer assigned to search must determine within a few seconds where to start as well as where not to start a search. (Photos by author.)
Bob Pressler, in his keynote address at the FDIC 1999 General Sessions, discussed training needs across the United States. One of his thoughts caught my attention-to paraphrase: “Most departments don’t even have, let alone train on, a specific method of searching residential structure fires.”
He was right. I meet fire service members from all across the country and am constantly amazed at how departments search. Some say they use team search and then discuss going in with teams of two and never discuss using a rope. Others discuss using team search, but when I ask them exactly how they search using the rope, they fail to mention sweeping the center of a room or discuss searching only around the perimeter.
Before I go any further, let me pose a few scenarios and questions to you:
- You arrive at a garden apartment fire. There are 12 apartments in one section, and heavy smoke is on all three floors. There is no visible fire, just smoke. You are responsible for searching this apartment building. Your three-person crew (not including you) will be able to search all 12 apartments in this complex in ____ (fill in the blank) minutes. Another way of stating this is, How many crews will it take to search all 12 units of a garden apartment with the expectation that you will pull viable victims from the building?
- You approach a single-family ranch house at 3 a.m. and are assigned search. You know that victims should be sleeping. Can you “read the house for search” to determine where the bedrooms are?
- You are dispatched to a working fire in a grocery store in a poorer section of the city. The first crew on the scene reports heavy smoke showing; a few seconds later, there are reports that people are trapped inside. Your assignment is search. When you arrive, you see that the fire is on the west side of the building (or in quadrant 1). Where would you begin your search, and how would you search the store to ensure that the best chance for survival is accorded to the most people?
- You and three other firefighters are assigned to search the second floor of a wood-frame, three-story nightclub and dance hall. Another crew is assigned to search division 3. The fire is on the first floor in the kitchen and dining area. There are reports of heavy smoke conditions in divisions 2 and 3. It is approximately 8 p.m., and one of the workers says that 20 or so patrons were present and about 15 workers were working at the time the fire broke out. The building has no fire protection.
As your crew enters the first few feet inside the second floor, you locate a victim. A few minutes later, another victim is located, and then another. Your crew takes the victims down and out of the building. With almost zero visibility, can you determine which areas were and were not searched? If additional searchers report to you, how can you avoid duplicating effort and missing areas? Where will you tell these searchers to start their search?
Can you “read this ranch house for search” and determine where the sleeping areas are?
The answers to the above four questions should be as basic for a firefighter as the answer to, What should your pump pressure be on a 150-foot preconnected 13/4-inch line with a 100-psi automatic nozzle? or, How many rungs above a roofline do you raise a ground ladder? or, At what pressure does the low-air alarm sound on your SCBA? All basic stuff.
Most rookie firefighters can answer the above questions, yet the fire service seems to be lacking in basic search skills. We use hit-and-miss tactics for search, attempting to do too much with far too little. We search along walls and fail to hit the center of a room; we search in areas where no victims could be found alive while ignoring areas containing savable victims, stumbling on the victims after it’s too late.
The following is what I believe search should entail and how it can best be accomplished while providing optimum safety for the searcher and giving the victim the best possible chance of survival.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE SEARCH OFFICER
Regardless of the type of search, the officer in charge is responsible for certain things. Chief Tom Brennan stated at a presentation at FDIC 1998 (and again I paraphrase): “The officer is the last person whose hands should be on the nozzle.”
Note the window in the middle of side D. Windows in this location generally indicate the presence of the interior stairs.
The search officer is the last person who should be sweeping floors or under a bed. It all has to do with “focus.” The search officer should be focusing on the search-not just a part of a search in a part of a room, but the whole search.
As the officer approaches the building (normally a single-family home), he should be reading the building for search (see below). As he takes crews inside to the first area to be searched, he assigns the areas to be searched. As crew members search, the officer should monitor the radio for communications that will help in the search. The officer should also monitor the area in which the search is being conducted. After one member completes his search, the officer should already have in mind the area that should be searched next. If additional crews are sent to search, the officer should be in a location where he can be found and is able to direct the new crew to the area that needs to be searched. The officer can’t do this (or will have a difficult time doing it) if he’s in a bedroom sweeping under beds and in closets.
The search officer’s responsibilities are the following:
- Ensure the safety of his crew. In Toledo, the search team does not take in a hoseline, except when searching in large commercial occupancies. If a crew is sent inside a burning house without a hoseline, the officer must be focused on changing fire conditions. While the crew searches (generally, in a second-floor hallway, on the first floor around the stairwell island, or along the main partition wall), the officer should constantly be monitoring fire conditions. He should be monitoring the radio for communications relating to the fire’s progress, the location of the backup line, and other vital issues. Crews can search with much more confidence knowing that their officer is watching out for them.
- Ensure that the building is searched in a logical sequence. Plans need to be made (by reading the building for search) and be reevaluated and revised as crews search and provide information.
- Keep Command informed. Command must receive an up-to-date accounting of where the search team is (remember, the crew is in there without a hoseline) and what conditions are like where the search is being conducted. Command needs to know when victims are located, their apparent status, and where they are being taken so that the victims can receive proper medical care as soon as possible.
The officer needs to do many other things, but if he concentrates on these responsibilities, the rest seems to fall into place.
There are two basic search strategies: primary and secondary. Each has its place.
A primary search is a rapid, systematic search aimed at locating savable victims. We can’t always save them all. There are times when we know when we pull up to the building that anyone inside is dead.1 Primary searches should be conducted only in buildings (or areas) where someone could still be alive.
There is a logical place to start and stop primary searches. There is also a time frame beyond which a primary search should not be continued because anyone inside is dead and should remain in place until after the fire investigation is completed.
A secondary search is a slow, methodical search to locate dead victims. If possible, the crew that participated in the primary search should not perform the secondary search. These firefighters may not be emotionally prepared to look for dead victims.
There are times when fire involvement makes is possible to do a primary search only in part of the structure. Sometimes, a primary search is not completed because fire conditions have changed or survival time frames have elapsed.
READING A BUILDING FOR SEARCH
One thing I keep trying to reinforce with my officers is to “think as you approach.” If you’re assigned as the attack officer, while crew members are pulling lines, you should be determining the best avenue for taking in the hoseline-the front door, a side door, or a window. The objective is to get a line between the fire and any victims who may be present as quickly as possible-in other words, position the line in a place that keeps the fire to the smallest area possible.
The search officer also should think as he approaches, employing a process I call “reading the building for search.” In essence, the officer should be looking for the following:
- Where savable victims are most likely to be. This is the focal point, the first thing the officer must consider. This will be discussed in length later; but, in general, it makes no sense to search a room in flashover on arrival. You may pull out a victim, but in what condition? Direct your efforts at pulling out viable (or marginal) victims only. The cold hard truth is that any victim in a room involved in flashover is dead. The location and intensity of fire and smoke and the time the fire has been burning are the key indicators of where search should or should not begin.
- The most appropriate way into the structure. As a general rule, the search crew should take the same route into a building as the attack crew. (Follow the line in!) This gives you two advantages: It gets a line between the fire and the search crew, and it allows the search crew to get close to the fire, where savable victims could be. This will be the starting point of the search, the area that contains savable victims in the greatest danger. If the fire occurs at 2 a.m. and it appears to be on the first floor, the search crews still should follow the attack line in. This usually provides the safest route into the structure. Scoot in behind the attack crew, find the stairs, and head up to where the victims should be.
- Locate the stairs in a two-story home (or building). This is not as easy as it sounds. Although some general rules apply, they still have exceptions. When on an EMS run, pay attention to the layouts of the homes in your area. When on an EMS run, as you approach the house, try to see if you or your crew members can tell where the stairs are. Knowing where the stairs are before you enter the house saves valuable minutes.
In most older single-family, two-story homes, the stairs are either on an exterior wall or in the center of the home, straight in from the front door. Most of the homes that have stairs on exterior walls will have a small window in the stair landing. This window is normally smaller and at times appears to be in between floors (see photo 3). In older homes, where these windows are not pres-ent, the stairs generally are in the center of the building, straight ahead of the front door.
Note: In some homes, there are small windows midway up on side exterior walls, but instead of running parallel with the exterior side wall, the stairway is perpendicular to it. These stairs, which usually are very steep, are incorporated into a partition wall. If you crawl in the house and work toward the wall with the small “mid-window” and do not immediately find the stairs, keep working the interior wall on the side of the house displaying the landing window, and you will hit a wall that will lead you to the stairway.
- In a one-story home, determine which is the sleeping area and which is the living area. At a 2 a.m. fire, search the sleeping areas first (if savable lives are in that area of the house). At a 2 p.m. fire, search the living areas first (again, if savable people are in that area).
In this ranch house, the garage is on the right, the sleeping area is on the left, the kitchen is next to the garage, and the living room is at the large picture window.
In ranch houses, the front door is generally near the center of the front of the house and the sleeping area is on the side of the front door that has the smaller windows along the front of the house. The living area will generally have the larger picture window to one side of the front door. In a ranch house with an attached garage, the sleeping area is almost always on the other side of the house as the garage or the side opposite the garage.
In newer houses with attached garages, the kitchen area is generally on the side that has the attached garage; the dining room is generally in the front of that side of the house; the kitchen is normally behind the dining room; and the living room is generally on the side opposite the attached garage. The stairway will normally be directly ahead of the front door or on the side wall opposite the garage side of the house.
- Business establishments are harder to read. Preplanning is essential. Know your buildings. Normally, the shopping or display areas are in the front of the building; the stock rooms are on the side or in the rear.
Learning to read a building for search will cut valuable seconds off the search process, giving the victim the best chance for survival. Develop your plan of search as you approach the building.
WHERE TO SEARCH FIRST
This section may bore some and may create a significant ego-altering event for others. In the many chapters written on search, the obvious is always mentioned when discussing where to search: time of day, occupancy type, and the location and extent of fire on arrival. But after the obvious has been said, where do you search first?
After reading the building and locating key landmarks such as sleeping and living areas and stairways to these areas (if applicable), you need to determine a starting point. The first place you hit as you enter a building may not be the most appropriate location in which to spend the first precious moments of search time.
Let’s look at the following scenario.
Where would you search first in this fire?
The fire occurs in a two-story Victorian home in a small city. The time of day is 1330 hours. Fire is blowing out of division 2 on side B. (If you quadrant the interior, the fire is in division 2, quadrant 2.)
Toys are on the front lawn. There is an air-conditioner in a second-floor window. Other than the toys, what would be another clue that the building is occupied (as opposed to vacant)? The air-conditioner in the second-floor window. Where I come from, if the house were vacant, the air-conditioner probably would have been stolen the first night the occupants left. No one is out front when you arrive. Where would you search first?
The answer is given later in this article so you are not tempted to just read on and not think about it. Get up out of the lounge chair, take this into the kitchen, and ask your colleagues, “Where would you search first?”
The rule of thumb for starting a search is to start your search as close as possible to the fire, where savable victims could be, and then work back (and up) until the area is no longer immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). People in the closest proximity to the fire are in the most danger.
As said earlier, the time of day is an important consideration. Search bedrooms first at night and living areas first during the daytime, heat and smoke conditions permitting. If the fire involves the first floor of a two-story home and the time of the fire is 2 a.m., start the search on the second floor. Conversely, if the fire occurs on the second floor at 2 p.m., begin the search on the first floor.
So let’s look at the scenario again. As a rule, because it is a daytime fire in a residence, you would start in the living areas. However, when you enter the front door at this fire, you see hardly any evidence of a fire on the first floor. You can see totally across the first floor. You yell and get no response. You see the stairs. The initial attack line is going up to division 2. That’s where to start the search. That is where people will be in the most danger.
As you ascend the stairs, the smoke and heat begin to build. The hoseline disappears in the smoke. From what you saw as you approached the house, fire was blowing out from the left rear (quadrant 2) bedroom. There will certainly be no savable victims in that room (it is already in flashover, which occurs at temperatures between 7007F and 1,4007F). At the top of the stairs, you see that fire has also spread to the right rear (quadrant 3) room (the upstairs bathroom). Again, no savable victims in that room. Begin searching in the front two rooms, then move downstairs and do a quick walk-through of the first floor and basement. (I will discuss the attic later.) As for the two fire rooms, they will be partially searched by the attack crews as they advance the hoseline and, again, after knockdown while looking for hot spots during overhaul. It will be hit again with a secondary search after the area has been vented.
Let’s look at another scenario.
Where would you search first in this garden apartment fire?
You arrive at a working fire in a garden apartment. On arrival, one section is involved with fire on division 1 (which is approximately half belowgrade). Heavy fire is showing in the front two apartments in division 1. The conditions in the rear two apartments on division 1 are uncertain at this time. There is heavy smoke in division 2 and lighter smoke in division 3. Where would you begin your search?
You have two options. The first is to follow the attack line in through the door used by the attack crew. If the fire is in the front two apartments and access is available to the rear of the building, the line should go in through the rear doors. This is especially true if the hallway is involved. This will ensure the swiftest means of placing a line between savable victims and the fire. If the fire does not involve the hallway, the normal route for the first line would be the closest door to the building.
Fire in a four-story apartment building. How many firefighters would it take to search all eight of the apartments in the involved half of this building in 15 to 20 minutes?
After entry into the building, skip any heavily involved apartment (the attack crew will search it). Search the apartments with less involvement first-in this case, the apartments in quadrants 2 and 3.
After these two apartments have been searched, move up to division 2, and search the two apartments over the fire area and then the two rear apartments. Finally, move up to division 3, and complete the search.
Again, start at the area closest to the fire where savable victims may be; then work back (and up) to the area that is no longer IDLH.
HOW LONG SHOULD A PRIMARY SEARCH LAST?
There are extremes in almost everything. There are probably documented cases where firefighters have located and brought out civilians who had been in a heavy smoke condition for 30 minutes or more and who were revived and lived. On the other hand, weak individuals with preexisting conditions have perished within seconds of exposure to extreme smoke conditions. It would be nice to be able to conduct a primary search until the entire building has been covered. However, fire conditions, structural considerations, staffing, and other priorities may dictate that a limit be set on how long we consciously spend on a primary search.
The average human being can go only four to six minutes without a minimum of 15 percent oxygen before permanent brain damage and death. Heat will exacerbate the effect of smoke on a human. Smoke conditions are smoke conditions; there are always variables that will affect the amount of damage smoke will do to a human. Light smoke conditions will generally allow for longer exposure times. Heavy smoke with excellent thermal-balance conditions, where smoke hangs a foot or two off the floor, may do the same. Generally, however, heavy smoke conditions reduce survival time. In general, I allow 15 to 20 minutes (the time it takes to use up an SCBA bottle) for the primary search in a medium to heavy smoke condition. (Response time is not included.)
A search team with 30-minute bottles should enter and search until the completion of the search in the entire area where heavy smoke (IDLH) exists or until the bells on firefighters’ SCBAs go off and the team is forced to abandon the search to go out and change their bottles. For the normal experienced crew, that’s about 15 to 20 minutes maximum.
I can justify this time limitation medically and ethically. Victims who can self-exit will have done so. Those in a light smoke condition (or on upper floors or in areas remote from the fire) will still be viable when located during evacuation activities. (Evacuation activities are different from search activities. Evacuation activities are normally not done in IDLH conditions; in extreme circumstances, evacuation can be directed by firefighters or police officers without full SCBA.) Victims who cannot self-exit and who are exposed to heavy smoke conditions for 15 to 20 minutes most likely are dead.
Here’s how we teach it: As the search officer approaches the structure, he “reads the building” for search. This includes estimating (hopefully based on objective training and experience) how long it will take the crew to search the area where smoke conditions are IDLH to civilians.
Photo 7 shows a fire on the second floor of a four-story apartment building. As the officer approaches the building, he should estimate the size of the building and the size of the fire area. Then, the size of the area where no fire or smoke is present-in this case, the first floor and the entire right side of the building-is subtracted from the overall size of the building. He then subtracts the size of the area in which fire conditions indicate that no human could be alive-in this instance, the second floor in quadrants 1 and 4.
That leaves quadrants 2 and 3 on the second floor and the entire third and fourth floors. The officer now determines if his crew can search this entire area within the time span of their SCBA bottles. If so, they enter and start searching at the area closest to the fire where savable victims could be and then work out and up. If, however, the officer believes that the crew cannot cover the IDLH area in the 15- to 20-minute time frame, he asks Command for more help.
In photo 7, each floor contains two apartments (one on each side of the hall) that are approximately 1,200 square feet. The officer knows that no search is necessary on the first floor. There is no smoke there at this time. These apartments should be evacuated as soon as possible, leaving the top three floors to be searched.
The officer knows that one firefighter can cover about 1,000 square feet in five to seven minutes. Because of the apartments’ size and layout (long and narrow), the officer decides to use the entire crew and split the apartment so that each 1,200-square-foot apartment could be searched in approximately seven minutes. Now, do the math: The officer knows that his crew can search two floors in less than 15 to 20 minutes. Therefore, an additional crew will be needed if viable people are to be rescued from these three floors. In this case, his crew will search the second and top floors. The officer will have a second crew search the third floor. Two crews should be able to search the entire side of the apartment involved in fire in 15 to 20 minutes.
Let’s look at a garden apartment fire as an example. The fire is on the first floor (a subsurface floor). Heavy smoke conditions exist on the two upper floors. Each apartment is approximately 900 square feet. Four apartments are on each floor. Using the oriented search, one four-member crew (including the oriented firefighter) can search an entire floor in about 10 to 12 minutes. So, if all three floors are involved in IDLH smoke, three crews will be needed to search the entire apartment section to give any occupants inside the best chance for survival.
The point is, do not allow people to die. If you cannot get enough firefighters so that the search can be completed within 15 to 20 minutes, put out the fire, vent aggressively, and then search.
SEARCHING WITH A TOOL
Many tapes, training series, and articles discuss searching with the handle of an ax, a pike pole, a halligan, or some other tool. I have taught hundreds of firefighters how to search and watched them use a myriad of tools while searching. I have watched most of them hit “something” with the handle of the ax or pike pole. When they do so, they instinctively crawl over to the “thing” they hit, drop (or set down) the tool, and then use their hand to “feel” the item they hit. When they realize it was the leg of a chair, a stuffed animal, a large pillow on the floor of a family room, or another object, they fumble to find their tool, reposition it in their hand, and then resume their search.
When I see this, I ask the searcher to stop and drop the tool and to sweep with the hand and arm only. When you hit something, you are right there and can quickly feel for the form of the leg of a table or whatever (and when the adrenaline sinks back down) continue on with the search without having to look for the tool. Some tell me that they gain two or three feet by using the handle. True, but you will gain that reach with one more side step (or more correctly, side crawl). You make up the lost reach and gain valuable time.
I have watched searchers using an ax handle stop 10 or more times in a living room only to move close, drop the tool, feel the item, realize it’s not a person, feel for their tool again, reposition the tool in their hand, and then move back to where they were when they “hit” the object. It’s so much faster to simply use your arm and hand and then move on. Drill on this with your crew. Watch the results.
Some may not feel safe without a tool. Let the oriented man have the tool. Let him carry an ax and a halligan. He’s not searching; he is relatively stationary. If you get in trouble, yell your head off. He’ll come and help you. His primary reason for being there is the safety of the searchers.
Some departments advocate a firefighter’s sweeping an entire family room or living room with a pike pole while lying inside the entranceway. Go home and look at your family room or living room. If you have children, the pike pole will have many objects to hit. Does the searcher stop, crawl up, and feel each stuffed animal, toy, and rocking horse? What happens if you hit the coffee table in front of the couch? Who will sweep the top of the sofa?
I don’t think this is the way you would want someone to look for you and your kids on your day off. Drop the tools, and let the officer (the oriented man) carry them. Then sweep with your arms to give the victims the best benefit of the search.
SEARCH AND RESCUE: SEPARATE AND DISTINCT ACTIONS
Often, search and rescue are discussed as if they comprised a single operation. They are really two separate and distinct actions. Search is the act of locating inside a structure victims who are not able to self-exit. Rescue is the removal of a victim who cannot self-exit. And, if you’re doing one, you can’t be doing the other! This is evident from the following.
A fire occurs in an apartment building in an older part of the city. There is no built-in fire protection, and construction deficiencies allow for the rapid spread of fire and smoke. A four-firefighter crew is assigned search. The officer and three firefighters enter on division 1 and begin their search. They have been here many times for EMS runs and know that at any given time about 10 to 20 people occupy the 10 apartments in this building.
One-half the crew enter the apartment on the left; the other half enter the apartment on the right. After searching two rooms, the team on the left locates an adult male. The victim is rather large; it will take both firefighters to drag him out.
At about the same time, the crew in the apartment on the right locates a juvenile. One member drags out the child, leaving one firefighter to search the remainder of the apartment. Seconds later, in the first bedroom of that same apartment, the last searcher locates a woman and drags her out.
Outside, the crew initiates CPR on the victims, as staged EMS personnel come up to assist in victim care.
You’re the incident commander. Where’s your search? It’s gone. Let’s say that the officer was able to inform Command that victims were located and are being brought out and another crew is called up and sent in to continue the search. Where does the crew start if it is to avoid searching the same area twice or missing areas that were not searched at all?
Search is search, and rescue is rescue. In the vast majority of our fires-single-family residential fires-a single crew can search for, locate, and remove (rescue) victims. Information gained from relatives and neighbors generally indicates how many victims we are looking for. Once they are located, the victims most times are rescued. But at apartment fires and fires in other occupancies, where the number of anticipated victims goes beyond the capabilities of a single crew (two or three adults and children), consider establishing a rescue group.
Rescue groups should be a minimum of two and can include dozens of members. In Toledo, we normally use a four-person company as a rescue group. The group should be stationed in stairways or outside the building. At a moment’s notice, they should be able to enter the structure, locate the officer assigned to search, receive a victim, and remove the victim to the exterior or to a safe haven below the fire, passing the victim off to EMS personnel. The searcher then can return to the exact location at which the victim was found and continue with the search. An area is never duplicated or missed.
For smaller departments, mutual-aid companies may be used as rescue groups. In extreme instances, such as multicasualty fires, police can be used, although the located victim may have to be taken farther out of the IDLH area, say down a flight of stairs.
This may sound like a lot. But ask yourself this question and answer it honestly: If your family members were involved in a fire in a large-area occupancy (not at home) and they were overcome by smoke, would you want the department to search as you currently do or would you like them to be more efficient as described above?
A firefighter who works in a medium-sized department told me while discussing this method of search that the method makes sense but his firefighters would never “give up” a victim to another firefighter to take out. That’s sad! You can determine who gets the kudos later.
SEARCHING WITH A HOSELINE1
The answer to whether a search team should take in a hoseline relates to the subject of “focus.” On what will the search crew members who have the hoseline be focusing? On the hoseline, not on searching. How many firefighters does it take to pull and drag a hoseline down the hallway or (whoops! hold on, the line is caught on something; a member has to go back and pull some more slack) through the living area of a ranch house? One? Two? Search capabilities will be down 25 to 50 percent for a four-person crew and 33 to 66 percent for a three-person crew.
By cutting your crew’s search capabilities, are you giving the civilian the best chance of survival? I do not believe that the search crew needs to take in a hoseline unless the search is in wide open areas in a commercial occupancy. For our bread-and-butter fires, search does not need a hoseline.
Why would a search team take a hoseline into a house? One reason is as a protection tool. But, if you are searching an area in the house in your bunker gear and SCBA and don’t feel comfortable because of fire and heat conditions, are there savable victims in that area? The answer is no. You’re probably looking in the wrong area if you’re looking for viable people here. Move to an area where you believe you can pull out victims who are still alive.
Experience tells you where savable victims could and could not be. If you start to search at a point closest to the fire where savable victims could be and then work back and up to where the area is no longer IDLH, you would not expect to find viable victims in those areas where hoselines are needed to protect crews.
Another factor to consider is the priority of Command’s assignments. Generally, most departments don’t have the staffing to do everything at once. The fire scene must be prioritized, and assignments must be based on those priorities and the availability of staffing. Normally, attack is the first assignment made. If attack is mounting a “correct” attack, the first consideration should be placing the hoseline. Get a line between any victims and the fire as quickly as possible. If the attack crew is in working the fire and its line has been taken in from the appropriate location, the search crew will have a line between it and the fire.
In Toledo, we always assign a backup line any time a line is taken into the building. This backup line has one function: to protect interior crews. If only an attack crew is inside and Command assigns a backup team, the backup team will “shadow” and protect the attack team. If, however, Command assigns a search group, then the backup team’s first priority is the safety of the search team, and the backup team should shadow the search team.
USING A THERMAL IMAGING CAMERA
Thermal imaging cameras are becoming more prevalent on the fireground and can be used to maximize search operations. Although common sense would dictate that a searcher use the camera, is this the best use for the device as far as the bigger picture is concerned?
If the searcher is wearing a helmet-mounted camera and locates a victim and removes the victim himself, then the camera would not be available until he returns or another member puts it on. If a searcher using a handheld camera locates a victim, the camera can be passed to another searcher for use.
Another consideration is the type of search being conducted. If it’s a standard search, one in which all crew members search a single area/room together, then anyone (including the officer) can wear (or hold) the camera.
Assume that you are a member of the search team and that your officer has a handheld thermal imaging camera. As he approaches the building, he reads it for search and enters through the front door. His objectives are to locate the stairs, move to the second floor, and search the second floor first.
As he moves in past the front door, he spots the stairs and directs his crew to move straight ahead toward the stairway. As all of his crew pass him and head up the stairs, he quickly scans the first floor. He is thinking: “When we come down to search the first floor, we’ll know that the front of the first floor is clear.” As they ascend the stairs, he counts his crew; he warns his crew that the landing turns to the right about 10 steps up. As his crew moves up into the second-floor hall, the officer assigns a firefighter to each room off the hall. As he pushes a firefighter into the room, he quickly scans the room for any victims in plain sight and scans the bed. He informs the searcher that it looks clear from where he is. The bed is on wall 2 and is clear. It still had not been slept in (the covers are not disturbed). He then pushes the next firefighter into the next room off the hall and scans the room quickly. He pushes the last firefighter into the next room and, as he opens the door, sees a victim in the bed. He tells the searcher to crawl straight in and that the bed, about four feet ahead, has a victim in it.
The officer radios Command to have paramedics at the door with a cot. The first searcher is out of his room and in the hall. The officer tells the first searcher to come up his left wall, past one door, to the room with the victim, whom he will help carry out.
After the victim is headed downstairs, the second searcher checks the last room on the floor, a bathroom. The “All clear-division 2; moving to division 1” benchmark is given to Command. The officer and the searcher move down to division 1. The remainder of the first floor and the basement are searched (mostly visually) with the camera, and the officer and searcher exit the building.
In this example, the officer has a certain set of responsibilities, as do the searchers. The camera, I believe, is more closely related to the officer’s duties than to those of the individual searcher.
SEARCHING THE ATTIC
When do you search an attic? That depends on how you can access the attic. The rule should be that you search only attics that have a permanent stairway in place. I have never found or heard of a victim being located in an attic that had a scuttle hole as its only access point. (I suppose that there could be a documented case where a victim was found in an attic where the only access was a scuttle hole; perhaps the victim was working in the attic at the time of the fire and had set a ladder into the scuttle.) The same applies for pull-down stairs. If the stairs are not down, then the chances are that no one was in the attic at the time of the fire.
Many older homes in the Toledo area have built-in stairs going to the attic. Most of these attics are floored; many have been converted into living spaces, especially areas near the university. These areas should be searched. The oriented man in the hall should locate all the doors off the hallway. If he locates a door leading to the stairs to the attic, that area should be searched. If the searchers get to the attic and find only boxes and other stored items, this area can be hit quickly, and the crew can then move down to the lower portions of the structure. If a bed or dresser or other object indicates that someone is occupying the attic, a full search is warranted.
SEARCHING FOR LIFE OR FIRE
Some larger departments send crews above the fire to simultaneously search for life and fire. As a crew moves in to search, especially above the fire, if fire or billowing smoke (fire ready to break out through a wall assembly or other area) is found, this information must be transmitted to Command. However, don’t confuse this act with overhaul. If you’re assigned to search, don’t open up anything except doors (no walls or soffet areas).
If you are searching for life, time is of the essence. Complete the search for life in the area assigned. If fire is observed anywhere, tell Command. After the building has been searched and after an affirmation from Command, go back and open up areas in which spread may be possible.
1This is discussed in detail in my book Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Fire Engineering, 1997.
JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN has been a member of the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue Operations for 25 years, where he is deputy chief of operations. He has been an instructor at Owens Community College for more than 13 years. Coleman is also a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy’s Command and Control of Fire Department Operations at Multialarm Incidents course. He is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997). He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is working toward his bachelor’s degree at the University of Cincinnati. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC advisory board.