SEARCHING SMARTER, PART 2: THE ORIENTED SEARCH

BY JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN


How would you search at this fire to ensure that your crews will be safe and any victims would have the best chance for survival? (Photos by author.)

Three types of fire searches are commonly used in fire departments today: the standard search, the team search, and the oriented search.

Standard search. During the standard search, a searcher(s) goes to the left and another searcher(s) to the right; they meet somewhere in the middle of the room. After this first area is searched as a group, the team moves to the next room and does the same type of search.

A variation involves searching by a crew of three or more. One firefighter crawls along the wall, another grabs onto the first firefighter’s boot and crawls alongside the firefighter following the wall. A third, and even fourth, firefighter does the same. Crew members crawl along until they hit a wall, then they work down the second wall in a synchronized manner and continue on wall by wall.


In another variation of this type of search, two firefighters work one wall and two work the other until they meet somewhere in the middle.

Advantages: The team concept is maintained. The crews enter together and remain together. The team conforms with two-in/two-out. All members are searching.

Disadvantages: Safety is not the crew’s foremost concern. With all members searching, including the search officer, no one really is focused on the crew’s safety, fire conditions, and where they are in the building. Only one room gets searched at a time. No one is concentrating on egress.

Team search. In a team search, a rope is used as a guide while searching. The rope is anchored to a solid object in a safe area, usually outside the structure. The search team then plays out the search line as team members crawl into the structure. The rope may have knots spaced every three feet or so. The searchers search the area. Some departments tether searchers together with short rope or webbing while doing team searches. Other departments use longer lengths of webbing and search out perpendicular to the guide rope.


A search crew prepares to start a search in a garden apartment. The oriented man (away from the door on the right) will remain in the hall.

Advantages: Crews remain together. The team conforms with two-in/two-out. Since they are oriented on the rope, all members can search.

Disadvantages: Safety is not foremost with the crew or officer. The team is relying solely on the rope to find its way out. The rope can burn or be cut through, and the team may not know it until it’s too late.

Oriented search. During the oriented search, the focus is divided into two main areas. The oriented man concentrates on which area will be searched, which areas have already been searched, fire conditions, and how to get out in an emergency. The other firefighters in the crew focus solely on searching. This method is described in detail below.

Advantages: The crew’s safety is in focus at all times. Searchers are allowed to focus on finding victims, not on ropes. Searches are conducted faster. Several rooms are searched at the same time.

Disadvantages: It requires much concentration on the part of the oriented man.

THE ORIENTED SEARCH

To me, focus is the backbone of good firefighting and fireground and emergency management. Command is responsible for focusing on the entire incident and making logical assignments based on the “the picture” in front of him. Once given an assignment, as an officer, you are to focus on that assignment. If assigned Attack (or if assigned that responsibility by procedure), for example, you must focus on putting out all the fire in the structure (or area assigned). Do not focus on venting or overhaul. First and foremost, put out the fire.

As noted above, the oriented search divides focus into two areas: the safety and coordination of the search and the actual search. As the crew enters the building, the oriented man concentrates on reading the building for search1 and then taking the crew to the area to be searched. Once there, the oriented man literally pushes the searcher into the room to be searched. Then he locates the next area to be searched and pushes the next searcher into that room. As the searchers search, the oriented man maintains a position from which he can monitor the areas where the searchers are working. He watches out for their safety and changing fire conditions. He communicates with Command concerning the search, staffing requirements, and the fire.

As the oriented man watches over the searchers, the searchers are free to concentrate solely on the search. They can search the room as fast as possible, knowing that someone is in the hall, within voice contact (even with SCBA on), looking out for them.

You may ask, “Isn’t it a waste of a person not to have the oriented man on his hands and knees searching?” The answer is NO! Ask yourself, If I crawl into a room (even with other searchers), would I feel better knowing someone was in the hall looking out for fire coming down the hall or up the stairs? Wouldn’t I feel better knowing that someone was talking to me while I search?

If I could prove to you that searches are done faster and more efficiently and that search crews felt safer during the searches, would that relieve some of your concerns?

Tests were conducted during live-fire training using this search method while the crew wore blacked-out facepieces. The results showed that the searches were better and faster. Practice this method; see if it works for you.

A SIMULATED ORIENTED SEARCH

To perform a basic oriented search, there must be communication between the searchers and the oriented man, and the oriented man needs to know in which direction the crew member is searching. Let’s see how this type of search would work at a fire in a two-story, single-family home:

You’re the officer of a heavy squad in a large metropolitan city. Command assigns your four-person crew (three firefighters and yourself) as Search. You’re a block away and can see smoke rolling across the street. As you walk toward the house, you and the rest of the crew finish masking up and begin to read the building for search: It’s 3 a.m. Two-story frame. Stairway on side B. Car in the driveway; no toys on the lawn or porch.

You report to Command: “Search to Command, we are starting on Division 2.” Command acknowledges: “Command OK!”

As you hit the front door, the hose from Engine 3 goes to the right. The stairway is to the left. You yell to your crew “stairs to the left.” As you reach the top of the stairs, you move to the left and feel the first door. You take off your glove and “backhand” the door. It’s not too hot. You grab Joe, the first firefighter behind you, pull him to you, and tell him his room is the first to the left. As Joe goes in, he tells you, “Doing a right-handed search.”

You come to the next room off the hall. You feel the door for heat and grab Smitty, who is behind you. You tell him this is his room. Smitty opens the door, says “Doing right,” and disappears into the smoke. You hit the next door and feel for heat. It’s OK. You reach back for your last crew member, Tim, the rookie. You pull him toward you and say, “This one’s yours.” He feels for the door and tells you, “Going left.” You acknowledge and move back to the center of the hall.

You yell to Joe, “Joe, what wall you on?” Joe says, “Wall 3. Nothing yet!”

You call out, “Smitty, how you doing?” Smitty says, “Wall 2. I’m OK.”

As you begin to move across the narrow hall to talk to Tim, you hear him yell: “I got one. I got one. Still alive. Breathing. I’m bringing him out.”

You move over to the door where Tim was as he brings the victim to you. He tells you that he found the victim on the bed on wall 2.

Joe comes out of his room at that moment and asks if Tim needs help with the victim.

You tell Joe and Tim to take the victim down and radio Command to have an ambulance meet the searchers at the front door.

As Smitty comes out of his bedroom, you send him into the room where Tim located the victim. You tell him that Tim did a left-hand search and found the victim in the bed on Wall 2. Smitty enters the room and goes to the left. You know that Smitty will crawl along the wall to the left as fast as he can go because he knows Tim already covered that area up to the bed. Then Smitty will continue on, and there should be no duplication of effort.

As soon as Smitty enters the room, you find the last door, the bathroom, and quickly sweep the floor and the tub.

[Normally, the oriented man doesn’t search, but with two members gone, the seconds (literally) it takes to search a bathroom are acceptable. Conditions are not “that” bad, and he will be in the bathroom about as long as it would have taken to check on another searcher, had there been one there. This is what an experienced officer brings to the plate: Sweep the floor, hit the tub once, and then back out into the hall and ask Smitty “How’s it going?”]

When Smitty comes out, you head down to the first floor. Command has assigned another crew to search the first floor. You and Smitty leave the house.


When searching the second floor of a single-family residential structure, the oriented man remains in the hallway. When searching the first floor of a two-story, single-family residential home, the task becomes tougher. The oriented man will maintain a position at or near the interior island or perpendicular wall. Most homes that have a stairway on an exterior wall will have a wall perpendicular to that wall that will follow the floor plan of the home (see Figure 1).

In homes in which the stairway is straight ahead of the door, the stairway will form an island. Moving around the island will provide access to the first floor. The oriented man will position himself on the perpendicular wall or on the island and have his searchers work individual areas of the first floor such as the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

When searching a ranch house, the oriented man will concentrate on the sleeping area (which is normally off a hallway next to the living room); the living area, which is in the center of the house; or the cooking-eating area. In a ranch house, the oriented man must intensely concentrate if he is to be aware of where the searchers are at all times.

Garden apartments are set up beautifully for the oriented search. The oriented man will move the crew into the floor to be searched and then start placing a searcher into an individual apartment. He then will locate the next apartment on that wall and place another firefighter in that apartment. If he has another searcher, he will move across the hall and position the last searcher in the next apartment.

Now he will communicate with his searchers and wait until the first one comes out. Then the oriented man will place the searcher in the last apartment on the floor to be searched. When all apartments on that floor have been searched, the crew will move to the next floor and start the process over again.

MODIFIED ORIENTED SEARCH

Some apartments and other areas are simply too large to conduct a safe oriented search. A vital component of a safe search is communication between the searcher and the oriented man. If the searcher is well back in the second bedroom of a very large apartment, the search can become less effective and also will not conform with two-in/two-out.

To effectively and safely use this method in large “railroad” apartments2 or other larger areas with many small rooms off other rooms, you must modify the oriented search.


At least two, preferably four, firefighters will be needed per crew. If a four-person crew is used, each crew is divided into two teams, each consisting of one searcher and one oriented man (see Figure 2).

As the searcher enters the apartment, the oriented man remains in the hallway. As the searcher moves farther away and communications become more and more strained, the oriented man should move up nearer to the searcher. If the searcher is doing a left-handed search, the oriented man should follow the left wall as he moves up to the searcher. The searcher just went through this area, and there should be no problems in this area (holes in the floor or fire spread from below) of which the oriented man is not aware.

When the oriented man moves up into the next room (let’s say a dining room), he will ensure voice contact with the searcher. If it is sufficient, the oriented man should remain in that location until (a) communications become worse or (b) the searcher moves back to the dining room. During this time, if conditions dictate (heavy heat and no backup crew assigned in the hall), the oriented man can scoot back to the apartment door to check conditions there.

As soon as conditions are checked in the hall, the oriented man should move back to where he can better communicate with the searcher (in this case, the dining room). When the searcher gets close to the dining room, the oriented man should return to the hall until the apartment has been completely searched.

This modified search requires practice and demands concentration during execution. We are currently running all crews through this method of search. It is offered as an alternative. A constant awareness of fire conditions and assigning a backup crew that mirrors search in these circumstances are musts. Our firefighters are taught that there may be times when searches are not practical or feasible and that an experienced firefighter can recognize these conditions and will go to plan B.

The oriented method of search works well for bread-and-butter fires-namely, those in single-family residential and garden apartments.

In preparation for Part 3, Advanced Oriented Search, I pose the following questions so that, after reading that segment, you can rate your “search I.Q.”:

  • You are assigned search in a small nightclub at 12:30 a.m. The report is that 15 patrons and six workers are still in the bar. How would you search a local bar with all the chairs, tables, and pool tables so that you give everyone inside the best chance for survival?
  • You are assigned search in a one-story, wing-type nursing home. Crews have lines working the fire, but ventilation efforts are not going well. What would be the best way to search the nursing home?
  • You are assigned search in a fast food restaurant. It is 12:30 p.m. About 20 cars are in the parking lot. The manager says eight workers are inside. What is the best means of searching this restaurant?
  • You are assigned search in a grocery store. Many cars are in the parking lot. What is the most expedient method of searching this store?

Endnotes

  1. See “Searching Smarter, Part 1: The Basics,” Fire Engineering, February 2001, pages 99-116, for a definition of “reading the building for search.”
  2. Railroad apartments are long, narrow apartments found in structures that are generally three to four stories high. They are prevalent in older cities. There are two apartments on a floor; they are accessed by a center stairway.

JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN has been a member of the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue Operations for 24 years, where he is deputy chief of operations. He has been an instructor at Owens Community College for more than 10 years and is a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy’s Command and Control of Fire Department Operations at Multialarm Incidents course. Coleman 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.

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