SEARCHING SMARTER, PART 3: ADVANCED ORIENTED SEARCH

BY JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN

A question I am frequently asked as I travel around the country instructing in search is, “Do you have suggested topics on which our department can drill on drill night?”

My answer is always the same: “Look around your jurisdiction. How would your department search the local bingo hall on a Friday night at 2130 hours? How would you search your local supermarket? The local high school on a Friday night during basketball season?”

That usually gives them plenty to think about. Pretty easy questions-but very hard answers to come up with. If we had unlimited time to search and if we had unlimited staffing and if we had a uniform method of searching that was known and understood by all who might respond to our larger, more complicated fire incidents, I wouldn’t be writing this segment of my series, and you wouldn’t be reading it. Most departments in the country can’t muster the resources to handle a fire in a local high school gymnasium during a basketball game. However, let me pose some easier search questions, those I presented at the end of last month’s article.

  • 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?

Before answering these questions, let’s look at how using a hoseline while searching can enhance the oriented method of search.

SEARCHING WITH A HOSELINE

Searching with a hoseline was discussed in Part 1 of this series. At that time, I said that it is a waste of time and effort for the search team to take in a hoseline for the majority of the searches we do. However, this does not apply when the search is in commercial occupancies. Houses in essence are laid out the same. Although there are some differences, for the most part, we spend enough time in a house-our homes or those of friends and relatives and when on EMS runs or responding to fires-so that we can anticipate the layout with few surprises or concerns.

THE ORIENTED SEARCH WITH HOSELINE IN WIDE-OPEN OCCUPANCIES

When searching single-family, residential occupancies (except for large cities), you usually can orient yourself by the wall layout. On the other hand, it would be almost impossible to find your way in and out of some larger occupancies with wide open spaces and few interior partition walls-especially in zero visibility-unless you are content with just following around the exterior wall. For these occupancies, I advocate searching with a hoseline.

Some of you may ask, “Why not use a search rope?” A search rope raises several concerns:

  • They are not rigid. They suffice as a tool for finding your way in and out of a building when there is little to no smoke, heat, or anxiety. However, when wearing bunkers and thick gloves, the 3/8-inch line is hard to find, even with a guide rope or webbing attached to the rope. In addition, the ropes do not provide rigidity in wide open spaces inside a floor area. The rope gets pulled from side to side by the stronger searcher or the searcher pulling on the rope last. This may be acceptable when maneuvering in and out of a building, but when searching for a three-year-old in a gymnasium, two feet can make all the difference in the world. A charged 21/2-inch hose would be less prone to sliding back and forth and across a floor.
  • Search ropes may be used as guides for locating your way in and (more importantly) out of a building. After crawling into a high school-through the front door, down a hall, through the cafeteria, and finally into the gymnasium-when do you believe you would realize that your “life line” has been compromised? (Perhaps it was burned through, cut, chopped by an overaggressive firefighter, or simply untied to allow a door to be closed for PPV. Nah, you say, a rookie truckie would never untie or unsnap a life line so he could close a door!) But, if the oriented man is literally “sitting” on a charged 21/2-inch line, he will know immediately when the line has been compromised and, in all probability, firefighters would still be able to follow it back out.
  • Although not the intent, if conditions deteriorate in a hurry, you’re never any more than one-half of the way to the door or the nozzle when you need it. You can follow the line to the door or, going the other way, to a lot of protective water. With a rope, all you have is a way out or more rope! You could literally come to the end of your rope.

Employing the Search Line

Instead of simply following a wall around a banquet hall or dangerously crawling into the center of a gymnasium, the search crews pulls a 21/2-inch line. The line is stretched until it reaches an opposite wall or the line is stretched to its end. Once in place, the line is charged. At this point, the oriented man (usually the officer) maintains a position on the hose and the searchers search off the hose. In essence, the team created a 21/2-inch-high cantilever wall that leads out of the building.


The oriented search using a hoseline in a hardware store. The oriented man is in the middle on the hoseline. (Photos by author.)

Each searcher crawls sideways the length of a piece of webbing (15 to 30 feet) or until he meets an obstruction, such as a wall. If no webbing is used, the searcher can crawl a set number of side steps away (perpendicular) from the hose. When the searcher moves out laterally to the end of the sweep, he moves as swiftly as possible back to the hoseline and the oriented man. At that time, both firefighters move three or four feet up the hose (toward the door); the process is then repeated.

One oriented man can control up to four searchers using this method. If more searchers are needed because of time constraints, another crew can position itself closer to the door and work back toward the door. A hose strap or coupling can be used as an indicator of where the next team began its search, to avoid duplication of effort or missed areas.

Example: Let’s say that an engine, spotted 50 feet from the door, has a 250-foot 21/2-inch preconnect and that each searcher has 30 feet of webbing. If the line were stretched to its fullest, a single crew could search an entire 12,000-square-foot area off this line, never miss a lick, and always know how to get out in a hurry.

Let’s say that you stretch a 21/2-inch line into a gymnasium and begin your search. Two minutes into the search, you begin to find victims. The oriented man calls for a rescue group to come up and get the first child. Would you as a rescue group member have an easier time following a charged 21/2-inch line or a 3/8-inch rope? Which would be easier to follow out while dragging a child?

What if the 12,000-square-foot area you just covered is only one-half of the entire floor area to be searched? (Unless you’re from a very large department, you’d better be concentrating on attack and aggressive ventilation and not search in this instance.) But let’s say that you couldn’t vent and needed to search. Move the line! It will take some personnel and would have to be quickly drained and relocated, but it can be done.

Practice searching off a rope and then off a 21/2-inch line. If you still like the rope, practice with it and get skilled at it. You may never use this tactic or possibly use it once in your career, but it may save a lot of people. Using the hoseline gives you a “wall” when a wall is not there, and it is safer and sturdier than a rope.

The following presents the approach for optimizing searches in complicated situations.1

LARGE RESIDENTIAL APARTMENT BUILDING SEARCH

Except for garden apartments, large residential apartments have long hallways with dozens of doors leading off the hallway. Some hallways make turns, but for the most part, the layouts are not complicated. Some are “U”-shaped, some are “L”-shaped, and others are rectangular.

The oriented method works well under these conditions. Because of the hallway, a hoseline is not needed. The oriented man can remain oriented with his location in relation to the stairway simply by counting doors. As long as he can always know the direction back to the stairway he took up, he has little chance of getting lost (as an example, turn around, go down seven doors, turn to the right; the door past the eighth door leads to the stairway).


One firefighter can cover an apartment up to 900 to 1,000 square feet with little effort. The number of apartments that one firefighter can cover before his air bottle must be changed must be considered. In extremely large apartments, the modified oriented search works best.2

As a search crews enters a hallway, the oriented man locates the first apartment and sends a searcher in the apartment. The oriented man determines the direction of the searcher and then locates the next apartment-on the same side of the hallway or on each side of the hallway. However, the pattern must be consistent. The oriented man pushes the next searcher into the next apartment and then gets the last searcher started. Now the oriented man communicates with the searchers. (If it is a four-person crew, one more apartment will be hit.) One oriented man can control a maximum of four searchers without losing control of them.

When searching large apartment buildings, a major consideration is the number of apartments that have people in real trouble: Is it one floor with 12 apartments? One floor with 30 apartments? Two floors with 30 apartments? How long will it take a crew from your department to search “X” number of apartments? If conditions are immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), all these apartments will have to be hit in about 15 to 20 minutes to be anywhere near effective. Beyond that time, you won’t need primary searches any more.

Know how many apartments your crews can search in 15 minutes. Regardless of what that number is, get as many crews on the scene to search in that period of time. Stretch the time to 20 minutes in a truly bad fire. You can justify that, but don’t throw one crew up to the 12th floor and fool yourself into thinking that it can search 30 apartments in 15 or 20 minutes.

GROCERY STORE SEARCH

A grocery store may be one of the easier occupancies to search despite the fact that it may be large and sometimes present some unusual search considerations.


Time is a factor in two ways. First, the roofs of many of the occupancies may be of truss construction, which reduces the time these roof assemblies can withstand the effects of fire. With the fire load contained, 800+°F can still be reached in a relatively short time, giving us five to 10 minutes in high heat conditions.3

Second, the human body can last only so long in an IDLH condition. If you plan to bring out every victim who is inside and whom you expect to survive, you can search for 15 to 20 minutes maximum. In view of this, how many firefighters will it take to cover a 50,000-square-foot grocery store in 15 to 20 minutes?

I don’t know that answer. Several factors would have to be considered, including the number of victims inside (the more victims, the more time and personnel you will need to find the victims and take them out), your department’s training level, the fire’s intensity, and the store’s layout.

To search a grocery store effectively, you need to follow the “lay of the land” so to speak. Almost every grocery store has aisles. Normally, the main entrance leads past the shopping cart area to an end aisle that features the bread/bakery or produce department or milk and dairy products. Opposite that aisle is usually an aisle of other staple items. Along the back is generally the meat department and, at many stores, the dairy aisle. Along the front are the checkouts. The middle of the store consists of aisles containing canned goods and other food and sundry items. Each aisle generally is about five to six feet wide.

Using a version of the oriented search in such a store, the officer remains at the end of the aisles, near the main entrance or front of the store. A firefighter can travel (crawl) following the aisle on the right side down to the end of the aisle and then move across and follow the other side of the aisle up and back to the officer. One firefighter 24 inches or so wide will cover 36 to 40 or more inches as he moves forward with several “sweeps” with his arm. The return trip should cover the remainder of the aisle. Remember, you are looking for an adult or a child at least 12 inches (or larger) wide. Unless you are literally clinging to the side of the aisle, you shouldn’t miss anything.

With a four-person crew, three firefighters can work three aisles while the oriented man observes the whereabouts of the crew, fire conditions, and other safety concerns. In the traditional store with no victims in an aisle, one firefighter could probably cover a 75-foot aisle in four to six minutes. (If a victim is located, delays will be encountered.) A rescue group is a must in these occupancies. At this rate and with only a few victims to locate, two crews could search the store properly in 15 minutes easy. The storage area in the rear of the store (normally) will be more demanding and will require more time-and possibly a hoseline-to maintain an orientation to the outside. Store personnel should help with the task of accounting for store personnel. Store personnel should be the only people in the storage area, although some older stores use the storage area as a means of egress for customers.

SCHOOL SEARCH

School searches are physically and emotionally demanding. Older schools tend to be very symmetric. Newer, modern schools can be laid out in very complicated patterns. Preplans and walk-throughs are a must.

One advantage to searching schools is that it is relatively easy to maintain an awareness of your location in the school. Doors for individual classrooms usually run off hallways. Counting doors will tell you where you are. You must be careful when there are many turns in hall layouts. If you have any doubts, take a hoseline with you, and leave it charged. You should never be any more than the width of the hallway from your line and, hence, the way out.

Individual classrooms are hard to search. This is the best place to use a thermal imaging camera. If you don’t have one, close your eyes and remember what school was like. Classrooms for the very young can have desks arranged in many patterns-circles, arches, squares, or helter-skelter. As the age of the students increases, the desks are more likely to be arranged in rows. Use the October school drills during Fire Prevention Week to get a feel for how the classrooms are laid out.

A word of caution when searching a classroom: Don’t throw or push desks and chairs ahead of you as you go. Eventually, you will create a bottleneck. A child might be under those chairs. Move around, and sweep between chairs and desks. Throwing them behind you is not the answer either. They may interfere with your finding the way out when you get to the end of the row or room. This is one time when you have to slow down to hurry up.

Gymnasiums and Cafeterias

Gymnasiums and cafeterias are large rooms and require the use of a hoseline to maintain your location and avoid missing and duplicating areas. Use the hoseline as discussed above. Improvise as needed according to the setting (cafeteria with tables or wide open gym).

CHURCH SEARCH

Searching a church can be difficult or easy, depending on the type of church. There are two basis types of churches: “traditional” (they look like churches) and converted.


Among the challenges encountered when searching converted churches are interior layouts that cannot be anticipated from the exterior and loose folding chairs.

The key characteristics of the traditional type church are the floor plan or layout and fixed seating. The pews are usually arranged in a symmetrical order and are permanently affixed to the floor. Hence, a searcher can move through the pews with relative ease.

Normally, the pews are arranged with the minimum allowable width, which may prohibit or make it difficult to crawl between them on your hands and knees. However, the good news is that you needn’t sweep a lot when searching between the pews. With the exception of very small children, most victims will not be on the floor, under the pew. How to get down between the pews to search and the problems the searcher will face depend on the searcher’s size, ability, and maneuverability and the church’s layout.

Converted churches are in buildings that originally were not intended to be places of worship. These buildings can range from what once was a single-family dwelling to a gas station to an old taxpayer.

When searching a converted church, consider the following factors:

  • These buildings may be cut up; their layout on the inside may not even be close to what the building looks like from the outside.
  • Many do not have fixed seating. Folding chairs are the norm. It is much harder to search these occupancies in zero visibility. Get in these buildings, and look around. Then drill at the chalkboard on how to search this place.

Note: Many of these occupancies may not call for immediate search even if there is a substantial fire. This is especially true if staffing is moderate to low. For most church fires (and a lot of these occupancy types I am discussing in this article), put out the fire and then aggressively vent prior to searching. If you can’t do all three activities simultaneously and don’t have additional staffing present to do all three, put out the fire and vent, and then look for victims (as opposed to crawling and feeling for them).

Gymnasiums and Other Open Areas

Many churches have gymnasiums or large gathering rooms outside of the church proper. Search these areas as described above in school fires.

HIGH-RISE OCCUPANCIES

A textbook could be devoted to searching in high-rise buildings. Here, we will discuss searching for victims and firefighters down in high-rise buildings. High-rises that are strictly for residential use should be searched differently from those for commercial use.

Residential High-Rise Occupancies

Residential high-rise occupancies are easier to search. Apartments are normally laid out off long hallways, some of which may have 907 turns. However, they usually pose little concern for the search officer. I suggest using the oriented method of search in this type of high-rise. The officer can count doors as he goes along and should always be aware of his exit area. As the oriented man monitors conditions in the hall, searchers complete individual apartments. In most apartment buildings, one firefighter can search an apartment by himself. The oriented man in the hallway will communicate with the searcher to alleviate anxiety and maintain an awareness of the searcher’s location and fire conditions in the rooms. If it becomes necessary to retreat from the room, the searcher can hastily follow “his wall” back and out to the oriented man in the hall.

In my estimation, one firefighter can search an average apartment in five to seven minutes. With this fact in mind, an average crew in a medium-size department (one officer and three firefighters) should be able to search six to 12 apartments during the duration of one SCBA bottle.

If smoke conditions are IDLH and more than this number of apartments are affected on the fire floor (or above), two or more crews may be needed to effectively search the problem areas. If this is the case, again, the oriented method works best. One officer (instead of being on his hands and knees inside an individual apartment sweeping under beds and the like) can be in the hall, directing other officers in where to begin and end their searches. This maximizes search efforts and eliminates duplicating effort or missing apartments.

Commercial High-Rise Occupancies

Searching in a commercial high-rise occupancy takes on a whole new dimension. Because of inconsistencies in floor layouts, modular office design, and work stations, searches can present significant problems. The answer is to use a hoseline and the oriented method of search. The hoseline will provide the path out and allow for some semblance of order in the search. The hoseline can be followed out easily when SCBA bells sound and can be used as a “yardstick” so to speak in measuring the progress of the search. This tactic must be thought out and practiced to be successful. I could go on about the little ins and outs of using this method, but you need to develop your own procedure to be 100 percent effective.

MALLS AND RETAIL STORES

Retail stores present some of the most challenging searching conditions. The layouts of the sales and showroom areas and stockrooms, racks of merchandise, and heavy occupancy loads present problems. Be careful if search is determined to be a viable option.4 The first tool you should take in with you for an effective search is a hoseline. As with any hose/search operation, take the line in dry, stretch it to an area where savable victims would no longer be expected or until the line is stretched to its full length, and then charge it. Once it is charged, the crew should work back to the door of entry.

Searchers should work off the hoseline, moving laterally from the line until they encounter a wall or reach the maximum number of side steps. Once out to the edge of the search pattern, searchers can quickly move back to the hose, crawl up three or four feet, and then repeat the process.

Clothing and other display racks can present significant entanglement problems for searchers. The searcher must be careful not to tip over the racks or get hung up on them. If a circular clothes rack falls on the firefighter’s back, he may never get freed on his own. You must maneuver around these obstructions. If you are side-crawling and encounter a rack, how will you maneuver around it and still maintain an effective search pattern on the other side of the rack? Think about it. How will you move around the rack and then continue on in a line relatively perpendicular to the hoseline the oriented man is on? Will you move only one-third of the way around and then crawl at a 45° angle from the hoseline? A defend-in-place strategy (aggressive attack and ventilation) may be the only sure answer.

The next concern when searching a retail store is determining how long it would take a crew to search the store (say, for example, a 2,000-square-foot record store) in IDLH conditions. You will have to answer that question based on your circumstances and department resources. However, if I were the incident commander and I thought my teenager was in that store, I’d sure want to know the answer so I could give my child and others the best fighting chance for survival.

Square footage in a mall anchor store can range from 50,000 to 100,000 square feet or more. Unless your department is very large and your members are well-trained, forget about the search until the fire has been knocked down and aggressive ventilation has been started so you can look for victims instead of having to feel for them.

NIGHTCLUBS AND RESTAURANTS


How would you search this restaurant during a fire? Where should the search begin? How would you get inside?

For most departments (unless the fire is in a small neighborhood bar), the staffing requirements for simultaneous attack, ventilation, and search are beyond first-alarm and, in some areas, second-alarm responses. If you are to search these occupancies, be careful to avoid firefighter injuries and to complete the best search possible. To my way of thinking, using the oriented method that employs a hoseline would best ensure firefighters’ and civilians’ safety.

FAST FOOD RESTAURANT SEARCH

The typical chain restaurant is approximately 60 2 75 feet. A restaurant of this size can have more than 50 four-top tables as well as a bar area.

Looking at Figure 1, you can envision the problems associated with zero visibility searches in these occupancies. Thermal imaging cameras are a must! Without these cameras, the only safe and effective approach I can come up with is using a 21/2-inch line and the oriented search method.

Let’s look at a search involving several victims: You and the other three members of your crew grab a 21/2-inch line off Engine 16 and drag it through the door. Visibility is zero; heat conditions are moderate. The fire is in the rear of the restaurant. An attack crew already has a 21/2-inch line working the fire.

Your crew follows you in. You are following the attack line to get as close to the fire where savable victims could be and still keep a line between your crew and the fire. Soon, you move up to the attack officer (who should be, and is, behind the nozzleman). He tells you that from here on up there’s heavy damage: “Probably nothing worth looking for from here on up.” At this time, over the radio, you hear Command assign Engine 21 as rescue group. You tell the crew to start here and ask for the 21/2-inch line to be charged.

You turn around to face the door and tell Scott to search to the right approximately 30 side spaces. (You think that 30 on each side should cover the entire building.) You then tell Tom to go to the left 30 side spaces. Lastly, you move three or four feet up (back toward the door) and tell Sue to go 30 side spaces to the right.

All searchers are engaged in their searches. You look above, hold your breath, and listen. No glows or crackling sounds from above. You then yell to each searcher to see if they are OK.

By this time, Scott is back to the line. You tell him to move up about four feet past you and then go to the left 30 side spaces. This will complete the other side of the section that Sue is doing. Tom is back. You have him come up and pass you four feet and then go to the left again. Sue returns. You move up four feet and send her to the right.

Tom calls out that he has someone and is bringing him to you. You call the rescue group to follow the line up for a victim. As Tom brings the victim to you, you take the victim and drag him over to the hose. Tom moves back to the approximate location (15 side spaces) and continues the search. When the rescue team (two firefighters) arrives, you pass the victim off to the team and then continue. At that instance, Sue yells that she has someone and needs help dragging the victim. You call for another rescue group, move up and out to the right, and meet Sue about five feet from the line. You pass the victim off to the rescue group. Everyone is now back in place and moving onward.

If the officer believes that his crew cannot cover the entire area in the 15- to 20-minute capacity of their SCBAs, the officer should be calling for help. When help arrives, the oriented man can tell the officer of the next crew to start at the door and work up, to start at the first double coupling and work back, or to start at another point. If many victims are anticipated, additional rescue groups may be needed. By working off the line and using rescue groups, the vast majority of the restaurant will be covered with little duplication of effort or missed areas.

Caution: Don’t throw chairs or tables around or push them ahead while searching. If you throw stuff behind you, you will just have to crawl around or through it when coming out. Who knows where it will end up? You may not be able to maneuver around the obstacle course you just created. If you keep pushing objects ahead, you’ll push the same thing or things a dozen times. Eventually, you’ll create a bottleneck that may cover a victim or prohibit locating one. Move around obstacles as best as you can.

As I stated in Part 1, you may not agree with anything I am advocating in this series. That’s okay. But, talk to your crew members, chief, and training officer, and come up with some form of search that will work for you in these occupancies. We owe it to the public and to ourselves. Practice the searches and work out the bugs. The keys to successful searches are knowing the occupancies in your jurisdiction and having a plan for searching in each of them.

References

  1. For working fires in complicated occupancies and where staffing is low to moderate (fewer than 30 firefighters on-scene), it probably is more prudent to put out the fire and vent aggressively before searching.
  2. See Part 2, “The Oriented Search,” in Fire Engineering, March 2001.
  3. Francis L. Brannigan, Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, National Fire Protection Association, 1992.
  4. Again, many departments in this case should opt for an aggressive attack and ventilation strategy (commonly called “defend in place”).

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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