BY ROBERT MORAN
Conducting a safe and effective primary search is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous fireground operations you will be asked to carry out during your firefighting career. The thought of being on the floor above a fire without the protection of a handline, searching through areas with which you are not familiar in dense smoke and high heat, is a huge challenge even to the most seasoned and experienced veteran firefighter. An abundant number of methods and techniques on how to complete this dangerous task are instilled in firefighters throughout their careers. Coupled with your department’s operational guidelines, these approaches provide a foundation on which you can build a personal course of action that will allow you to successfully accomplish a primary search that will ensure your safety and enable you to complete the task at hand. Although our own personal safety will always be our number one fireground priority, we must face the fact that completing a primary search under any fire condition is a dirty and dangerous job. Aggressive primary search is a main component of our profession. The search must be completed quickly, efficiently, and without hesitation, or the very citizens we are sworn to protect will perish.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF SEARCH
To generate some insightful thought on the subject and positively increase firefighter safety while conducting this type of operation, I have gathered together the following “Ten Commandments” of conducting a safe and effective primary search. Although they are not written in “stone,” following these basic, yet essential, tips will improve your performance and safety while executing your searches.
However, let’s be honest. How many firefighters have the luxury of knowing that every time they respond to a fire they will be afforded the luxury of a search partner? I have found that this basic rule has been so severely compromised by staffing shortages that many firefighters are no longer afforded the opportunity of enjoying this vital safety resource. So the question is, How do we rectify the situation? Easily. Departments should purchase enough portable radios so that every firefighter riding on the apparatus carries a radio. This portable radio will then become the firefighter’s partner and his link to the incident commander (IC). In reality, we all know a radio will never take the place of a properly staffed engine or truck company. How-ever, it is a major step toward improving the safety of those members who have no other available options.
A thorough and effective analysis of a burning structure prior to making entry is one of the most valuable tools you can use to ensure your safety on the fireground. The quality and volume of information you can gather by completing this simple task may save your life. Information such as secondary access and egress points of the structure, the location and extent of the fire, the type of structure involved, the location of trapped victims, window locations, and laddering points will give you the opportunity to develop a mental picture of the structure before entry. Remember, the responsibility of personal safety on the fireground starts with you! Be smart: Size up!
Carrying a hand light is another excellent routine to practice. When I speak of hand lights, I am referring to those powerful, high-intensity lights that are small and light enough to be carried around the waist or shoulder or can be attached directly to your personal protective equipment (PPE). Carrying a light in this manner allows using your tools in a “hands-free” environment. More importantly, there are countless factual accounts from firefighters who have been rescued by other firefighters from a collapse or “Mayday” situation because the rescuers were able to follow the beam of light from a flashlight. Be proactive: Carry a tool and hand light. Don’t diminish your level of safety.
When searching commercial buildings, you are faced with large, open areas; maze-like conditions; and floor plans that you have not seen before. In these instances, your primary search will most likely be rope guided, allowing you some freedom from directly contacting the wall. Searching with a rope also decreases the chance that you will become disoriented, establishes a point of contact from which members can initiate their searches, and allows you to become somewhat familiar with the area. However, when engaged in a primary search without a rope in any type structure, stay in contact with a wall at all times so you are close to areas of egress (doors and windows) in case a quick exit should become necessary. Remember that most victims will not be found sitting nicely against a wall. People who succumb to the products of combustion are most likely found in areas of egress such as windows, doors, and hallways or in the middle of a room. To complete an accurate search, you must use the wall as a point of contact and sweep the floor area of the room with the tool and personal hand light you should be carrying.
Firefighters conducting searches on the floors above a fire are operating in what is arguably the most dangerous position on the fireground. It becomes vitally important that the engine companies operating on the fire floor are aware that members have moved past them to the floors above. These engine companies are the search crew’s safety net. If they fail to contain the fire or are pushed out of their position by untenable conditions, the crews on the floors above could be placed in a perilous position. Communicate your position to the IC and the other interior crews. It may save your life.
You must also remain composed under the duress that occurs while conducting primary searches. This factor does not exactly fit into the definition of orientation, but it is closely linked. If you succumb to the psychological stress of a primary search operation, you will lose your orientation, confidence, and self-control. You will be unable to communicate and may place yourself in danger. If this should occur, you would be at the mercy of the fire. Remaining cool, calm, collected, and oriented to your surroundings is the best way to prevent increasing the level of danger facing you while conducting primary search operations. Stay calm, stay low, stay oriented, stay alive!
Conducting a primary search is a dangerous task. It gets a lot more dangerous when staffing shortages, fire station closings, inadequate equipment, and deficient training are thrown into the mix. These are perilous issues that firefighters nationwide face every day. Unfortunately, they will not be gone any time soon. Following the “tips” outlined here will reduce your chances of being affected by these concerns, keep you safe, and assist you in conducting an effective primary search.
ROBERT MORAN, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Englewood (NJ) Fire Department and a member and former chief of the Leonia (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department, where he serves as the borough’s fire official. He is a state certified Level II fire instructor, fire official, hazardous materials specialist, and arson investigator. He is a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference advisory board, the Bergen County Prosecutors Office Arson Task Force, the Bergen County Fire Academy Advisory Board, and New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science.