The Orientation Pause

By DAVID DeSTEFANO

Lost and disoriented firefighters are among the most common reasons for FAST company deployment and a major factor in line-of-duty injuries and deaths. Maintaining a constant state of condition orientation and awareness of the surroundings will help prevent firefighters who are unsure of their location or that of the nearest emergency exit from having to call a Mayday.

The orientation pause is designed to quickly and efficiently provide critical information on a regular basis to keep firefighters out of many Mayday scenarios. This is a feasible practice when conducting many interior firefighting tasks, but it is specifically designed for when you are conducting a primary search.

When searching, members should periodically stop for a very brief period (approximately five to 10 seconds) to confirm their orientation and assess their condition and surroundings. The number of pauses necessary varies based on the firefighter and the task’s duration, but generally there are no more than two or three pauses in a primary search area by one team of firefighters during a residential fire.

QUESTIONS BEFORE SEARCH

With a little practice, the answers to the following questions will become second nature and can be accomplished within a reasonable timeframe.

How much air do I have? Base your air management and usage on the environment. Allow yourself enough air to get out before your low-air warning sounds. Don’t wait until you hear the low-air warning alarm to think of a way out, hoping you can make it. Your answer to the air supply question depends heavily on your answer to the next two questions.

What is my location? Specifically, in what level and quadrant within the building are you located? Are you still oriented to the way you entered? If you find a victim and need rescue assistance or you need to transmit a Mayday, an accurate position saves time and lives. If you need to call for assistance and you can’t give an accurate location with incident management system lingo, use plain language: “I passed a stairwell and two doors plus a bathroom!” It isn’t a textbook report, but it will help a FAST company find you.

How do I get out? This is the most important question. If you need to bail immediately, where was the last door, window, stairwell, or possible point of refuge that you passed? For these questions, you must provide quick answers that will work under a variety of common fire scenarios.

You can’t work beyond your ability to make a safe egress. Before beginning your primary search, consider the area’s size and expected layout to help determine the feasibility of completing a search with the available resources. Remember, a primary search by definition is conducted as lines are being stretched and before the fire is contained and, to save viable life, is completed while the searchers are still on their first air cylinder.

Be aware of the search environment: Are you in a single-family dwelling, a large multifamily dwelling, or a commercial or an industrial building? Don’t bring the “residential mind-set” of easily accessible windows and doors into the industrial or commercial firefight. If you are unsure of whether you have a sufficient air supply to safely withdraw or if you find yourself deep in a building with no emergency egress nearby, head for the way out and call a Mayday for help. Don’t play the odds.

THE SEARCH

Begin your search with the recommended starting location (level and quadrant) in mind; the incident commander should also have this information. If you leave that location, advise Command. As a search progresses, even experienced firefighters can become disoriented by odd layouts, heavy content loads, and deteriorating conditions. Your sense of sight (even with thermal imaging cameras) is of limited use. However, when pausing for orientation and holding your breath to quiet your regulator, you may hear many sounds that can be clues to orientation or search.

Are other firefighters, especially line members, making progress or taking a beating? What is their position relative to yours? They may be struggling to hold the fire while you complete your search. The sounds of the roof team working above are always welcome to members on the fire floor. After members hear the saw run, then shut down, they expect a radio report from the roof about improved conditions. If the report comes in, but conditions worsen, a red flag should go up! Pay close attention to the radio for “sit reps” from other companies or urgent messages. Another orientation sound may be the pumper working outside. Depending on the situation, determine where you are based on the attack pumper’s location outside.

Other sounds that may help your search efforts are victims calling for help and a PASS alarm that has not yet been reported. Hearing the fire crackling or roaring may help determine the seat of the firefight. You may also hear the building reacting to the fire with falling ceilings, weakened floors creaking, or the sound of the outside vent man (OVM) breaking glass. Based on the OVM’s position, you can help determine your position relative to the fire.

If, after pausing, you can’t identify a nearby egress, don’t know which way you entered or the entrance’s distance, and don’t have direct contact with another team operating nearby, you are lost. Transmit a Mayday with as much specific information about your location as you can.

What if you have to create an emergency egress? Once again, the exterior size-up is key. Know how many windows and exterior doors to expect in your search area. If you are working above the ground floor, can you count on ground ladders strategically placed to the fire floor on the side opposite the fire? If you’re operating in a basement, is there a bulkhead to find? Can you count on a company assigned to open it from the outside?

During your search, members should vent for life if there is a line on the fire. Be sure you clean out each window. Don’t just break glass; pull out the frame and make the opening as clear as possible for egress purposes. Keep track of these windows as you proceed. If you pass a protected stairwell or a door leading to another occupancy, keep those locations in mind for egress or refuge, should the need arise. What is the interior walls’ construction? Are they easy to breach with your halligan to provide a place of refuge if fire blocks any other means out?

The three simple questions of air supply, location, and emergency egress don’t always have easy answers, but pausing for orientation can be a standard way to keep us thinking about them.

DAVID DeSTEFANO is a 19-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department and a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine Company 3 and as a firefighter in Ladder 1 for 13 years. He is an instructor for the Rhode Island Fire Academy, where he teaches various topics including FAST company operations and ladder company operations.

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