Wayfinding in Zero Visibility


In their formative years, firefighters learn the necessary skills for day-to-day “wayfinding” as a slow, incremental, and almost innate process. Most of the information required for this mental mapping is gathered visually; you walk in and navigate through homes, buildings, and the sidewalks of your community without much thought. How you normally wayfind is in stark contrast to wayfinding when you enter a smoke-filled structure. You face a lack of vision while operating in the immediately dangerous to life or health environment of interior structural firefighting. In other words, you will lose or have severely hampered the one sense that you rely on most heavily for wayfinding. You have to begin the process of conscious thought and use other senses.

Who else needs to rely on their other senses beyond vision? The newly blind. Draw some comparisons between how the newly blind learn to wayfind and how you wayfind in a zero-visibility environment. Research on blind people’s mobility in known and unknown spaces indicates that support for the acquisition of spatial mapping and orientation skills should be supplied at two main levels: perceptual and conceptual.


Most newly blind people have some distinct advantages over firefighters who enter a smoke-filled structure. With the loss of sight, there becomes a greater reliance on the other senses of hearing, smelling, and touch. In a smoke-filled structure, your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) face piece will negate your sense of smell and taste, so you must rely on your senses of hearing and touch to help you navigate the structure. Also, the noises from radios, pumping apparatus, other members operating, and breathing while wearing SCBA hamper your sense of hearing. The thickness of the gloves and turnout gear dulls your tactile sense.


Here, firefighters need to focus on developing appropriate strategies for an efficient mapping of the space they are negotiating and then develop navigation paths. Research with the blind indicates two main strategies people use to wayfind: route strategies and map strategies. Route strategies are based on linear (sequential) recognition of spatial features. Map strategies, considered to be more efficient than route strategies, are holistic in nature, comprising multiple perspectives of the target space. Research shows that blind people use mainly route strategies while recognizing and navigating new spaces. How does this apply to a smoke-filled structure? Firefighters need to be proficient in building a mental map.


Training on route strategies begins during the very early phases of entry level firefighter training. New firefighters learn basic search techniques, usually consisting of left- or right-handed searches; they know if they need to find their way out to turn around and make the opposite turns. The same applies when teaching firefighters working on a hoseline to follow the “bumps [hose coupling lugs] to the pump.” If firefighters use only route strategy in this situation, they may get in trouble if conditions deteriorate or become untenable.


As stated earlier, map strategies are considered more efficient than route strategies for wayfinding. Mental mapping takes more conscious thought, but it may help you find trapped occupants more quickly or even save your own life. Map strategies force you to build a mental map of the space you are in based on your size-up and situational awareness. Much of this strategy requires you to forecast the layout of the fire building based on construction and occupancy.

So, how do you develop a memory bank or slide tray for constructing mental maps? First, know your district. Go out and walk through buildings. You are probably in many of these buildings during nonfire situations for medical calls, preplanning activities, and in-service inspections. Take the time to look around.

When dispatched to a fire in a building in which you have previously entered, try to visualize the actual building and its specifications. If you cannot picture the actual building, think about the neighborhood and its types of buildings. If you know that most houses in the neighborhood are Cape Cod-style houses built in the 1950s, envision the first and second floors in your head.

When you arrive at the fire, look at the building; you can often tell the locations of stairs and bathrooms by the size of the windows on the exterior. In larger multistory buildings, check the floor below the fire floor for layout and apartment/room numbers.

When in the fire building, see what you can under the smoke and, if you have a thermal imaging camera, get a sense of the layout of the rooms. When navigating, pay attention to tactile feedback such as changes in flooring. In a residential house, this may indicate that you are in a kitchen or a bathroom. In a retail store, this may indicate you are departing the wide, clear travel aisle to a merchandise space. Identifying appliances and furniture will also allow you to gather the intelligence necessary to help construct your mental map.

Oriented search is a more efficient way of searching than the route strategy of a left- or right-handed search. This concept refers to how the “oriented” firefighter must employ mapping strategies to bring the team to the area of highest probability for victims and be responsible to the crew for remaining oriented. Map strategies are very useful, but they may not be perfect, especially if the building has undergone unusual renovations. In this situation, you may need to go back to a route strategy to backtrack your way out the building.

To exercise these skills with my shift, I used the following drill developed and shared by Battalion Chief (Ret.) John Salka, Fire Department of New York, on his Pride and Ownership podcast, “Sweat the Small Stuff.”


We set up a room with items such as a sofa, a bowling pin, a cinder block, a baby doll, a gated wye, a hydrant wrench, a roll of hose, an end table, a TV, a chair, a roll of toilet paper, a football, a garbage can lid, and so on, where there are windows and doors. My department created a maze out of tables in the training rooms of the departments where we conducted the training. This allowed us to disorient the participants to a room with which they are normally familiar.

The procedure for this drill follows:

  • Blindfold the firefighter (we turned the hood around).
  • Spin the firefighter around and assist him to the floor.
  • Once the member exits the room he searched, have him recreate the room and contents on an easel pad or a dry erase board.
  • Give special attention to recreating where the windows and doors were located.
  • Add an element of stress by having the member find his way out on minimal air. This will force him to mentally map the room.

Salka discusses two trains of thought:

  • Search train of thought.
  • Orientation train of thought (identifying and tracking items).

I conducted this drill several times-once on shift with an all-career fire department and twice with two separate combination (career/on-call) departments. The participants’ experience ranged from more than 20 years of career firefighting to new members that had never been to a structure fire. Participants were asked for their feedback after the drill was completed.

The most important feedback we received was participants’ responses on what they had learned from the drill. Many of them answered that this training made them have higher level awareness of their surroundings. Some of them added that they needed to work on using all of their senses and slowed down to keep oriented inside a structure. One person added that his previous or current method did not account for depth of travel or angles of turns. Others told us that they need to feel more for windows and doors as they travel in a structure. Finally, one participant added that he will concentrate more on mental mapping.

Participants were also asked what we as instructors could have added or done to make the drill more effective. We used static sound to make it difficult to hear; some participants suggested that the sound be louder. As previously mentioned, we created a maze with room tables, which formed different turns and layouts to the rooms. Some participants suggested using obstacles or entanglements like you would find in an SCBA confidence maze. Other participants suggested going through twice and changing the maze in between turns or using an unfamiliar room/floor plan. Although we obscured their vision by making participants wear their hoods backward, a few participants suggested using a darker room or theatrical smoke.

As structural firefighters enter smoke-filled buildings, they are all faced with wayfinding in zero visibility. This skill is obviously needed for search teams, but it should also be used by members placing and operating hoselines. The better you are at situational awareness and the more you practice building mental maps, the better prepared you will be when having to employ these strategies.

Author’s note: I would like to thank the members of Concord (NH) Fire Department Fire Battalion 1, the Henniker (NH) Fire Department, and the Epping (NH) Fire Department for participating in the drills that are the basis of this article.


Lynch, K. The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (1960).

Golledge R, Klatzky R, Loomis J. “Cognitive mapping and wayfinding by adults without vision” in J. Portugali (ed.), The construction of cognitive maps, pp. 215 – 46. The Netherlands: Kluwer. (1996).

Ungar, S, Blades M, Spencer S. “The construction of cognitive maps by children with visual impairments” in J. Portugali (ed.). The construction of cognitive maps, pp. 247–73. The Netherlands: Kluwer. (1996).

Kitchin R, Jacobson R. “Techniques to collect and analyze the cognitive map knowledge of persons with visual impairment or blindness: issues of validity.” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 91 (4), pp.360–376. (1997).

Fletcher, J. “Spatial representation in blind children 1: development compared to sighted children.” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 74 (10), pp. 318–85 (1980).

TIM ROBINSON is an 18-year veteran of the Concord (NH) Fire Department. He is also a program coordinator for fire officer programs at the New Hampshire Fire Academy and a medical specialist for Urban Search and Rescue-Massachusetts Task Force 1.

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