Circus Elephants

By: Dusty Dines

A ladder company’s inside team has the responsibility to force-entry for the engine and conduct a search for fire and life, respectively. This search should be done systematically, and choreographed to cover the most real estate in the shortest amount of time. When searches are conducted haphazardly due to firefighters using the “circus elephant” method and losing their orientation, trapped or incapacitated occupants’ survival chances diminish.

A circus elephant search refers to firefighters whose only landmark is their partner’s boots while crawling. This type of search occurs as result of poor training and inexperience searching fire buildings. Using this type of search wastes valuable time as firefighters constantly attempt to reacquaint themselves with their partner. Circus elephant syndrome and the resulting loss of orientation can easily be remedied by reviewing and practicing sound search techniques.

The old adage, “If you can’t see your feet, you shouldn’t be on them,” holds true, especially in today’s fire environment. When crawling, we often get the urge to make up what we think is lost time by crawling quickly around the room. Unless members have a systematic approach to doing this, they can quickly lose their orientation for a couple of reasons: First, when you are standing, you can move your head and body around easily and get a glimpse of the entire room and entry way. Unfortunately, when you are crawling your head is facing down, and with your helmet and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on, it is harder to get this same view. By lowering one shoulder towards the floor and tilting your head to the side you will be better able to check overhead conditions and the area around you.

Second, when crawling, your primary means of orientation is via hand-to-wall. Unlike searching a training tower, dwellings are often heavily furnished and there is less wall than you may be accustomed to. It is common to lose touch with the wall due to objects and furniture placement; however, you should not lose your orientation. Try not to move objects as you search. This practice inevitably leads to missing a window, or worse, accidentally obscuring a victim by moving a piece of furniture in front of them.

Search teams may also opt to utilize a thermal imaging camera (TIC) during search operations. While this tool is very effective, its use can become crippling if the operator of the TIC fails to assume the correct posture while scanning the room(s) or becomes over-reliant on it. Searching with a TIC affords the search team rapid orientation and accountability for other firefighters. However, if you continually remain in a crawling position, or use only the TIC to guide you and the battery dies, you will eventually lose orientation. This will bring your search to a complete halt as firefighters attempt to locate each other, find a wall, and regain direction. Having the member with a TIC routinely stop, assume a crouched or semi-seated position, and momentarily scan the area (while remaining oriented with a wall), adds to efficiency rather than killing it. This member is often referred to in many departments as the “oriented firefighter.”

While using the TIC, do not rush to judge parts of the room as unimportant or a waste of time to search. The inexperienced oriented firefighter with a TIC often describes to others searching that an area is “just a few clothes in the corner” or an object is “just a dresser”. Everything must be checked by a firefighter’s hand or turned over with a tool prior to moving on with the search.

Even when search teams remain oriented, zero visibility and heat conditions can affect their productivity and search time. While you must continually monitor interior conditions, favorable conditions allow for more of the area to be thoroughly searched; when conditions are difficult, we must search the accessible areas as quickly as possible. A lack of search experience can lead to the urge to hold onto a partner’s boot to maintain accountability and orientation. This becomes the aforementioned circus elephant syndrome and prevents much of the search area from being examined. Furthermore, it doesn’t provide physical orientation with the building. Consider how slowly the search will progress and how areas can be missed if firefighters concentrate on staying together instead of actually searching.

Search teams should still consider using an oriented firefighter to maintain contact with a wall if a large area is suspected. Other searching firefighters should spread out and rapidly fan the room. Furthermore, consider sending only one firefighter into a bedroom or other small room. One firefighter can search faster, especially with a tool to probe with. Two or more firefighters tend to fight each other for space and may spend more time bumping into each other than searching. Having one firefighter orient the search from the door and the other conducting the search, makes quick work of a room and maintains a systematic search.

Fanning the room means spreading out laterally from your search partner to cover as much of the room as possible. This does not mean you have to maintain physical contact with your partner when you are in larger spaces. As long as you are in voice or visual contact with your partner, you are accounted for.

As mentioned, searching with a tool to probe areas the firefighter can’t physically access makes a primary search more thorough; however, you should not swing the tool. The tool should be used to reach and turn over clothing and probe under beds and in closets. If something is suspect and needs to be examined more thoroughly, nothing beats a firefighter’s hand. Your gloved hand will recognize a victim, but a tool will only let you know something is there. Tactile recognition means determining what a couch, cushion, pillow, boxes, etc. feel like in the dark with a gloved hand.

Finally, when victims are encountered, call for help immediately. Notify the incident commander (IC) and let him know the location of the victim, how you got there if you are a few rooms off the primary means of egress (interior stairs), and what you will need to remove the victim. Also, don’t forget to notify the IC or other interior firefighters regarding which rooms have not been searched.

While it is never acceptable to miss a room after conducting search operations, failing to tell others you did not finish the primary search is even more unacceptable. Always remain oriented with a wall and your partner’s location and practice search basics so you can avoid circus elephant syndrome.

It all comes down to time. Firefighters bring time in the form of compressed air in their SCBAs; trapped or incapacitated occupants don’t have much of it. By incorporating good search techniques, you will ensure that the occupants will be breathing fresh air sooner.

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