Defensive Search Techniques


When you and your company draw the search assignment of an aggressively burning, occupied building, how do you execute the search with the highest probability for success without launching into a suicide mission? During company training, you need to time, preplan, and practice your search techniques. The size-up and planning will be dynamic, and you may need to change plans fast.

All searches are based on clues. Nighttime in a residential dwelling means you must deal with bedrooms, parked cars, lights, and so on.

The following scenario is one in which you’ll need to prepare. You’ll need to read smoke, predict flashover potential, and balance this against the time it will take your crew to gear up and get into position.

To help explain the concept of defensive search, let’s use a structure fire call at a two-story, single-family dwelling at night, reported occupied. On arrival, your crew—a four-person truck company—is assigned search. You observe heavy black smoke exiting the building through an open second-floor window.

(1) Rope and light stretched into a building to help maintain orientation. (Photo by author.)

As you enter through the front door and advance up the stairs to the bedrooms, the heat pushes you into a crawl. Remember the warning signs of flashover: high heat mixed with smoke and rollover. You maintain your situational awareness and place a flashing handlight pointing into the building at the entry door and hook a rope to the same. As your crew advances to the second floor, you see that the far bedroom door is open; fire is beginning to roll down the hallway. At this point, you have searched the area around the front door and the stairs to the second floor and have also scanned the second-floor hallway.

You have trained your crew in thermal imaging camera (TIC)-directed/oriented search; each firefighter begins to enter rooms off the hallway while they scan the room with the TIC. They hand you the TIC and begin a physical search. You continuously assess the hallway so your crew does not get cut off by fire. You maintain crew accountability and orientation by using the rope while observing your crew with a TIC. The firefighter assigned to the fire room applies defensive search techniques. This firefighter immediately checks behind the door, lies down flat on the floor, and sweeps into the room to the point of no return (about five feet inside a room that has flashover potential). After searching as far into the room as possible, the firefighter closes the door to buy time for the hose crew and to keep slow heat and smoke from gaining control of the hallway.

You then send out a radio transmission describing second-floor conditions and progress and request the backup hoseline to guard the stairs and egress. As you reassemble your search crew, the engine company stretches a line to the involved room. You find no victims. Remembering the open window, you call the truck driver/operator to search below the window for a potential jumper. You call “Primary search complete” on Division Two and report that you are proceeding to Division One. You complete your interior search assignment by following the smoke, hitting all open spaces and routes that lead to exit doors. You brief the incident commander on your findings that the fire is under control. He directs you to brief the second-due ladder truck crew leader concerning details of the primary search and to have them perform a secondary search. Crews complete secondary search by checking all spaces that are big enough in which a person can hide and portions of the fire room that the primary search could not cover.

Other examples of defensive search techniques include the following:

  • Search from a window off the tip of a ladder. Crouch below the heat, and sweep the area immediately under the window.
  • When assigned to force the side C door as a backup egress/horizontal vent opening and you encounter heavy heat and smoke, drop to the floor, reach and sweep, and check behind the door.
  • Scan with a TIC and use a pike pole to reach victims.
  • Search the area below the windows—even if it is a single-story building. Check through bushes and landscaping. In zero visibility, it is easy to miss a small child dropped out of a window.

By applying defensive search techniques, you are giving your citizens a better chance of surviving a fire. We all have encountered structure fires that offer no viable search options. However, armed with some knowledge of defensive search and proper training, you and your crew may have an extra few valuable minutes to take a calculated risk and search and maybe even save a life.

STEVE SHUPERT is a 20-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant assigned to the 2nd Platoon, Engine/Rescue 48 of the Miami Township (OH) Fire Department. He is a member of DHS/FEMA/USAR Ohio Task Force 1 and an East Coast representative to the FEMA/USAR Rescue Working Group. Shupert has been deployed to five national disasters, including the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

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