Skip Coleman: How Many Tools Are in Your “Search Toolbox”?

By John F. “Skip” Coleman

A good mechanic has a toolbox filled with different tools.  He has several “go-to” tools that he “usually” chooses to meet the task, while the majority of the tools in the box are not chosen.  To be sure, the mechanic knows how to use them all if the need arises, but again, there are the chosen few that handle the majority of the tasks at hand. The same holds true for many occupations from carpenters to brain surgeons.

The same can and should be said about search.  I am aware of four different types of search.  Each has strengths and weaknesses.  In my opinion, every officer and firefighter should have their own “go-to” search–the one they use and train on the most, depending on the types of occupancies in their jurisdiction and what their “bread and butter” fire is.  They should also be familiar with the other types of search as well as possible variations. Remember, “Not one size fits all,” and a good functional toolbox has more than one tool in it.

Types of Search

I am aware of four types of search, listed below.  Each has different variations, and some can be combined with others.   

·         The standard search. This is probably the form of search you learned in recruit school.  The standard search consists of a crew of at least two members who enter the building and search together as a solitary team, one room at a time.

·         Team search. Team search is used in large-area buildings (I am referring to buildings with single areas greater than 3,000 square feet).  Houses and small, older commercial buildings that have been converted to restaurants certainly fall into the criteria requiring team search but fail to meet my initial definition.  Team search uses a rope as a search tool that provides the searchers the ability to maintain an awareness of their egress point.

·         Vent-Enter-Search (VES). The original vent-enter-search is defined as an emergency means of searching second-floor bedrooms off of a porch roof for probable victims, using a roofing ladder for access to the second floor from the exterior.  The original method is extremely dangerous.  However, when two firefighters use this method combined with the oriented method of search, it becomes a very effective and safe form of search.

·         The oriented search. The oriented search is a method of search that divides responsibilities into two specific areas.  The officer’s responsibility is the safety of his crew and developing and following his search plan.  The searcher’s responsibility is to conduct the search.

Some say that searching with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) is another type of search.  Although I am not an expert on TICs, I am aware that many firefighters do not consider them a “foolproof,” dependable tool.  Someday, when TICs are perfected and every firefighter has a TIC built into his SCBA face piece, we can discuss their reliability.  Until then, they fail too often, give unreliable readings, and are not used properly and, when a victim is located, in most instances, the entire crew should exit with the victim. I don’t think they are a bad tool, but they are not the panacea for search yet. When used in conjunction with the oriented search, they are a good “assistant” to search.

Variations to the Four Types of Search

The sheer number of variations prohibit me from giving every variation to these four types of search. Here are a few.   

The standard search is done in several variations.  In the basic definition, one firefighter enters a room and begins a right-handed search while another enters and begins a left-handed search and they meet somewhere in the middle of the room.  In another variation, the entire team enters and commences a search all in the same direction.  One firefighter will follow the wall and another firefighter will connect (literally) to the first firefighter by a piece of webbing, a tool such as a halligan, or simply by holding onto the first firefighter’s coat or boot. If another firefighter is with the team, he will do the same, forming a sort of chain. As the firefighter following the wall moves forward, the other firefighters move parallel to him as they cover the room (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Three firefighters using a variation to the standard method of search.

With more than two firefighters in a crew, firefighters can split: Two go one way and one the other, and so on.

With team search, generally, the rope is attached outside the structure (on in a non-IDLH area) and the rope is played out as the team advances into the area. In another variation, the rope is played out to its fullest (or until an adjacent wall is met) and then the team works back toward the entrance area as searchers move laterally away from the rope and then back again.

In my old department, we would at times, stretch a dry 2½-inch line inside a large building until we ran out of line or made it to the back wall of the building and then would turn and work back toward the exit, searching off the 2½-inch line.  In this evolution, the hoseline became a 2½-inch high wall to follow back to the way out (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Using a 2½-inch line as a search tool.

A variation to vent-enter-search is the oriented VES. In this evolution, a team of two firefighters conducts VES. One vents, enters, and searches a sleeping area while the other acts as the oriented person and ensures the safety of the firefighter conducting the search.

These are but a few examples of variations. The only rule in making a variation is that all members of the crew know what their part is in the search. Hopefully, you have drilled on the variation or at least discussed the concept around the kitchen table.

When to Use Which Type of Search

There are several cues that are presented on arrival at a fire that will lead you to select the best search for the circumstance.

·         Occupancy. For the most part, residential occupancies lend themselves best to two of the four—the standard and the oriented search.  In rural areas and under actual presumed life hazard conditions, the oriented VES works very well with staffing constraints. In large industrial and commercial occupancies, team search works very well. Time constraints are one consideration when considering how or if to search  in these occupancies.  Can you actually accomplish what you intend to do in the time period allotted?  (In other words, can one crew cover 50,000 square feet in the time they have to be “on air”?) In a smaller commercial or industrial occupancy, consider floor layout as well.  Picture in your mind a dress shop filled with all the clothing racks.  How well would team search work in that occupancy type?

·         Crew size. A two-person crew will have a difficult time with traditional team search.  In team search, you generally have an “anchor person,” an “officer,” and “searchers.”  Two people have difficult times attempting to do three separate evolutions and responsibilities.  The oriented search lends itself to four-person crews at the maximum (one oriented person and three searchers).  It is almost impossible for one oriented person to manage more than three searchers.  (I have found three-person crews work best with the oriented search–one oriented person and two searchers.)

·         KSAs of crew and officer. Team search must be done by a crew that has trained on it.  This is a must.  It’s complicated and done in extreme circumstances.  The oriented search is based on “one-person searches.”  Members must be competent to be sent into a room by themselves.

Drill on Search Often

I realize as firefighters you have large demands placed on your time at work. But these search evolutions are very exact, dangerous evolutions. Search is a time for “perfect,” especially if my loved ones are the victims.  Wouldn’t you want a crew well-drilled on search looking for your family?  Drill on search as much as possible.

One recommendation is to discuss as a tabletop quick drill one of the buildings you were in that day as to how you would search it in IDLH conditions.  Take, for example, the nursing home you went to this morning on a EMS run or the store you bought food from for lunch and dinner that day.

Look at your occupancies in your response district (including mutual-aid response).  Practice the search type that fits the “most” often, and review as time permits the types of search that may also be required.


JOHN F. “SKIP” COLEMAN is a retired assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Fire Department. He has authored several textbooks and has presented at FDIC and across the United States for more than 15 years. He is a recipient of FDIC’s Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award and is a technical editor of Fire Engineering. He is on the educational advisory board of FDIC and writes the monthly column “Web Watch” in Fire Engineering.

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