BY MICHAEL BRICAULT
Ask any firefighter what the most important function at a structure fire is, and the answer almost unanimously would be “saving lives.” Not many will argue against the fundamental reason for our existence as firefighters. But, if we are carefully noticing activities at a structure fire, we would observe that the actions of those operating on the scene sometimes paint a slightly different picture. Actions do speak louder than words, and our most important function, search and rescue, appears to be the area in which we have the least expertise. It seems that if a search is carried out at a residential fire, more times than not it is conducted haphazardly and generally after the fire has been knocked down.
Think back to the last fire or even the last 10 fires to which you responded. Did you perform a search or make a rescue while operating at these fires? Did you hear the radio traffic benchmarks of “primary complete,” “secondary complete”? If so, were those benchmarks early enough in the incident to really matter in the survival of a trapped victim? Was a primary search even performed at your last fire response?
If we’re being honest with ourselves, it will become apparent that our primary mission often is overlooked. Search and rescue, the very act of saving lives, is being pushed farther and farther down the list of tactical priorities. How is it that this most crucial firefighting function is becoming something that is carried out later and later in the incident, if at all? Is it a lack of training, or is it just because we really don’t need to perform too many primary searches? Or is there another underlying cause?
First of all, we know that it has nothing to do with “not needing to perform a search” because we must search every structure. Right?
When we look closer at the situation, it becomes clear that the lack of training in search and rescue techniques is only partially to blame for failing to conduct searches on-scene.
Training allows us to sharpen our physical skills. But, there is more to it. The more you train in something, the more your confidence is bolstered, making you more comfortable in carrying out the job. Additionally, frequent training in a specific firefighting evolution keeps that task at the forefront when you are establishing a list of tactical priorities for a given scenario. In other words, the more you train in search and rescue techniques, the more you will be thinking about search and rescue when you respond to a fire.
It’s not reasonable to believe that a training deficit is solely responsible for firefighters’ inadequately executing search techniques or, worse, not performing a search at all. Instead, the root cause may have more to do with the decreasing levels of available personnel on-scene at a structure fire and the resulting mentality and tactics the condition of having insufficient personnel breeds.
The mentality is one of wanting to accomplish or only being able to accomplish the one task seen as definitive: stretching and operating a preconnected hoseline to knock down all visible fire. Given this mentality, coupled with personnel limitations and the very nature and training of firefighters, it is only natural to see firefighters on the first-arriving company reach for the preconnects at a residential fire. In some instances, however, this might not be the correct course of action. Let’s look at an example.
Lack of Personnel
A single engine company understaffed with three firefighters arrives at a 21⁄2-story residential structure to find heavy smoke coming from all of the first-floor windows; no fire is visible. Smoke is beginning to emanate from the second-floor windows. The fire’s exact location is unknown; however, given the smoke condition, it appears to have a good hold of the first floor, and extension to the second floor is imminent. The next-in companies are more than five minutes away-and a victim is visible at a second-floor window.
Stretching a preconnected hoseline to the interior for a fire of unknown size and location while ignoring a victim that is clearly in peril is not only the wrong thing to do in this instance; it goes against everything we stand for as firefighters-the preservation of human life.
There are only enough firefighters in this example to safely and properly execute one tactical objective, period. Anything else is unsafe and reckless. The correct response is for all three firefighters to be immediately committed to a ladder rescue of the victim. Simultaneously attacking the fire (size and location unknown) and carrying out a ladder rescue are just not possible with three firefighters. Believing otherwise is delusional.
A ladder rescue is very possibly the most physically demanding, labor-exhaustive action you will ever engage in on the fireground. And yet, in this example, it is the correct course of action. All three members will be required to carry out whatever course of action is selected.
Advancing a handline will necessitate that one member, at least initially, stay with the apparatus while the other two firefighters stretch and advance the line, provide any forcible entry that may be needed, and try to locate the fire while negotiating interior obstacles. Even with an extraordinary flextime of four minutes, the victim will continue to be exposed to the environment.
All three firefighters will be needed should they choose the rescue option. Raising a ladder to perform an immediate rescue will require one firefighter to steady the ladder while another firefighter enters the room; the third firefighter stays on the ladder, preparing to receive the victim.
While the victim is lowered down the ladder, the firefighter in the room will then perform a rapid check of the room for additional occupants. Moreover, a ladder rescue in this example is the only firefighter position that doesn’t require a handline for protection.
“Putting Out the Fire Will Improve Conditions”
The tactic of attacking the fire first doesn’t take into account victims already in danger and the dangerous environment to which they have been exposed and will continue to be exposed to while the fire is located and attacked. Any trapped victims will continue to be compromised by preexisting conditions in addition to those that may be created during the fire attack. The clock is running.
Last, the victim in the example is definitely savable if the ladder rescue option is used. Remember, the only thing you know for sure about this fire is that it appears to be advanced on the first floor and is rapidly extending to the second floor.
This example used limited personnel (unfortunately, a common condition in many departments) with the next arriving companies at least five minutes away.
Attempting to put out the fire means that the fire must first be located. The scenario included a serious fire condition with the location of the fire unknown. The heavy smoke alone will impede finding the fire, not to mention the associated heat condition. And, there were not enough firefighters to perform adequate, controlled ventilation of this fire. Remember, when you don’t have enough people to perform suppression, ventilation, and rescue operations at the same time, the rescue evolution must be given top priority.
CULTURAL ASPECT TO CONSIDER
As long as victims are in danger and there is a chance for victim survival, search and rescue efforts must take priority over everything else. Insufficient staffing levels dictate this.
In those instances where the fire is just too dangerous and must be dealt with before any other tasks can be carried out, at the very least, rescue efforts must be given top consideration in the list of tactical priorities. As long as the victim has a chance at survival, all other firefighting efforts, functions, jobs, and activities must support and further the ends of a victim rescue.
Proper training in aggressive search and rescue techniques is the first step in correcting the deficiencies created in part by a lack of available personnel. But, there must be a corresponding shift in the culture and mentality of the fire department that takes the focus off the single-mindedness of fire attack and places the firefighter’s ultimate emphasis back where it belongs first and foremost-saving the lives of people.
Moreover, some of the techniques on which we have relied for years must be updated to meet the current conditions of the public we serve. As an example, we have always relied on the time of day during an alarm to be one of the primary indicators for creating a hazard profile for potentially trapped victims. We teach rookie firefighters that if it’s 2:00 a.m. and no one is out front to meet you for a fire in an obviously occupied building, there is a great chance that there are trapped victims to be searched for. If it is 1:00 p.m., or if the building looks rundown, the chances are very small that someone is trapped inside. We are all familiar with these examples and the associated thinking that goes with them. For the most part, this instruction has proved reliable.
But in today’s world, we must consider that both parents may be working or one parent may possibly be working two jobs. More parents are opting to homeschool their children. There is the possibility that occupants may work nights and sleep days. In addition, in today’s urban environment, there are the sad realities of an ever-increasing homeless population; the proliferation of drug houses and addicts; and unseen, unsupervised children playing inside residential occupancies and abandoned structures.
Given these additional concerns, the time of day no longer can be considered a reliable factor for setting up search and rescue priorities. As firefighters, we need to update our thinking to reflect the communities in which we work.
This is just an example of one of the techniques that has worked consistently for us in the past that needs to be updated to match the communities we serve.
Because of the homeless population and the prolific drug culture, there is no such thing as an empty or abandoned structure anymore. It is not uncommon for children to play inside of derelict structures. The only safe assumption is to assume that all structures are occupied until a primary search proves otherwise. Any residential occupancy, regardless of the time of day, must be searched for potential victims. Given a specific rescue profile (moderate to high) at a residential occupancy, the size and location of the fire and the available personnel should be the most significant factors when determining the search parameters, the level of aggressiveness of the search, or whether to attack the fire first.
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Nothing in this article is meant to imply that firefighters, particularly those in departments with low staffing, should ignore all suppression efforts at every residential fire until a primary search has been completed. That would be absurd, since there are no absolutes in the world of firefighting. The intent, instead, is to use an extreme example to get us to shift our attention back to a tactical subject that has been falling farther and farther down the list of tactical priorities as staffing levels decrease. Lower personnel levels mean there is less time for training. Staffing deficiencies translate into fewer jobs being performed on-scene. Search, rescue, ventilation, forcible entry, fire attack-and not enough firefighters-means something will get missed. We must prioritize and not operate on autopilot. Instinctively reaching for the preconnects may or may not be the right thing to do. A rapid but careful evaluation of the size and location of the fire, available personnel, and the rescue profile must dictate your initial actions on-scene. Be a thinking firefighter, not a reacting one. ■
■ MICHAEL BRICAULT is a firefighter serving with the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department since 1993. He is a certified fire service instructor and the author of the training manual A Street Firefighter’s Guide to Residential Search and Rescue. Bricault is a frequent writer and instructor on residential search and rescue.