SEARCH OPERATIONS: THE BASICS

BY MIKE NASTA

“People trapped!” The mere mention of these words is enough to start most firefighters’ pulse racing. Life safety is one of the biggest concerns for any fireground commander. Once the order is given to search any fire building, the incident commander (IC) makes a major commitment to support the firefighters assigned to this task. Forcible entry is required to get into the structure, hoselines should be stretched to protect the search crews, and proper ventilation must be performed to clear the structure and enhance the efficiency of the search efforts.

However, the support for these crews must start long before the alarm for a fire is even struck. It begins with proper search training that puts protection of the firefighters at the top of the objectives list. Do the firefighters know how to correctly don their personal protective equipment (PPE)? Do they know the limitations of the PPE? Have they received sufficient training in the use of the SCBA and its limitations? How about the emergency procedures related to the SCBA? Let’s not forget a functioning PASS device that is also turned on! We can sometimes be our own worst enemies by not using all the protection given to us! (See photo 1.)


1 Photos by author.

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Once the firefighters have learned how to properly protect themselves, they need to be given the tools that make the search possible—a handlight, irons, a six-foot hook, a water can, a search rope, thermal imaging equipment, and a radio. Hey, we can all dream of the day when all firefighters will be radio-equipped! Again, we must train in the use of these tools. Remember, an unequipped firefighter is nothing more than a highly privileged spectator and is a danger not only to himself but also to everyone else on the fireground. There must be periodic practice in the use of all of the equipment to ensure operational competence. (See photo 2.)

Before any search can begin, firefighters must gain entry to the area. This process begins with forcibly entry, which includes checking the door for heat and making sure the searchers maintain complete control of the door so the fire is not allowed to blow out of the room and possibly trap the team. Firefighters can accomplish this check by peeling back a glove—exposing a small area of the back of the hand—and checking the door temperature with the exposed hand, starting at the bottom and slowly moving toward the top, obviously removing the hand if the door becomes too hot to touch. (See photo 3.)

SEARCH MODES

Primary search. Done during the earliest stages of the fire, it is a rapid search sometimes accomplished under deteriorating conditions before the protection of a hoseline is in place. There are usually two objectives during this mode: searching for life (always the first priority) and searching for fire extension. In addition to these operations, the firefighters should and can make every effort to confine the fire by closing doors and using a pressurized water extinguisher to control small incipient-stage fires. Search crews can also provide some ventilation while they search, provided the ventilation efforts will not endanger the occupants or facilitate fire spread. Time is of the essence during this mode of search, and searchers should always be cognizant of the fire conditions surrounding them because there may be no support operations underway to help protect them at this point. Searchers must also keep in mind that this is not the mode of search where they have the time to check every nook and cranny in the building. Remember, time is not an ally during the primary search; the fire conditions will not be forgiving to those who procrastinate!

Secondary search. It is conducted after the fire is under control and many of the hazards present during the primary search have been removed or isolated. This search must be done at a slower and more deliberate pace that ensures every area of the fire building—no matter how large—is thoroughly examined. The search should include closets, bathtubs, showers, toy chests, under beds and behind furniture, attics, basements, and any other places children or other victims may use to hide from the fire. To ensure that search complacency does not become a factor, those who did the primary search should not do this search. Search complacency is the mindset in which firefighters who participated in the primary search might think: “Hey! I already checked this area during the primary, and I know I couldn’t possibly have missed anything. I’m just too good!” A severe fire condition that may negate the possibility of conducting a primary search (e.g., defensive fire operations) does not remove the responsibility of conducting a secondary search. It will prove very embarrassing to a fire department if it is called back to the fire scene because someone else found a fire victim.

Rescue teams should maintain radio contact with the IC and issue progress reports. The reports should include the following information:

  • Search results—were victims found?
  • The areas to be searched.
  • Is there a need for additional search crews?
  • The locations and number of victims.
  • The condition of the victims.
  • The fire conditions.
  • The conditions of the structure.
  • The location(s) of the search crews within the building (accountability).
  • Is the search completed?

These reports must be concise and timely to enable the IC to support the rescuers and adapt the action plan so that the goal of life safety can be achieved.

SEARCH TYPES

Volumes have been written about the types of searches, described briefly here. All firefighters should be well trained in all of these search procedures.


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  • Light scan search. This type of search can only be used in conditions where there is light smoke or a smoke condition that does not require one of the other search types. To conduct a light scan search, the firefighter gains entry to the room to be searched and then determines if the conditions are conducive for this type of search. Once he has ascertained that the conditions are right, the firefighter crouches or lies down below the smoke and uses the beam of a good handlight to scan the entire room for victims. If the rescuer has any doubt that this type of search will be effective, he should use a more thorough search type. (See photo 4.)
  • Perimeter search. This is the most common type of fireground search. As in any search, a team of at least two firefighters must conduct this search. The first step is to gain entry to the room to be searched. On entering, the first firefighter crawls on hands and knees with either his right or left hand or shoulder on the corresponding wall. Using a tool can extend the reach, allowing the searcher to cover more area. (See photo 5.)


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Care must be taken not to swing the tool too hard, possibly injuring victims who might be in the area. The second firefighter assumes the prone position and attempts to do a quick light scan of the room. The handlight is then placed on the floor near the doorjamb on the doorknob side. It must be positioned so that it will clear the door if the door is opened or closed. The handlight serves as an orientation point for the firefighters’ exit. (See photo 6.) The same firefighter then starts around the room, following the wall opposite the one used by the first firefighter. The two firefighters then continue along their respective wall until they meet somewhere near the halfway point in the room, where they should pause momentarily and quietly listen for sounds of a victim or the fire crackling. (See photo 7.)


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The searchers must be careful not to pass into any adjoining rooms. This ensures that only one room at a time is searched and that the two firefighters remain in the same room with each other. When ready to continue the search from the halfway point, the firefighters have two options. If the light at the door is still visible, they can stay in physical contact with each other and proceed down the center of the room toward the light and their exit point, thus completing the search of a great majority of the room. (See photo 8.) The second option is used if smoke conditions are heavy and prevent the light at the entry point from being seen. In this case, the firefighters choose one of the walls and follow each other back to the entry point. (See photo 9.)

The first option leaves a greater percentage of the room covered by the rescuers, but the second option may be the safer choice based on the fire and smoke conditions. It is important to note that the team should be in constant contact with each other by voice or tapping on the floor so each can hear the other’s movements. After completing the search in each room, the rescuers should regroup and report the results to the IC and then proceed to the next area to be searched.

Lifeline or team search. This is probably the safest and most underused search method. It should be used whenever the search crew is confronted with any of the following situations:

—large, open areas;
— confusing layouts such as basements, office cubicles, supermarkets, and warehouses; and
— any area or situation in which a firefighter feels that it will enhance his safety.


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Searchers must be trained in the use and deployment of a lifeline search. Now, many different search systems exist. The type your department employs is not as important as the fact that each member is trained in that system. In general, the search should begin with the team tying the rope off to a substantial object outside the hostile environment. (See photo 10.) A team search supervisor should support the team. The supervisor is responsible for tracking the team’s progress and monitoring the team’s air supply. The supervisor should record the team’s cylinder duration and the time the members entered the area and periodically report to the searchers how much of their air supply is left. The entry team members, in turn, should give the supervisor reports concerning their progress, which should be given to the IC so he can update his status board.

Team members can use a couple of ways to determine how far they are into the search area. One way is to tie knots in the rope at certain distances (one knot every 20 feet, for example). All the team members would have to do is keep track of the number of knots they pass. Another way is to count paces. This method is a little more difficult because it requires the searchers to do a lot more counting.

The search team members should tie the rope off at each change of direction to ensure that when it is time to exit they will not pull the rope and move it across areas they did not transverse on the way in. If the team is recalled for any reason, the bag can be left in place so the new team can start exactly where the last group left off, eliminating the need for the new team to cover the same area as the first team. To further enhance this search method, a third person can be added to the team. This person can act as an anchor point. This will enable the two other team members to use tether ropes that hook into the main rope, making it possible for them to search off the main rope and check smaller areas if necessary. (See photo 11.)

Although it takes a little time to set up, this method is the best search system because it protects against disorientation. With training, this method can be put in operation as quickly as any of the previously mentioned methods.

Thermal imagining equipment. If your fire department is not using the thermal imaging camera during the initial searches, it may be selling you and the people you protect short. This tool enables the searcher to quicken the search time and quite possibly save additional lives in the process. However, this technology does not eliminate the need for the searcher to remain oriented; otherwise, the searcher may find himself in a serious situation if the camera should undergo some type of malfunction. The sudden absence of the camera and no way to find an orientation point would endanger the rescuer’s life, possibly making that rescuer an additional victim. The use of a camera also does not mean the rescuer can work alone. The team concept is still a must, and conventional tools should still accompany the search team. The thermal imaging camera, coupled with a highly trained search crew, can enhance life safety on the fireground.

SEARCH SAFETY

Adhering to the following rules will help to maximize safety while searching:

  • Wear full PPE, including SCBA and an activated PASS device.
  • Always carry a tool.
  • Always work with a partner.
  • Use a systematic search procedure.
  • Check doors for high heat before opening the door.
  • Maintain door control.
  • Stay to the side of door when opening it, using the wall for protection.
  • Leave the handlight at the door as an orientation point.
  • Stay low, and be aware of structural integrity.
  • Monitor fire conditions constantly.
  • Communicate with your partner periodically during the search.
  • ALWAYS MAINTAIN CONTACT WITH THE WALL.
  • Size up secondary egress points during search. YOU MAY NEED THEM LATER!
  • Use a lifeline when necessary.
  • Isolate the fire, if possible.
  • Coordinate the search with other fireground operations such as hose and vent teams.
  • Communicate results and the need for additional resources to command.
  • Keep command informed of the team’s location within the building (accountability).
  • Be thoroughly trained in emergency escape procedures.
  • TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN!

Searching a fire building is no easy task and requires a highly trained fire department. The IC must order enough resources to support this operation. Searching the building is obviously not enough to ensure life safety on the fireground; many parties must coordinate their efforts before and after the receipt of the alarm. We owe this commitment to ourselves and to the public we protect. So before you are again asked to search a building, train as if your life and the lives of others depend on it, because they do!

MIKE NASTA is a 16-year veteran of the Newark (NJ) Fire Department, where he serves as a captain of Truck 5. He is also a member of the South Hackensack (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department, where he has held every officer’s position including chief of the department. He is a Level 2 senior instructor at the Bergen County Fire Academy in Mahwah, New Jersey.

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