Disorientation—the loss of sense of direction firefighters experience when searching a smoke-filled room—can he deadly. Smoke can cause disorientation: Thick, black clouds of combustible gases obscure our vision during firefighting operations. Firefighters and fire officers alike who become disoriented and lose their sense of direction in a smokeand heat-filled environment often are killed by another deadly hazard, such as flashover, asphyxiation, falling, or collapse. In some such fatalities the cause of death is incorrectly stated, when death actually is due to disorientation.

Postfire analysis often shows that a firefighter had become disoriented in dense smoke, had lost his/her sense of direction, had become trapped behind some barrier, had crawled around in circles, had run out of breathing air in the SCBA, and had been killed by another event. Some examples follow.

Flashover. A fire officer reportedly killed by burns he suffered from a flashover actually had been disoriented by smoke and become trapped behind a long, low bookcase that divided a large room. He could not get back to the entrance way and was killed by flashover.

Asphyxiation. A firefighter reportedly killed by toxic smoke actually first had been disoriented by smoke in a large commercial occupancy, then lost his sense of direction, could not retrace his steps to his point of entry, ran out of air in his SCBA, and was killed by toxic smoke.

Falling. A firefighter reportedly killed in a fall first had become disoriented by rapid buildup of smoke and heat in a room. Searching for a way out in the dense smoke, he tripped over a low window sill and fell out a large, already vented display window to his death.

Collapse. A firefighter reportedly killed in a collapsed building actually first had become disoriented in smoke while searching an upper floor above a serious fire. He soon became lost and could not find his way out. The fire grew’ until it involved the entire building, the structure collapsed, and the firefighter was killed.

Firefighters searching for the location of a fire before the positioning of initial attack hoselines and firefighters searching above a fire especially are in danger of becoming disoriented by smoke and trapped. Searching, whether alone or in pairs, during the growth stage of a fire is particularly dangerous because of the potential rapid generation of large quantities of smoke and heat (just before flashover occurs).


When searching large areas or small, maze-like commercial buildings with partitions that do not reach the ceiling and allow smoke to spread throughout an open floor, firefighters can become disoriented. To prevent becoming lost in the smoke and trapped by fire or another danger, I recommend the following search techniques:

  • Search small, smoke-filled rooms in an organized manner. Move around the room in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction—whichever you choose, be consistent. Always maintain contact with a wall. Move obstructing furniture out of the way.
  • When searching a long, smokefilled hallway, keep one shoulder against the wall while advancing. When returning to your point of entry, keep the other shoulder against the same wall.
  • When searching a large area or room with maze-like cubicles or work stations in an office building, use a search rope (75 or 100 feet long). Tie one end to a secure object in a hall or stairway and play out the rope as you search in smoke. Always search in pairs.
  • If a hoseline is stretched, stay close to the hose as you search. You can use the hose to find your way out.
  • If you do become disoriented, set your PASS (personal alert safety system) device to the “on” position manually to sound the alarm that you need assistance.
  • Before beginning your search, stop, think, and plan what you want to do. Size up the situation yourself— don’t rely on somebody else’s size-up. In a high-rise building, take the floor layout plan off the wall outside the elevator; use it to plan your search. In a residence building or high-rise, check the layout of the floor below. In a residence building, size up the building before searching. Know the floor on fire. Does the front of the building have a fire escape? Does this mean the apartments are broken up into two smaller apartments? Know the floor layout plans of buildings in your district. This will give you more confidence while searching in smoke, which in turn will help reduce your chances of becoming disoriented.

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