The heart of good firefighting is the basics, but sometimes the basics aren’t enough.
The basic search technique is effective in a bedroom community, where following the walls of a house will enable a firefighter to cover all floor areas and navigate the way to windows and doors when necessary.
But imagine sticking out your right hand or your left hand and simply following the walls in the clerical-pool offices of a large industrial complex, where a maze of partitions forms 100 small cubicles, each containing a desk, chair, file cabinet, and computer terminal. This is a setting in which the heroic individual searcher, becoming disoriented and lost, is likely to turn victim.
That maze of cubicles—or any other large area inside a building that doesn’t follow a stock design—presents the fire service with four problems:
- How do you find and isolate the seat of the fire without trapping and injuring the firefighters?
- How do you safely and accurately search a large and complicated area for so many people?
- How do you remove the victims without aborting the search function?
- How do you maintain the search function with a limited air supply?
The answer is team search. It’s an operation in which a controlled group of firefighters conducts a search and performs rescues over a large or complicated area. It provides a level of accountability that enhances safety and efficiency. Team searchers should be experienced and well-trained— especially in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus.
As in any fire operation, full firefighting equipment is necessary— helmet, boots, bunker pants, coats, self-contained breathing apparatus, personal hand lights, and hand tools. Additional items should also be considered basic to team search: a search guideline, personal ropes, radios, personal alarm devices, and an extra supply of breathing apparatus (masks and cylinders). (See box on page 12.)
A team search unit should consist of a coordinator (a ranking officer, preferably a chief) and a minimum of six fire personnel. Two teams with alternating functions should be formed. Team 1, the search team, has a company officer as team leader and is responsible for initial penetration into and search of the area. Team 2, the rescue team, consists of a firefighter designated as control person and two others with the responsibility to enter and remove victims and firefighters in trouble. Team 2 also becomes a search team when it relieves Team 1. If enough firefighters are available, the first priority is to add more members to the existing teams; after that, more teams may be formed.
Full turnout and personal gear.
Search guideline (rope). Should be ⅜inch thick or more, up to 200 feet long, and marked at regular intervals. It should have snap hooks at each end. The line should be mounted on a reel or stored in a bag.
Personal rope. Each member of the unit should carry at least 25 feet of ’/2-inch line with a snap hook on one end and an eye splice on the other.
Hand light. Each member should carry a dependable, powerful hand light. It can be fitted with a strap to hang over the shoulder and leave both hands free.
Floodlight or spotlight. This should be placed at the entrance of the search area to serve as a beacon for the members returning.
Portable radio. If possible, each member of the search team should carry a radio. If this isn’t possible, the search coordinator and each team leader must carry one. The frequency should be different from the one used for other fireground operations.
Air supply. An extra supply of air cylinders and masks should be kept at the staging area. Extra breathing apparatus would be used to replace malfunctioning units or to supply trapped victims with air.
Personal alarm device. This will set off a loud, audible alarm if the firefighter wearing it becomes immobile for a predetermined number of seconds that indicates likely unconsciousness, disorientation, entrapment, or some other crisis. Each team member should wear one.
The search coordinator is in control of the operation, keeping track of the time the searchers are inside, calling for assistance, and so on. The coordinator should form the search and rescue teams, designating a leader for each.
A staging area for the team search should be chosen as soon as possible. Ideally, it will be just outside the area to be searched. Here, teams are assembled and necessary equipment is checked and stockpiled. As personnel are added and additional teams form, they assemble, get briefed, and stand by in the staging area.
Once all the equipment and personnel are in place, and before anyone enters the search area, the coordinator should tell all members the objective and relay all important data available. If team members are from different companies, the coordinator should give each person a number for use in communications because names might not be immediately familiar. The coordinator also supervises the team leaders as they check the firefighters’ equipment.
Before the search begins, the time should be recorded as a reference for tracking air supply and personnel exposure, and a large light should be placed in the entrance to guide firefighters back out. Then the search team leader secures the search guideline to a substantial object, preferably two to three feet above the floor or ground to keep the rope from being lost in debris and accumulated water. After the leader enters the area, carrying the search guideline on a reel or in a bag, the team members follow. They all maintain verbal and visual contact with each other and a physical link with the guideline.
The search team leader doesn’t actively participate in search patterns; instead, this person is responsible for controlling the search; maintaining tension on the line; keeping bearings relative to walls and windows, if possible; maintaining communication with the team; listening for the sounds of victims; and monitoring conditions such as heat, sprinkler discharge, building conditions, and signs of structural failure. The team leader’s composure or lack of it will be contagious, so emotional control is important.
Upon reaching an area to be searched, the team leader ties an overhand knot into the line, leaving a loop. The team leader moves another 10 feet or more into the area and ties a second loop to designate what will become the second position for the searchers. From this position, the officer can apply the necessary tension to keep the line from drifting.
At any obstacle or opening in the floor that the team leader confronts, the rope should be tied off to or around the hazard. This keeps the rope from getting pulled over the hazard, which would lead the searching firefighters directly into it.
The team members, each carrying a hand tool for probing, hook onto the search guideline at the first loop. They perform a search pattern, sweeping in ever-wider arcs until all their personal rope is let out. At that point, they return to the guideline and communicate that fact to the search leader.
In areas where personal rope may impede the search or when it’s not available, the searchers can join hands to extend the sweep off the guideline. However, this restricts the area searched and slows the operation.
Although not performing the sweeping search pattern that the other members are using, the officer can check the immediate area and communicate with the search coordinator.
When a searcher finds a victim, the firefighter gets the person back to the guideline. The rescue team, notified by radio, follows the guideline in and out to remove the victim.
The tying and advancing continue until all victims are found, the seat of the fire is found, time (air) runs out, or conditions dictate that the search be aborted. When the search team leaves the area, the search guideline should be tied off at the team leader’s end to keep tension on the line. The team members then make an orderly exit, maintaining contact with the line.
If the condition that halts Team l’s search is a depleted air supply, Team 2 takes over the search. The second set of firefighters enters the area and goes rapidly to the last tie-off spot. The original search team replenishes needed equipment and stands by as the new rescue team. This platooning effect continues until the search is completed.
Team search is a difficult operation which requires discipline and training. But it saves lives—not only of victims, but of the firefighters attempting to aid them.