RESIDENTIAL SEARCH: Complacency & Priorities

When firefighters answer an alarm for a residential fire, many tasks and priorities must be addressed. Among the most important, yet frequently overlooked tactics are the various and multiple potential rescue scenarios that may confront the first-arriving company.

The primary decision faced by the officer of the first-arriving company is whether to keep the balance of the alarm assignment responding in emergency mode, to slow them down or even cancel the balance of the first-alarm assignment. Many firefighters are familiar with the fire service axiom that states the first five minutes will decide the outcome of the entire incident. In spite of this truism, it is all too common to hear radio traffic that downgrades the response or even cancels the balance of the alarm assignment when the first company arrives on scene and finds nothing showing from the exterior of the structure. More times than not, this radio report is given before any firefighters are inside the occupancy. "Engine 1 is arriving at a 2½-story single-occupancy dwelling. There is nothing showing. All companies with the exception of Engine 1 can cancel."

This scenario repeats itself hundreds of times a day across the country. Activated residential alarms are a typical response for any fire department. And, with the proliferation of monitored residential alarms, this type of response is becoming all the more of a daily occurrence. Over 80% of these calls are false alarms that serve to create a lackadaisical attitude among firefighters. The tragedy is that 66% of all firefighter fatalities occur at residential fires that could have been controlled with one attack line and for which the initial size-up report was "nothing showing."

The correct and responsible tactical action for the company officer responding to activated residential fire alarms is to keep all responding companies coming in emergency mode until firefighters gain access to the occupancy, or at least visualize the interior and verify there is no emergency. Making tactical decisions from down the block, based on bystander information or basing actions on the last 20 false alarms, is irresponsible. Additionally, responding companies and officers must take in to account that they may not be in full possession of all the information that the dispatcher has gathered. Moreover, how unprofessional and irresponsible would it be for the first-arriving company officer to cancel the balance of the alarm assignment only to have the units dispatched again, usually in a very excited manner, two minutes later?

Responding companies can always be slowed down or even canceled after the alarm status is verified. Consider how outraged the public would be to see a police officer assess, then cancel a bank hold-up alarm from the parking lot without even entering the bank? Yet, this is what many fire companies are doing every day when they respond to residential fire alarms.

Keeping all dispatched companies responding in emergency mode may seem like a waste of time and resources to some, especially given the high percentage of false alarms in residential occupancies. However, of all the services provided by the fire department, seeing into the future is not one of them. Every alarm must be treated as an emergency until it can be verified as a false alarm. Therefore, it could be successfully argued that complacency is the largest contributing factor in many of the residential fires in which civilians and firefighters are killed.

Firefighters operating in an investigative mode at activated residential fire alarms must do so ready to go to work. That means members are wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), as well as carrying a full complement of hand tools that should include, at a minimum, a set of irons (eight-pound flat-head ax and Halligan bar), a pressurized 2½-gallon water extinguisher and a six-foot pike pole. Also, all members should be equipped with portable radios and flashlights.

While operating in the investigative mode, firefighters have already initiated the search phase of the operation. During the search, firefighters are actively looking for something, whether searching for fire, assessing interior conditions, searching for victims or all of the above.

When carrying out a primary search for victims during a working residential fire, operating firefighters must give special attention to focusing their efforts on the "high-target areas" within a residential occupancy. The high-target areas are the locations within a residential occupancy where a victim in need of rescue is most likely to be found by searching firefighters.

The high-target areas, in order of priority are:

  1. In direct proximity to the main/front door to the occupancy
  2. The bedrooms
  3. The bathrooms

Most victims rescued from a residential occupancy involved in fire are located within direct proximity to the main door to the occupancy. This is the door that the occupant is most likely to use. These are the occupants attempting to exit/self-rescue when they became overcome by the noxious environment. Because human beings rely on and resort to habit during moments of crisis, residential occupants will generally attempt to flee their homes by the door they use most often.

The second most likely place for victims in need of rescue to be located is in bedrooms. Most people that are aware of a fire will usually attempt to self-rescue. Occupants who are unable to self-rescue and those who are unaware of the fire would be those who are asleep, sick or invalid.

When searching a bedroom, firefighters must search, but not enter closets. Closets and their contents are potential entanglement and death traps for firefighters. Because closets become impromptu areas of refuge for frightened children, searching members should quickly sweep and probe each closet interior with one hand. Firefighters must not use tools to probe the closet space; probing blindly with tools is dangerous to victims. Using a hand to search the closet interior lets a firefighter identify objects as opposed to the time-consuming guesswork of judging and evaluating what is being encountered through the shaft of a blindly probing steel tool. Moreover, the speed at which the primary search is carried out is the essential and most crucial factor toward firefighters making a rescue. Be aware that it is not just children who hide during chaotic events; elderly people may hide when they perceive danger or are trapped by a fire.

Last, and most overlooked by firefighters during the primary search, are bathrooms. Residential occupancy bathrooms must be searched because trapped victims are drawn to them for the misguided belief that they are a safe haven. Victims wrongly believe that the tub, the shower spray or the tile will provide an element of safety for them while they await rescue. Searching members must be sure to investigate those areas within the bathroom that they cannot visualize; i.e., the interior of the tub/shower. A simple shower curtain can cause a victim to be missed during the primary search. To avoid this mistake, a firefighter needs only to place a hand into the tub/shower area during the search.

When responding to residential fire alarms or performing a residential search, firefighters must be vigilant and guard against the worst enemy of all — complacency. Following established departmental procedures and following safety guidelines will keep responders safe and efficient.

MICHAEL BRICAULT is a 16-year veteran firefighter serving with the City of Albuquerque, NM, Fire Department. He is a nationally certified fire service instructor, frequent speaker, and author of residential search and rescue tactics and procedures.