When Primary Searches Kill

Many primary searches are necessary, however far too many are tragically unnecessary.


The first seconds on the scene of a working structure fire are always critical. This is because the officer must always make a life or death rescue decision. This decision regulates the degree of risk that firefighters may be exposed to. If a confirmed search is needed, the operation will be in...


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The first seconds on the scene of a working structure fire are always critical. This is because the officer must always make a life or death rescue decision. This decision regulates the degree of risk that firefighters may be exposed to.

If a confirmed search is needed, the operation will be in the rescue mode, and every effort to quickly save the occupants will be made in a calculated manner. If no rescue is required, efforts can be focused on aggressively attacking the fire, since aggressiveness is a requirement of effective firefighting; however, it should also be safely initiated with the goal of minimizing risk.

Every trained firefighter is aware that the quicker a rescue is conducted, the greater the chance of bringing someone out alive. However, firefighters often forget, it is also one of the most dangerous times during the course of a structure fire.

This is simply because firefighters are called upon to multi-task within a very dangerous environment and time frame. During these life or death events, firefighters on many occasions and without the advantage of a thermal imaging camera, work feverishly in totally unfamiliar surroundings, often in zero visibility conditions, focusing on feeling for a human form as they cover every square foot of the structure. And they try to effectively accomplish this task within the limited time provided by the air in their tank. They also need to consider if it would be safe to ventilate by opening any windows they come across during the search procedure. During this frantic process firefighters also try to maintain their bearings, in zero visibility conditions, by following a right- or left-hand turn search pattern.

However, while concentrating on the search effort, sweeping under beds and in closets, firefighters can easily overlook signs of an imminent flashover. Signs of imminent flashover include "rollover" which is the ignition of fire gases along the ceiling. An imminent flashover can also be roughly described as a painfully "hot and heavy" combination of smoke and heat conditions.

Another relatively common and tragic scenario involves first arriving firefighters, well trained in the search and rescue procedure, and convinced that a rapid primary search is urgently needed, suddenly falling through a fire-weakened floor and into an involved basement. These preventable yet horrendous incidents have been occurring in the fire service for decades.

Firefighters are also frequently hampered by unbelievable clutter in the structure, often waist deep, which can trip and slow a firefighter's emergency evacuation, occasionally resulting in firefighter fatalities. In addition, due to the excitement and subsequent tunnel vision which typically occurs during rescue emergencies, the critical need to simultaneously and aggressively locate and attack the fire may be seriously overlooked. This particular omission has resulted in numerous line-of-duty deaths, as firefighters attempted to help someone in need. Since firefighters are trained to consider the need to conduct a primary search as the first tactical priority and to immediately initiate one, when information received suggests one is needed, or when initial size-up factors strongly indicate a search is warranted, firefighters are often exposed to danger needlessly when in fact there is no one in the structure to be rescued. Numerous well intentioned firefighters have lost their lives during these types of unnecessary search scenarios.

Here are just a few of the many summaries of unnecessary search cases, which like many other preventable line-of-duty deaths, have become tragically repetitive.

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