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When Primary Searches Kill

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.

  • In Cincinnati firefighters arriving at the scene of a working fire, at this single-family residence with a basement, were under the impression that victims were trapped in the home. With this in mind, Firefighters quickly stretched handlines and entered to make an aggressive interior attack and to search for victims, however, before the attack line could be charged, a sudden flashover engulfed three firefighters who advanced into the front portion of the home taking the life of one. Had a critical message, stating that all occupants had exited the structure, reached the incident commander or anyone on the scene, it may have resulted in a safer attack on the fire rather than a dangerous more urgent interior attack and primary search.
  • In other similar scenarios, well meaning neighbors with inaccurate information have also, at times, insisted that their neighbors were still in the structure when in fact no one was home. This type of incident occurred at a single-family residence with a basement in Miami Township, Ohio, where crews made repeated searches, with the advantage of a thermal imaging camera, each time reporting no victims in the structure. However, during one last attempt, a firefighter lost his life after falling though a fire-weakened floor and into the involved basement.
  • In the cold storage warehouse fire in Worcester, MA, the incident commander was advised that "Two homeless people might be in the building." This was interpreted as grounds to initiate a primary search when in fact, the transients had already evacuated the structure.
  • In Baytown, TX, as firefighters conducted a primary search of a large single-family residence, high winds entered the structure exposing fire crews to sudden and extreme fire behavior which took the life of one firefighter. No one was home at the time of the fire.
  • Most recently, in Prince William County, VA, arriving firefighters initiated a primary search on the second floor of a heavily involved, very large-single family residence with a basement. Again, high winds entering the structure caused the sudden development of extreme fire behavior disorienting and taking the life of oafirefighter. Family members who had escaped the home prior to the arrival of firefighters were safe and being comforted at a neighbor's home during the rescue attempt.

Ways To Prevent Unnecessary Searches
Too many firefighters are dying in the line of duty at structures fires and every possible way to prevent it must be attempted. One way this can be accomplished is through training. Simple unnecessary search prevention training is needed nationwide for everyone, from the incident commander to the firefighter, from the emergency call taker, to every citizen in the community. If citizens can learn to dial 9-1-1 to report a fire, they should be instructed of the importance of dialing 9-1-1 to let dispatchers know when "Everyone is out" of the structure..

With cell phones in the hands of almost every man, woman and child in the country, citizens will be more than willing to return a life saving favor to firefighters by calling the dispatch office or by walking up to a firefighter on the scene to inform them when everyone is out of the structure. This urgent message, when received by either a dispatch call taker, or any Firefighter on the scene, must immediately be relayed to the incident commander by radio or a face-to-face so that firefighters are not required to conduct a dangerous primary search. If, however, one is in progress, firefighters can be ordered to evacuate the structure if conditions are excessively hazardous.

Another way to prevent an unnecessary search is for the first arriving officer to carefully obtain reliable information pertaining to the need to conduct a primary search. This involves closely considering the reliability of the source. For example, a total stranger may yell at you, stating that somebody might, may or could still be inside a well-involved structure. However, what the bystander does not fully understand, is that the structure is completely untenable, unfortunately not only for anyone still in the structure, but for fully bunkered firefighters as well.

On many occasions entry is simply not possible. On the other hand, should a person approach you with signs of having been in the structure, such as a soot covered face, singed hair or suffering from burns or difficulty breathing, their information should be considered more reliable. And if informed that someone is still in the structure, the exact last known location of the victim should be obtained. Based on this key information, a coordinated positive pressure ventilation effort must be quickly initiated, followed by a primary search that incorporates use of thermal imaging cameras, used within limitations. But most importantly, simultaneous use of charged handlines to aggressively attack the fire must be made as the fire yields to no one including firefighters trying to help others.

Many primary searches are necessary, however far too many are tragically unnecessary. With available technology, simple public education and simple training, we can minimize unnecessary searches and the fatalities they cause. By taking the initiative to make everyone aware of the problem we can make a difference. The call for assistance may be added to the fire safety and prevention message or by the use of public safety announcements that encourage citizens to use their cell phones to immediately advise the fire dispatch office when they positively know that everyone is out of a burning structure.

Citizens can also prevent the loss of a firefighter by applying the objectives of unnecessary search training that encourages them to approach and inform any firefighter on the scene when everyone has exited the structured. All in all, a very small training investment in an unnecessary search prevention effort may very well result in a significant return in the prevention of firefighter fatalities.

Note: This article implements The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiatives 3. Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities and 8. Utilize available technology (cell phones and reliable portable radios) whenever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

Note: This article implements The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiatives 3. Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities and 8. Utilize available technology (cell phones and reliable portable radios) whenever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

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WILLIAM R. MORA, a Contributing Editor, is a Captain in the firefighting division of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. You can reach William by e-mail at