This article is part of a series of articles focused on considerations for primary search.
We continue to lose approximately 100 firefighters in the line of duty each year. Running out of air, after becoming lost and disoriented while performing a search, is the second leading cause of firefighter deaths and injuries while operating on the fireground. The searching of a burning structure is a firefighting basic and falls into the category of subject areas that firefighters should spend a majority of their training time. As the job of firefighting changes, performing aggressive searches for trapped occupants is becoming more of a low frequency event with high risk potential.
Speed during search operations is crucial. Even though fire doubles in size each minute, its intensity increases 18-fold in that same time period. The clock is running - people are in trouble within a hostile environment and need our help. The hostile environment faced by firefighters and victims today presents toxins in very high concentrations as well as possibilities of rapid fire spread and structural failure due to building construction features. Because of the chemical make up of items used in our lives, these toxins are being released readily upon ignition and temperatures are rising to flashover thresholds very quickly.
A primary search is to be a quick sweep of the areas that we suspect victims to be located. A standard size bedroom should realistically take no more than 30 seconds to effectively search in a primary mode. Although speed is important, it must not be forgotten that keeping oriented must never be sacrificed. Secondary searches, most often performed when fire conditions are somewhat controlled, should be more deliberate and thorough.
Searching firefighters should remain low while performing search operations to afford them the most visibility as well as to allow them to operate in cooler temperatures. Too often firefighters are being trained to perform search operations crawling on their hands and knees holding onto and following each other in a line while maintaining a wall much like a mother duck with her ducklings close behind. This does not constitute an effective search pattern or lend itself to speed of operations.
Firefighters searching in this manner are forced to look down at the floor feeling the way in front of them as they approach. Conditions above and out in front of the team are often not able to be monitored. In this position, a firefighter may also be suspect to falling down a staircase or through a weakened floor and not be able to stop themselves since the weight of their SCBA and helmet is pushing them forward. Assuming a position on their haunches with their head upright and a leading leg extended assists the firefighter in monitoring changing fire conditions as well as keeping their weight back if they encounter an opening or weakness in the floor in front of them. This position also allows a firefighter to move quickly through the area that they must search.
Consideration should also be given to the number of firefighters committed to search a particular area. More is not necessarily better in this regard. An example to this point would be the instance of searching bedrooms in a residence; having more than one firefighter searching a 10-by-10 room would lead to them crawling over each other, slowing down the search and possibly even missing the victim that they are searching for.
A recommended practice in this case is for one firefighter to search the room and have the other maintain the doorway or point of orientation while monitoring fire conditions. When the search team gets to the next room, the firefighters can switch roles allowing the firefighter that has already worked a chance to rest. This will permit the search team to use their air supply in the most efficient manner. Remember, the search team is only as strong as it's weakest link - the lowest air cylinder pressure. Maintaining air supply awareness can not be forgotten.