High Risk/High Reward - Searching for Life on the Fireground - Part 2

This article is part of a series of articles focused on considerations for primary search.


If two firefighters are going to search a room, an effective search method is to leave a light at the entry point (a good reason to carry two flashlights) and have one firefighter search right upon entry into a room and the other to search left. This is sometimes referred to as an oriented search method. Both firefighters should cross at a midway point in the room and meet back at the entry point. Advantages of this type of search is that it is quick and it provides for areas in that room to be searched twice by different firefighters.

As a general rule, search efforts should start closest to the fire working back towards the point of entry but the conditions or situation may dictate otherwise. Victims located nearest the fire are in the most danger and must be removed quickly to have the best chances of survival. When conducting a search of the fire floor, firefighters should go to the fire area and search back towards their entry point. If possible, the firefighter on the nozzle of the hoseline should perform a quick visual search of the fire area prior to opening up on the fire. Once the thermal balance of the area is disturbed, visibility will be decreased significantly.

Searching Above the Fire
Following in order, victims trapped above the area of fire are in the next greatest degree of danger. This is the most dangerous location on the fireground for search efforts. If it is necessary to search above the fire, make certain that the incident commander (IC) and interior crews know you are going above the fire. The stairwell that a search team ascends should be protected by a hoseline until they are back down. Even prior to ascending to the floor above the fire, crews should try to get an idea on the location of the fire and also formulate a plan of escape if they should run into trouble.

As firefighters search above the fire, it is imperative that they be kept informed on fire conditions below them and on the exterior. Extreme caution needs to be exercised when going above the fire in wood-frame or Type V construction as rapid fire spread is very possible.

Firefighters should begin their search immediately upon entering the floor above and work their search towards the fire as conditions can change very rapidly necessitating their egress. Once beginning the search, the location of any victims can be very dependent on the situation presented.

Human Habits can Lead Search Crews to Victims
Obvious clues as to where to search determined from information given to the firefighters can be invaluable. An example of this would be the case of parents telling firefighters that their child is trapped inside their room; asking a question such as how old the child is can help firefighters pinpoint the areas where a search may be successful. In this instance, if the parents reply that the child is an age indicative of an infant or newborn, the firefighters know that the child is going to be located inside the room indicated, more than likely in a crib or playpen since a child of that age is still immobile. On the other hand, if the reply is that the child is a toddler or above, the search becomes more difficult since the child is mobile and may have attempted to escape the area or hide from the fire conditions. A general rule is that children will become scared and will try to hide (examples: in toy boxes, closets, behind furniture, under beds) and adults will try to escape under fire conditions.

Since humans are creatures of habit, most adults will be found in the pathway of exit that they routinely use in their residence, sometimes ignoring and passing exits that are readily available for escape. Areas behind doorways and below windows are other areas where adult victims are often found. No area can be discounted however as adults victims have also been found in closets under clothes and in bathtubs or showers with the presumption that water would protect them from the fire.

If a victim is found, search the immediate area for other victims as it is very common to find family members in groups if trapped. Calling out routinely ("Fire Department! Anyone in here?") during a search may help locate victims if they are conscious and able to here you. After calling out, it is recommended that searching firefighters pause momentarily, stopping their breathing from their SCBA and listening for any weak moans or calls for help. Stopping to listen regularly during the search can also clue the team in on fire advancement and also progress by other fire companies (water hitting the fire, saws running or ceilings being pushed down by roof teams, glass being broken etc.). Some of the routine radio traffic or fireground sounds can also be invaluable later on if it becomes necessary for the team to abort the search and evacuate immediately through an alternate exit than originally planned.