Preparations for performing fireground search must be mental as well as physical.
This article is a part of a series of articles focused on considerations for primary search.
Each year, we continue to lose approximately 100 firefighters in the line of duty. 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 search 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. The subject areas of risk versus benefit analysis and size-up are directly related to the effectiveness of search efforts on the fireground. This series of articles will slightly touch on their importance but will try to concentrate on the actual operations of search once committed to the interior.
Searches for the rescue of trapped occupants are often performed under the most adverse conditions where a matter of even seconds can mean the difference between success and failure. It must not be forgotten however, that the most effective life-saving effort on the fireground is to advance a hoseline and attack the fire. This may include protecting egress paths for trapped victims as well as eliminating the danger of the fire itself. Search efforts should always be accomplished simultaneously with an aggressive fire attack and ventilation efforts if possible.
Preparations for performing fireground search must be mental as well as physical. Firefighters performing this hazardous task on the fireground need to be confident in their abilities as well as trained to a level that will allow them to operate within the proper risk management principles. Properly worn PPE, SCBA, radio, two handlights, personal rope (at least 30 feet), forcible entry (exit) tools and door chocks are the minimum necessary equipment.
Handlights need to be powerful enough to penetrate through smoke and should have a shoulder strap or clip to allow hands-free operation. A buckle-type strap can be advantageous in case a firefighter gets entangled while searching or wants to remove the light to place it in a location of orientation.
Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) are also a great addition to the arsenal if available but must not be relied on 100 percent. They are a battery powered tool that can fail, they should be used to supplement and aid in the search. Traditional search techniques should never be abandoned when using a TIC. The forcible entry tools chosen must also be selected based upon the type of building construction or occupancy that is going to be searched. Remember, not only are these tools to gain entry but also to make exit in an emergency if needed.
Using Your Size-Up To Read The Floor Plan
No matter what tactic is used for the search effort, focus needs to be on the overall big picture of the fireground and not just the rescue when committing our people to these situations. A thorough risk/benefit analysis needs to be performed each time personnel are committed to rescue operations and must be continual throughout the incident to prevent and overcome tunnel vision. Risk/benefit analysis must also be continual since the fireground is dynamic and ever changing as the incident progresses. The probability of the success of an operation must be considered in relation to the degree of risk presented. Incident size-up is the first step in establishing this assessment. This initial assessment will serve as the foundation for all decisions made.
Sadly, the question of, "is there still a realistic chance that the environment is survivable?" must be considered prior to committing firefighters.