High Risk/High Reward - Searching for Life on the Fireground - Part 1

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.


Size-up for performing a search should begin well before an alarm is received. Most homes within communities have floor plans that are standard to the style of home (ranch, bungalow, cape cod, brownstone etc.) unless major renovations have taken place. Drawings of floor plans of new developments can often be readily obtained from builders during the construction phase as they are often included in the sales brochures. These can be looked at and discussed prior to getting an incident. Firefighters should make it a point to learn layouts of buildings within their response areas. This can be accomplished by taking a quick look after calls where entry is permitted such as medical runs, false activated alarms, etc.

Before entering the structure read the building and fire conditions. Visualizing the exterior can offer a general layout of the interior floor plan and provide valuable information on possible egress points if things go wrong during the interior search efforts. Soil/vent pipes will often signify bathrooms which are normally located off main hallways that contain bedrooms, skylights often above staircases; all important information for the vent team as well as the search team. Window design can also provide clues to the use of a particular area.

Firefighters must remain aware, however, that these generalities can be false all depending on what changes (legally or illegally) that the occupant may have made on their own to the interior. Extreme hazards, such as swimming pools in living areas and non-code compliant partitions, have all played contributing roles in fireground close calls and line of duty deaths.

Know where the fire has been, where it is at, and where it is going before committing to the search. Building construction can also give significant clues as to how long crews will have to conduct the search - an example being that wood-frame construction will attribute to rapid fire spread while a fire resistive building will hold heat more readily but will allow more time prior to structural integrity being lost.

Firefighters should always maintain awareness of their position within a building, along with the location of objects and furniture that is encountered within as well as fire conditions. If a search pattern starts to the left, continue to the left. Do not change to a right handed pattern once started. Actions such as this are what lead to disorientation. (The only exception to this is if a firefighter is turning around to exit back along the path that they entered.)

Doors and windows are survival landmarks that are important to every firefighter operating inside structures. For this reason, it is important that firefighters sweep high enough on the wall to locate the door handle or window sill and make a mental note of its location. Doors encountered during a search should also be closed if they will help contain the fire from your position or prevent the fire conditions from venting through the path taken for entry. If a firefighter is following a wall for a search, it is important that they maintain contact with the wall. Moving off the wall can lead to disorientation or missing possible egress points.

Feel around furniture and obstacles and return to the wall as quickly as possible. Moving obstacles and furniture out of your way while searching is a dangerous practice. Doing so can lead to becoming disorientated as well as impede efforts for a quick escape if necessary. In addition, the piece of furniture that you throw out of your way may end up on top of the victim that you are searching for, making it more difficult to locate them.

Interior Features Can Provide Insight in Limited Visbility
Conditions can deteriorate rapidly, sometimes without warning, knowing the location of the closest door or window is a self-survival basic. Firefighters should draw a picture in their mind of their surroundings as they move through a building with limited visibility. Some ways of accomplishing this are through features that are unique to areas within a building such as furnishings, floor coverings and door swings. Certain furnishings will be unique to specific areas - refrigerators and tables to kitchens, beds to bedrooms etc. Floor coverings such as tile are generally in bathrooms or kitchens while carpeting can be pinpointed to areas such as the living room or bedrooms.