The incident commander has assigned your team to search for the fire location in a large, one-story furniture store. Hoselines are stretched and a roof team is sizing up the roof for primary vertical ventilation. Upon entering the occupancy, you encounter heavy smoke conditions with very little heat. You and your firefighter team continue to advance in search of the fire. The incident commander calls for a progress report on your search. He wants to know how far into the building you are and whether you have located the fire. Soon after he calls, your team encounters extreme heat that forces you to your belly. You gather your two firefighters and attempt to back out of the building. You have lost your reference point and aren’t sure whether you are going in the right direction. You give a “Mayday,” stating that you are disoriented and can’t find your way out. The incident commander deploys the rapid intervention team and, in short order, they find you and assist in exiting the building.
Although this is a success story, some basic tactics need to be reviewed. Included in your tool assignment at commercial buildings should be a search rope and, if available, a thermal imaging camera. We need to put extra thought and planning into our search in commercial structures:
- Size up the building from the outside. Get a sense of how large the building is. Ask members of the roof team to give you some information as to the width and depth of the building. Does the building have high ceilings? Do you feel heat at the lower levels? The heat may be over and past you.
- What is your reference point for your search? If you follow the standard left- or right-handed wall search, how effective and efficient will your search be? In large commercial buildings, a search rope, approximately 200 feet long, can be your reference point. The team leader carries the bag containing the rope and the other team members stay on the rope for entry and egress. Team members can use personal ropes of approximately 10-15 feet to search off of the main rope. Some departments or units have methods of identifying distances in the search rope for reference. Some use knots; others may use split rings to attach to their personal ropes.
Whichever method is used, realize that this is a very difficult operation and requires a tremendous amount of drills and discussion to become proficient. The thermal imaging camera just adds another degree of safety to the operation. It can be an excellent accountability tool and will greatly assist in locating the fire. Be aware that the thermal imaging camera is a navigational tool and you must be careful to avoid tunnel vision. Occasionally look back in the direction from which you just came. The rope and thermal imaging camera complement each other and will greatly enhance your success and safety, provided you have trained with both on a regular basis. Remember that the search rope will only take as far as your air supply will allow. Account for your exit time!
Richard J. Blatus is a 23-year veteran of the fire service, assigned to Battalion 15 in Bronx, NY. A strong proponent of training, Chief Blatus has served as both a regional and national instructor/lecturer for fire service trade publications and conferences, such as Firehouse Expo. He holds degrees in business and municipal fire administration.
Thomas J. Richardson is a 23-year veteran of the fire service, currently serving the FDNY at Battalion 38 in Brooklyn. A former chief of the Deer Park, NY, Volunteer Fire Department, Chief Richardson is an adjunct instructor for the Suffolk County, NY, Fire Training Academy.