The Oriented Search

July 16, 2018
Chris DelBello explains the tools and techniques firefighters need for the comprehensive oriented search method.

The primary search is intended to be fast and aggressive. This does not infer holding hands or clinging onto boots or air-pack straps. It’s about being smart and efficient in a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, the more I teach or train others, the more I see the reality of what I call the “lost art of search.”

Understanding the Oriented Search

I have read articles and observed other instructors on different types of low- or zero-visibility search techniques, but only find one method to be truly efficient when searching multiple rooms or buildings with multiple occupancies. Somewhere along the line, it became known as the “Oriented Search.”

The Oriented Search method always made sense to me and is the method I use when training others on an interior-initiated search. If applied properly and trained on regularly (as it should be), the Oriented Search is the safest search technique when conducting a room-to-room search. It is also the fastest and, considering the circumstances, the most organized in zero-visibility conditions.

The Oriented Search method allows the officer to do multiple jobs effectively:

  • Maintain orientation
  • Maintain crew integrity
  • Maintain situational awareness
  • Monitor radio traffic for updates and orders 

This method also allows the firefighters to focus more intently on the speed and search of the actual floor space and furnishings rather than the walls themselves.

Again, the Oriented Search is not the only method I see being used or taught; in fact, I am almost certain that it is not being taught to new recruits. How do I know this? Before I commence a lesson on Oriented Search with a new group, I ask for a team of three to show me an example of their search method. In every example, the team focuses on feeling the walls, holding on to each other’s boots (this is not necessary), following the exact same path as the leader, searching the exact same area, and making the exact same mistakes as the leader in front of the search team. And in the end, it takes much longer to complete the search of one room before moving onto the next room down the hall. 

Some say that the Oriented Search does not conform to all buildings. I agree, but only in one specific instance—large warehouses. Other than that one instance, as well as opportunities to institute vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS), which can be initiated by another crew at the same time, the Oriented Search, or a slight variation of it, is a one-size-fits-all search method. What starts out as an Oriented Search may briefly turn into a team search depending on the size of the room encountered, but then resort back to the Oriented Search the instant that room is complete. 

I use or have used the Oriented Search method on single-family occupancies, multiple-family occupancies, high-rise office buildings, mid-rise residentials, on the fire floor, above the fire floor—all with great success. We got in, did our job, got out and reported completion of our assignment faster and without incident.

Crew of three

Let’s now break down the Oriented Search with a crew of three—an officer and two searchers. The officer will begin the search with their primary focus on maintaining orientation and crew integrity. While leading the search team, the officer will also maintain situational awareness using as many natural senses as possible, plus technology (Figure 2). Using the thermal imaging camera (TIC) when possible to scan the ceiling and rooms prior to sending in a firefighter to search gives the officer a good idea of what is going on around them and the crew (Figure 3). 

As the crew proceeds down a hallway as a team, and the officer reaches a room or doorway, they will proceed just past the opening and then send one firefighter into the room or doorway (Figure 4). The second firefighter and the officer will wait at the doorway, listening and monitoring the progress and conditions. If the initial searcher needs assistance, they can easily call for it to extend their search, for example, into a large walk-in closet, bathroom or private office off a reception area.

Now, at this point, some will say this is not how one maintains crew integrity. I will disagree every day of the week.

The idea is not to allow the search member to search an extremely large area. The officer can hear the search member crawling around and banging into walls and furniture. The officer can use their TIC to watch a member search the individual rooms (Figure 5). The officer can communicate verbally. The officer can communicate by radio if necessary. Also, consider that the lone searcher is likely in a room with furnishings that decrease the amount of floor space they will have to search. This is still considered crew integrity by all accounts.

If the first searcher finds that they need to enter another room off the room being searched, then they must communicate this to the officer, at which time the officer will send the second searcher to assist or standby at the newly discovered doorway found during the search, such as large bathrooms or walk-in closets (Figure 6). 

When the first searcher has completed the search of the first room, the team will move onto the next room to be searched, which will be completed by the second firefighter of the search team (Figure 7). This method also allows the first search member to catch their breath for a moment, as the primary search is intended to be fast and can be physically demanding.

An added benefit to this method is that there is always a door person to the entrance of a room or office. The door person is the ultimate sign that you completed the search of that area and returned to your starting point. The door person limits the possibility of a door closing on an entire team. The door person is there to call out if a member becomes disoriented and is there to send help if needed.

Tools and TICs

The tools I recommend for search—any search—are two Halligans, wedges, a TIC and a 6-foot roof hook (Figure 8). If you need a striking tool during primary search, the second Halligan can become that striking tool. The roof hook is such a universal tool that I carry it on every fire incident, regardless of the assignment. During search, the roof hook can extend your search of a room or hallways. It is used to search well ahead of you for holes, drop-offs or staircases (Figure 9). The roof hook can also be used for situational awareness by punching a small hole overhead to look for possible fire extension in a still intact ceiling. 

The officer should not rely heavily on the TIC as a search tool, but as an aide. It is a great piece of technology and a useful tool during search, but it relies on batteries and can also malfunction in high-heat environments. This has happened to me on several occasions.

The officer should get low at the start of the search to see if they can get a quick layout of the floor or as much as possible (Figure 10). This method may allow you to simply scan an entire living room instead of searching on hands and knees and will also likely allow you to see a hallway or staircase leading you to other rooms.

The officer can use the TIC to scan rooms, but also to watch the progress of their search member while they are on their hands and knees doing a physical search of the room. Again, the TIC can also be used to help maintain situational awareness by scanning the ceilings and hallways for environmental changes.

The officer should not be using a TIC as their visual guide from room to room or hallway to hallway. The officer needs to be diligent in maintaining true orientation, especially on larger buildings. If the camera was to malfunction deep inside the building, you will be at a loss, setting yourself up for a mayday situation.

Ultimate responsibility

As an officer who is ultimately responsible for the safety of your crew and assigned to search the fire floor or above a fire without a hoseline, ask yourself this question: How many rooms and hallways can I reasonably search before losing orientation?

As an officer, let your crew focus on the searching of the floor space and individual rooms. Insist that they be on hands and knees in zero-visibility environments and train that way. As the officer, refrain from actively participating in the actual search. Maintain orientation, situational awareness and crew integrity. For your crew, for you and for your family. Stay safe!

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