“To save lives and property”
These words are the essence of why we chose the vocation of firefighter. Every action we take on a fire ground in centered around accomplishing this one goal. Attack, ventilation, forcible entry, search, salvage and overhaul are all functions we are all familiar with, but only one has the single goal of saving lives.
Search is one of the most important roles on the fire ground. Sadly, it is a skilled assignment that gets overlooked in training and even on the fire ground. With low staffing levels that plague so many departments, many perform their search functions off the attack line or even wait for later arriving companies to fill this gap. Instead of only listing techniques and giving you little tips, let’s put some numbers behind our knowledge to make us more efficient and more effective.
Thanks to the brothers at FirefighterRescueSurvey.com we are starting to see some trends form that we can use to our benefit. The goal of the website is simple; a data driven approach to searching. They have created a simple survey to complete after a rescue is made that is included in a larger database. Although the project is still in its infancy and the sample size is not huge, it can still be used to gain many valuable insights we otherwise would not have.
The primary search is fast under hostile fire conditions, looking for viable victims in obvious places. According to the data, 48.7% of all victims are found in the bedroom or in the hallway. Specifically, between the hours of 1000-2200 we find the majority of our victims in the bedroom or in that general area. From 1700-2100 most victims are in the family room. Knowing this we can concentrate our initial efforts in the area where we have the greatest chance of finding a victim. The habit if entering the front door, hugging the wall, and scouring every square inch is not only inefficient, but it is a disservice to our citizens. After sizing up the building and making an educated decision on the location of the high chance areas, we need to rapidly make our way there. Once we reach our objective then we can thoroughly make our way back to the point of entry.
Another way we can use this data is to look at where within the room we find the victims. Of the reported surveys, 53.4% of victims were found on the floor, 11.4% were found on a bed, 11.9% found behind or near a door and 6.7% were found on a couch. These numbers enforce a few things.
First, we need to focus on sweeping the floor with our hands, not our tools. We lose all tactile feel when we probe with our tool. Many times you can reach the center of the room by extending your reach off the wall with your tool.
Second, it is imperative we properly search the bed. To do this we first sweep under the bed, using the tool only if we cannot completely reach under the bed. Next, we check the top of the bed by lying flat and sweeping across the entire surface. Then we reach and check the space between the bed and the wall. Finally before we get off the bed, we should making a breaststroke-like motion over our heads checking for the presence of a bunkbed. Once all this is done, we can continue searching the reminder of the room. This same procedure should be used when we find a couch; under, on, behind.
Most importantly, we must search behind the door. Many times, a victim will open the door and immediately become overcome by the products of combustion. Sometimes when making entry through a doorway we push the victim behind the door, especially if they are a child. Upon entering a room, we should get down below the smoke and scan the room with a light. This helps us get a layout of the room and spot any possible victims lying on the floor. Not surprisingly, 96.3% of the victims found were in moderate to zero visibility. We must rely on other senses so, in a loud, clear voice ask “Is anyone in here?”. Hold your breath while listening any victim response, then immediately reach behind the door, and aggressively proceed with your primary search of the room. Too often we find those victims behind the door on the secondary search.
The most staggering statistic is how many rescues are made when there are no reports of trapped victims, or even worse, reports that everyone is out. Regardless of pre arrival information, we must search when conditions warrant. 32.7% of grabs were made when this information was present. I am not advocating for being arbitrarily aggressive and charging in to search regardless of conditions, but be intellectually aggressive and make decisions based on a solid foundation of core knowledge. If conditions warrant our entry to make an aggressive attack, we should also perform a primary search.
We must also acknowledge the use of Thermal Imaging Cameras when performing search. This is an invaluable tool that gives us the ability to overcome the hindrance that smoke can create. The TIC should only be used for reference. A quick scan of the room prior to entering can give us useful information. Even in low visibility conditions, we can make out general room features including the location of furniture, windows and doors, we can see the heat signatures of possible victims and also might see fire travel within walls.
More important is what we cannot see. A weakened floor due to fire conditions below may be invisible. Mirrors and glass will show us the reflection of the victim and not give us their actual location. Also, the sense of depth and distance is lost when looking through the screen of a TIC. Is it easy to get fixated on the screen, losing your location within the structure.
For these reasons, we still must always use to our basic skill-set and maintain our physical orientation. Only use the camera as a reference.
The basic core skill set of searching has been proven over decades of aggressive interior firefighting. The statistics developed from FirefighterRescueSurvey.com are not meant to change these tried and true methods. They enforce what we already know to help us become more efficient and effective on the fire ground. Be aggressive with your searches and make educated decisions based on proven tactics that are backed with real world data.
EDDIE CROMBIE is a firefighter/paramedic with the Joliet (IL) Fire Department, with which he has served since 2007. He began his fire service career as a volunteer for the Minooka (IL) Fire Protection District in 2001. Crombie is an Illinois-certified fire instructor III and has trained firefighters in volunteer, combination, and career departments. He is also a member of the Will County (IL) chapter of the F.O.O.L.S.