Performing searches on the fireground is undoubtedly one of the most critical and demanding tasks we can encounter. There is nothing easy about charging into a smoke filled, hot, and unknown environment in search of life. Studies have shown that performing searches raises our heart rate more than any other task on the fireground. This is not hard to believe when you factor in the physiological stresses of operating in that environment, as well as the psychological aspects of searching for another human. With the knowledge of how intense searching is comes the responsibility to be well versed in the execution. Unfortunately we tend to spend little time discussing and practicing searches, and what practice we do perform tends to poorly replicate the real thing.
The most critical aspect of performing searches is the speed of the operation. We teach new firefighters how to slowly crawl through burn buildings at a snail’s pace while they tightly hold on to one another. This may work in the burn tower, but in the real world when lives are at stake we need to move as quickly as possible. Primary searches are to be conducted with urgency and purpose. Primary searches are typically performed before the fire has been knocked down. This puts the searchers and potential victims in a tight spot. We need to move with speed to get to potential victims quickly, and to keep ourselves from spending more time in the hostile environment than we need to. Let the visibility and your comfort level dictate the speed and movement of your search.
Often times we see firefighters performing searches during training as they probe every square inch of a structure. This is mostly to blame on instructors who believe in hiding “victims” in the most unlikely locations. When we perform primary searches we need to focus on the main travel paths in the structure. Look at the room you are sitting in. There is probably a route that people travel through that room every time they move through it. They travel this route because it flows through the room easily. When we perform searches we should be focusing on these travel routes. In an emergency people are going to travel the routes which are most familiar to them. We are wasting time if we are pulling furniture away from the wall to check behind and underneath. The chances of finding a victim in locations such as this are slim to none. Instead focus on the main travel routes. You will speed up your search and be more likely to locate a victim.
Searching through a zero visibility environment with a ramped up heart rate is not an easy task. Coordinating this activity with two or more firefighters can become extremely difficult. Why then don’t we practice movement during searches ahead of time? Imagine if a quarter back called a play that the team had never practiced? What is going to happen when the ball is hiked? We need to develop search “plays” and actually practice them. We need to have plans for searching small areas, large areas, and everything in between. Searching down an apartment building hallway will require a different plan than searching the single family dwelling. If your crew hasn’t formed and practiced your movement ahead of time the speed and effectiveness of your search will suffer.
Searches on the fireground are not to be taken lightly. Entire books have been written on the topic and this article hardly even qualifies as an introduction. Searching needs to be taken seriously. I challenge you to go back to the firefighters you work with and talk about developing game plans for how you are going to conduct searches. Go out and actually walk through the movement. Just like a SWAT team practicing room clearing start slow. Talk through the moves and make corrections as you go. As everyone starts to get on board bump the speed up. Continue to practice and correct and before you know it you will be much more prepared to search. Don’t wait until it’s too late. As always, stay smart, and stay combat ready!