Why Search That Building – By: Scott Brown

We respond to building fires daily in the fire service and the assignment of primary search has taken a back seat.  Primary search is a critical benchmark and essential task to be completed.  This task should be simultaneously completed with line placement and proper ventilation!  Remember that line placement and primary search save lives; isn’t that why we are here?  It is not justifiable to state that either is more or less important on the fire ground.  Manpower now a days is difficult to find, but is it? We are expected now to do more with less with all of the emphasis on EMS. Only we can make this change, by us stepping up and making a stand for what is right for our safety and the communities’ safety. You have to get certain duties completed on the fire ground, but more importantly they must be completed in a timely manner. Waiting to be assigned or not starting a primary search will hinder the true operations and meaning of the duty at hand. If this is how you operate, then maybe we should revise the terminology to body recovery search.

Where do we start and what do we look for?  First thing first; SIZE-UP! You can not have the same search thought process for a single family dwelling as you do a 200X200 commercial building!! Your size-up will tell you a lot of information on what is going on inside the building, and give you indicators on where you need to be first to make most of your time. Size-up for a primary search is essential and needs to be completed on the transmission of the alarm. Building construction, we need to search according to the building type. The days of fire school searching, hand on ankle, and always doing a right hand should be gone. We are not going to complete any kind of search in a timely manner. Line placement, with out a line placed and into operations we will not be as effective doing a primary search. Remember, the truck company is only as aggressive as the engine company. Fire conditions, this will tell us how far we can go with out putting ourselves into unnecessary harm. Remember, there is no reason to search a room that is on fire. If we can’t take the heat with all of our PPE, then what chance do they have? So take your risk benefit and weigh it out.

What if every one is reported “out”; well how sure are you? Maybe a neighbor attempted to go inside and look for their neighbor thinking that they are still inside. Yes, that has happened, and can easily happen to us right now today. Is the structure clear until we clear it? It would be heart wrenching to know a victim possibly had a chance, but we decided not to commit or worse not complete this task until after the fire is knocked down. Remember, your size-up will give you good indicators for savable victims.  Gaining all of the essential information will dictate how advance you will commit for savable victims.     

What do we look for once inside?  YOUR NEXT EXIT!!  This is for you and your members.  We spoke about the size-up on the exterior, but don’t forget about your interior size-up. Size-up everything you do, building lay-out, smoke condition, heat condition and listen to the radio for other benchmarks.  These items make or break your commitment to the interior.  This is where we see a lot of firefighters get into urgent and/or mayday situations.

The other reason that we search is to find the fire, if you have done this there are things that need to be completed. First attempt to check the fire, by closing the door, maybe hit it with the water can if it is a must. Remember though, it is not there for that reason. Then, get on the radio and call the engine’s officer and tell them where the fire is. You can relay, how far of a stretch, up / down stairs, which side the structure. Make the line’s job a little easier; they will make your job easier. The engine should be searching the fire room or rooms. You can also secure the utilities if you happen to come across them.

Primary search should have a minimum of one firefighter and one officer. But, this can be building dependant and life hazard dependant. Maybe we need to send the entire company inside to get the job done? All to be decided on your size-up, as you arrive on the scene. Tools are essential and should be mandatory that all personal have the basics. I will start off with the irons; we need to gain entry for us and the line. Water can, this is not to be cowboys and put the fire out, but is 2.5 gallons of water for our safety. You will be amazed what a water-can will do. Yes, this is heavy 25-30 lbs, but the value out weighs the true weight. Remember, that you do not need to carry the water can, when you are completing the search, but you can drag it. 6’ Hook, this can provide an excellent extension of your arm for searching. The hook can also assist in providing relief to companies trying to make that final push down the hallway and are being hindered by heat. Thermal Imaging Camera, this has many options, look for victims, check fire conditions, navigation, structural conditions, and accountability of crew. Remember that the TIC has faults and is man-made and will fail. The TIC also has many false positives, and you still must be aware of your surrounding the old fashion way. Some additional tools to consider for large square footage buildings, but can be used in any type of building. Rope bag, my area runs 200ft of search rope.  This is due to our normal first due area, and yours should reflect the same. Hydra – ram or Bunny tool can be used if forcing a large amount of doors, remember your basic forcible entry skills. Yes this is a lot of equipment to carry, but remember if you get where you are going and there is no need to utilize the hydra-ram or rope bag; then place that tool in a safe-refuge. In all these tools are just the basics and give you good start. I have assumed that PPE , radio, flashlight(s), door chocks are already in place with you.

Starting your search, use the irons (if needed) to make entry into the most appropriate door to begin your search and for line placement. Sow down for just a few seconds, let the building breathe.  This could show what the conditions are inside! Before you enter the building / door bend over and place your face on the ground and look in, you might get a full view of the layout of the room. You might find a victim, and be able to go right to them. Begin your search using the left or right hand method, but there is no reason to search directly behind each other. Spread out, but staying within voice range, spread your body out. Remember, we are not looking for pennies, we are looking for bodies. There is no reason to search the top of a dresser, or behind a TV. Where are we going to find victims, in bed, closets (kids) and the path of an exit way. Yes, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but remember PRIMARY SEARCH is to be quick. Check for bunk beds, remember to look around, is there toys? Maybe you are in a kids’ room. A nice bench mark on the fire ground is 4-5 minutes into the search. What is your status, are you completed? Are you delayed and command needs to get more search companies?

Primary search needs to be a quick and thorough. This assignment should be automatic, and companies on the first alarm should know that they are assigned to do this, so they are prepared with the most important tool, their brain. Bench mark at the 5 minute mark, most residential searches can be completed in this time. You can do this with aggressive hands-on training, and knowledge. Take your tools with you every time, if you do this, when the real work comes in, it will be second nature to carry everything. Also take care of your tools, clean them, and maintain them. All this can be done at truck check, at the start of your shift morning or night. If you don’t do a search in a timely manner find out why, is it manpower, lack of training or some other issue. Many of these items can be addressed with a little bit of research. If you are not beginning primary searches upon arrival and you are waiting 20-25 minutes to do so, it is not a primary search. You are expected by your tax-payer to perform these functions, don’t let them down. Because you don’t work for a “Big city”, is no excuse.


  • Chris says:

    If your department staffs EMS transport units with firefighters, utilize them! My Medics know to meet me at the end of the hoseline and search back. UOR Medics have TI’s now ( thank God and a grant) and can search more thoroughly than ever before. My medics are 3-5 minutes behind me, and their accompanying Engine even further. Dont be afraid to use them in this important mission. Especially if staffing is an issue.

  • It's nice to see that there are still firemen out there who realize that we are not only searching for vicitims, we are searching for fire! A good truck company can be the interior set of eyes for the IC. How many fires have you been to where simply closing the door to the fire room prevented a room and contents fire from becoming a 2nd alarm cluster…you know the rest. Thanks for a great post!

  • Joe P. says:

    Excellent post! Thanks!

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