All tactical decisions and actions taken on the fireground in the initial stages should be taken with the intent of accomplishing a search to ensure that no life is in danger. In some cases, that may require that Ssearch or rescue be the first assignment for the first-arriving company. In other cases, it may require that the fire be controlled for crews to be able to search. The ideal situation would be for all those tactics to occur simultaneously. This can only be accomplished with adequate staffing levels and appropriate levels of coverage. So, as we continue to reinforce or make new discoveries in fire dynamics, don’t get so caught up in the interior vs. exterior, transitional, flow path, solid bore, fog conversation that you forget why it’s a conversation! The answer should always be search and rescue (what is best for the victims).
The first question you should ask yourself during the size-up is, “Is there anywhere in the structure that a person could survive?” If the answer is yes, then the next question is, “What tactic is needed right now, given the resources available, to complete a search of that area and make a rescue?” Then, “What are the risks, and can we manage them with our level of training and resources available?”
In some cases, what we always thought was helping accomplish this might have been making things worse and reducing our time to accomplish search and rescue. Knowing fire behavior, fire dynamics, and building construction allows you to be the most aggressive search team on the planet.
To be effective at search, we must abandon the right hand/left hand through the front door search and do some size-up and thinking before we randomly wander through the dining room or other low-probability areas. That method may have been effective when the victims had 18-30 minutes before flashover. In today’s vent-limited, fuel-rich fires, there is no time to waste. Use your knowledge of similar structures, the time of day, and other physical signs to provide valuable recon information to formulate your prediction of where the victims are. Vehicles in driveway, toys in the yard, all these things should get you thinking about possible locations. If it’s in the middle of the night, go to the bedrooms first. Chances are high that no one is sitting at the dining room table, home office, or old sitting room, which would be your first rooms through the front door going left or right. If conditions allow, work from the highest probability of victim location and out the normal means of egress. The engine crew should be coming in and moving to the fire. If someone is in the main corridor to the front door, they will trip over him and either remove him or call for help. I have never experienced a fire where a victim was missed within a few feet of the primary means of entry. There are always plenty of us moving in and out of that area. If you are assigned search, go straight to where you think the victims are!
Given what we know about fire behavior, in most residential structures, the practice of vent-enter-search (VES) is the most efficient way to get to victims located in these small survivable areas. Yet there are many out there who have only heard of it but don’t really know what it is. With a typical residential bedroom being no larger than 12 feet × 15 feet, a firefighter can quickly get in and close off the room, preventing any change in flow path to the open window. This can be done on first- or second-floor rooms. This is a great tactic that keeps the front open for the engine crew and stretch. Remember, a house can be 80 to 90 percent involved and still have one room with a closed door and a viable victim. If we don’t search that room, then we have failed our profession.
Once the search has been completed and building cleared, then our focus shifts to protecting property. Our willingness to risk should change drastically with an “All Clear” from the search team. Too often we are seeing the initial crews or initial command initiating a defensive tactic before the survivable and searchable areas are searched. At an absolute minimum, we could at least take the window and scan the room with a thermal imaging camera. If conditions are deteriorating rapidly and we don’t see anything, then we reevaluate the risk and determine (based on the information we have) to go or not go.
As search advocates, we must not let the overaggressive members, those who can’t distinguish survivable and nonsurvivable areas, crawl through the fire and search the ashes of a room while receiving second- and third-degree burns and be our administration’s policy enablers. Instead, those who can properly size up the situation recommend a VES - get the go ahead from command, pop in and close the interior door, search, and get out - as the standard and best practice.
As chiefs, incident commanders (ICs), or first-in officers, we must not accept that just because the old front door right hand search does not look like a risk worth taking because of a large volume of fire showing on the front that all is lost. This phenomenon is exemplified at night by the inexperienced no search thinking decision maker. Just as Bubba told Forrest that there were lots of way to make shrimp, there are lots of ways into a structure other than the front door. If you’re low on staffing and short on resources, get water on the fire to try and buy time unless mom is standing there pointing to the window where the child or husband is located. In that case, consider a quick VES of that room. Got two units with three or four members each on the scene? If so, get water on the fire and search at the same time.
Don’t spend all your time thinking about changing your fire attack tactics while ignoring the need to change your search tactics. One thing we can all agree on, you have to be inside to search. It is, after all, why we go inside!