There is likely no part of the LOVERS acronym (Laddering, Overhaul, Ventilation, Entry, Rescue and Salvage) more important than rescue. It is after all rescues for which our fire service is both known and loved. It is for rescue that civilians applaud us during the parade.
However, the reality is that the vast majority of those in the fire service will never perform an actual rescue during a structure fire.
Except for self-rescue, there is likely no other event that we train for or should be training for that we likely won't face. I'm often surprised (shocked is more like it) when I find departments that don't practice this incredibly important function.
There are lots of functions that people think fire departments will do, and the department has decided internally that it doesn't provide. Certain types of technical rescue are beyond the scope, resources and training of a fire department; the department realizes that and finds another agency to provide that support. I understand why those agencies have made a conscious decision and don't train, equip, prepare or perform those functions.
Train for the unlikely event
But, at two in the morning, when the family says that a human being they love is still in the house what do we do? Unlike the other operations, we have a bad habit of jumping into a rescue effort that we haven't been training for.
Training for these includes understanding the strategy (risk analysis) tactics (coordination of efforts) and tasks (getting in there a saving someone) and we need to do these constantly.
The rescue starts well before the fire. Solid fire prevention efforts, including code enforcement and administration help ensure that fires don't occur and when they do, they progress the way we expect them too and everyone has evacuated. A fire department that doesn't perform code enforcement still can be a fire-prevention advocate.
Understanding risk analysis, the strategic level, is a key component before our people are committed to a rescue operation. As Chief Alan Brunacini states, as we stray from our standard operating procedures, training and equipment limits, we start performing riskier behavior. We limit our risk first through equipment, training and tested and enforced SOPs.
As an incident commander, especially a first arriving company officer, we must see the fire 3 to 5 minutes from where it is now and get a grasp (from bystanders or understanding of building layout) of possible victim location.
From these items, we must understand if we're planning to rescue a still living victim or sending in people for body recovery. Much like surface water rescue, the pace, strategy and tactics of recovery is and should be very different than rescue.
Strategically, understanding building construction and the fire load will help you understand where the fire is headed. Understanding occupancy load and type of use will help you determine the victim profile and how much reward is achievable — and therefore how much risk we can take.
There are thousands of great videos, studies and websites to watch and analyze fire progression in different size and type buildings. We can all find videos that could have been shot on our main street and learn a great deal before we face that same fire ourselves.
For the primary search team, the team leader if not the whole team, needs to do a 360 when possible. If the building is too big for a walk around, then you should be doing your 360s during drill of those buildings.
Sizing up the building and fire conditions also allows you to assess fire progression internally during the search. I'm a big believer in confirming with the incident commander what side of the building I'm entering and who (age, size) our team is searching for prior to entering the building.
Search: why and where
As we begin our search we need to know where the fire is and where it's going. Primary search is rapid, but thorough — all in a building undergoing thermal demolition. Occupancy type and load will help us understand where victims might be.
Moving from the most severe hazard zones to least allows the greatest chance to get to a victim in time. However sometimes, with limited staffing, we need to focus on the best chance of victim location first. Here the search begins at lower-hazard areas away from the fire and moves to exposure areas.
Primary search needs to occur at all fires simply to ensure that the fire isn't indicating some larger problem. The food might be burning on the stove because Mrs. Jones suffered a stroke in the other room. Do the primary.
During the search it is possible, if not likely, that you will encounter the need for forcible-entry equipment. Everyone needs a tool and it should be one that can strike and pry at least. This tool will not only help sound floors and open access but may be used for your own preservation should things turn ugly.
As a chief officer I want to see my crew show up at all calls with the right compliment of tools. If they don't have them, I send them back. This helps develop a habit that will serve them well at that 2 a.m. call.
Search and rescue is a key skill for all of us; practice makes perfect. So get out there and practice the strategy, tactics and task before you need them.