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How to survive: Disorientation on the fireground

Establish side alpha, stay disciplined in your direction, pay attention to sights and sounds, and use “breadcrumbs” to establish a route


Photo/Vince Bettinazzi

“What wall are you on?” “Are you right hand or left hand?” “Do you know where you are?”

These questions were repeatedly asked by my instructors, echoed by the two of them in unison like training parrots, locked in a cage, squawking to get a cracker.

I say “asked” but they were screamed in stereo only a few inches from my ear. But I couldn’t know for sure, my vision obscured by my black flash hood pulled over the front of my SCBA mask. To be honest, the only thing I could hear clearly was the sounds of my breathing – the deep inhalations as I pulled the air supplied to my face through the attached regulator.

I was tasked with leading the assigned search team in this evolution focused on disorientation – the condition of having lost one’s sense of direction. Another recruit firefighter was depending on me to move him quickly through the training maze. We’ve been in here at least half a dozen times before. Again, we were looking for a simulated victim – a rock, the size of a deck of cards that they picked up on the training ground about an hour before our drill began. This was a larger “victim” compared to the quarter that was unfortunately trapped in a simulated fire event yesterday that was missed by three separate two-member search teams; finally, a fourth team was able to locate it.

“What wall? What hand? Where are you? Move, move, move, the victim doesn’t have much time!” Poor rock.

These drills are designed to keep us oriented, provide a learned sense of direction, and keep us progressing inside a dark unknown environment. But are there other factors that can assist us in maintaining orientation on the fireground in similar circumstances?

Disorientation on the fireground

When it comes to preventing disorientation on the fireground, we learn in our training that all search techniques derive from a form of orientation. A right- or left-hand search is the basic foundation when this chapter of firefighter training begins. A starting point, that is as true and reliable as due North on a trusty compass. This technique allows firefighters to establish a planned pattern for search and drives them in a direction. Two choices, right or left, and go.

Ironically, I felt lost a lot. I also moved slow, obsessed with maintaining contact with the wall of my choice. I never wanted not to lose orientation within the structure. I know I was searching for life and fire, but I needed to always know where I was in case the team and I needed to get out.

The obsession with maintaining contact with the wall for orientation resulted in poor search techniques. Now add the stress of maintaining contact with another team member or two, and the effectiveness of our search depreciated.

Establishing side alpha

How many times have you been to a structure that doesn’t really fit the “address side is alpha” algorithm. Maybe the first-in engine hits a rear alley off a one-way street or there is a guest house off the rear of the main home. In any event, there are circumstances where side alpha may need to be designated and repeatedly communicated on the incident scene. There is not time to debate. The IC needs to get the chess board established and be loud about the location of side alpha. Are there attached exposures? We’ll establish those as well. When working inside high-rise buildings, get those stairwells identified for the responding crews too. My recommendation is to stay away from the cardinal directions for naming staircases and sides. If there is a big number 4 painted inside the stairwell, use this identifier and relate it to your established Alpha designation. Make the designation sensible to the structure and friendly to the working companies when dealing with abnormal structures. Use a visible marker, like a specific fire apparatus or command post to assist with establishing side alpha. Remember, if there is no parameter for orientation on the incident, then disorientation is more likely to occur.

Wall = direction


Photo/Vince Bettinazzi

You can never really predict what you will find in structures. We do our best to prepare, especially with a good 360 or size-up completed prior to entry. Think of right hand and left hand as establishing a search direction. Yes, the wall is intended to be the orientation point on a right-hand or left-hand search, but I would argue that the effectiveness of our searches increase by using other means of orientation. After all, it’s called a wall, not a railing. Go look at your kid’s bedroom. How much “wall” would you really touch if you had to search it? For me, I have approximately 3 feet under their window. Otherwise, I would be pushed out into the center of the room by their dressers, a dollhouse, a heap of dirty clothes in the laundry basket, and beds. And isn’t that where we’d expect to find our potential victims anyway?

With this in mind, follow these tips:

  • Stay disciplined in the direction.
  • Be systematic and use the size-up to guide your decisions for movement through the structure.
  • Announce this direction to the other members of your team, assisting companies and the incident commander. This gives everyone some expectations that can guide additional decisions based upon supporting these initial actions of the search team.

Breadcrumbs establish a route

We can also use “breadcrumbs” to prevent disorientation.

Thermal imagers are a powerful example. These tools have evolved so much in comparison to the first versions of the 1990s. Use the camera to scan your surroundings and assist with your decision-making to search, as they cut through the smoke to display details like furniture and doorways inside the structure.

We often think of using search ropes in large structures, but they can be deployed in many more circumstances. Have you ever tried to deploy a search rope in a residential building? Consider ropes for searches in large homes, apartment buildings and high-rise buildings, in addition to the schools, Walmarts and libraries in your area.

Finally, hand tools are great breadcrumbs too. This may spark debate, but I would argue you search better without swinging a tool. Your hands can provide more feedback via the sense of touch than a 30-inch metal Halligan bar ever will. We know that our vision is often obscured, but a gloved hand can do wonders in making sense of objects inside a building. So, train using your tool as an orientation object. As you enter a bedroom, place the tool on the side of the door in the direction you start your search. As you eventually circle back to your starting point, the tool will serve as the breadcrumb marking your starting point. Grab it, exit and go to your next place to search.

Sights and sounds help

The fireground is loud. This can actually help you maintain orientation inside the structure. We may be able to hear the hustle-bustle of engine, trucks, fans, sirens and other tools at work. As you move toward a certain side of the structure, these noises might become more muted – a signal of your location. I vividly remember hearing the rapid “beep, beep, beep, beep” of our ladder truck’s outriggers extending as I entered the front bedroom of a house to search. No doubt I was near the alpha side then. You may also catch the reflection of flashing lights through front/side windows of structures, serving as another indicator where you are located.

Working smoke alarms are imperative in quickly alerting occupants of a fire. But they can also provide intelligence to firefighters inside the structure. Typically placed inside bedrooms or near the common hallways, the devices’ steady beeping can lead search crews in the best direction to locate these rooms. Pay attention to whether the beeping from the devices suddenly stop, serving as an indicator of fire growth or increased intensity. Rising temperatures at the ceiling level will eventually damage the alarms. This can give you an early warning that actions need to be taken to control the fire.

Additional tips

Some other tips to prevent disorientation:

  • Thresholds and flooring: Flooring types can change throughout a structure. This might indicate a new area or room, especially if a threshold/doorway is passed. Unfortunately, the trend for the same flooring, like vinyl or hardwood throughout the home, will impact this indicator.
  • Door swings: Doors that lead to bedrooms and bathrooms will typically swing inward, while outward-swinging doors may indicate closets, pantries, basements and even residential elevators. The front door of a residential home often swings toward the cluster of bedrooms, especially in single-story homes.
  • Smoke draw: The lowest level of smoke will draw toward the direction of the fire as fresh air is pulled below the upper layer of hot smoke in a bidirectional flow path. This may help you decide where to begin your searches or to stretch your attack lines after making entry.
  • “Oriented person”: Designate one member of the company or crew whose primary focus is to monitor conditions, decide on movement, and maintain orientation inside the structure. This is especially beneficial in larger crews – three or more. The other members can focus on the specific task, with the oriented person remaining in position.
  • Hand search: Hand tools are valuable, but searching with the swing of a Halligan bar or handle of an axe doesn’t provide the same intelligence as our hands. Identifying specific furniture items or physically feeling doorways can help our brains paint a picture of our environment. Our hands identify items faster, and when we know what we are touching, it can increase our situational awareness in comparison to the thudding and poking of objects with tools.

Final thoughts

Operating in real fire conditions can be a challenge. I would bet that every firefighter has experienced a situation in their career where they became a little confused and disoriented, even if that was during recruit school. I hope you have done the best to learn from these experiences because disorientation happens all the time. How do you prepare, plan and recover in these circumstances? I hope these survival tips offer critical insight.

Vince Bettinazzi joined the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department in 2007. He currently holds the rank of battalion chief and is assigned as a shift commander on C-Shift. Bettinazzi is a member of the department’s Ocean Rescue Team as a certified USLA lifeguard. He completed the NFA’s Managing Officer Program in 2016, and recently obtained his Chief Fire Officer Designation from CPSE. Bettinazzi is a co-host on the “Beyond the Stretch” podcast.