Go/no-go search tactics: Research and experience drive decision-making
UL’s FSRI studies underscore the need for smart size-ups, quick thinking and aggressive action
By Chad Christensen and Kevin Lewis
We all know by now that today’s fire environment has changed, but have your department’s tactics changed? Have your officers’ decision-making processes become more rapid in identifying the signs of smoke and fire that play a key role in size-up?
Understanding the modern fire environment, building construction and occupancy type, as well as predictable victim locations, will help us in the rapid decision-making process and in developing a mental incident action plan (IAP). It is only then that we can initiate our best tactical actions to support the IAP and strategic objectives for the incident.
The first priority on the fireground is life, so the first-arriving officer must identify and prioritize tactics that support this priority.
In the last few years, we have seen an increased number of victims being located in residential structure fires. With more people working from home and finding victims becoming more frequent, we need to arm ourselves with knowledge to be more effective on the fireground. The good news: With all the information we have today – thanks in large part to UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute – we can educate ourselves to make decisions on the fireground that support a more aggressive and effective approach to locating potential victim locations.
For example, the results of the recent FSRI Study of Fire Service Residential Home Size-up and Search & Rescue Operations shows that there is more survivable space inside of a structure than once thought. While this is reassuring, it also means the clock is ticking and every second counts. Victims’ exposure to heat and toxic gases is time- and dose-dependent. Research shows that a victim located just outside the fire room has a window of survivability if we can reach them in time. It may be a short window upon our arrival, and this again reminds us that our actions need to be quick and deliberate to either improve conditions or get to the victim and isolate them from the fire room as quickly as possible. When a victim is located, immediate removal to the outside or isolation behind a closed door until removal must be considered. This consideration is based on the premise that dragging a victim through smoke and toxic gas may not be ideal.
Further, we once assumed that a flashed-over room was not survivable. Yet we have seen victims found in fully involved fire rooms or rooms venting heavy smoke that have been rescued successfully. This reinforces the need for us to take quick action by entering a structure through a window to isolate the room and make rescue a high priority.
At the same time, we need to identify whether it is faster to flow water from the interior or exterior to reach the seat of the fire. We know that fast water on the fire immediately reduces temperatures, making the environment better for everyone trapped inside; however, the toxic gases are still present, and those civilians need us to remove them from the structure. Our rapid decisions and actions could be the difference between a grab and a body recovery.
Size-up directs decisions
On the initial size-up, we need to focus on identification of smoke and fire conditions. Reading the smoke, volume, velocity, density and color can tell us the location of fire. This, coupled with identifying the flow path, can get us moving in the right direction to where we can most effectively begin our search plan.
Do we just have smoke from an open front door? Then make entry and get water on the fire and put as many bodies into that space as possible depending on your response model. If you have the staffing and can identify that a bedroom on the second floor, for example, appears to have no smoke from the window, we can assume that the bedroom door is closed and that room is isolated from the fire.
Do we have smoke from that same window and a report of a potential victim inside? If so, then we need to be in a position to get a ladder to the window and try and isolate it with the interior door to then allow the member or members to search the room and potentially remove the victim. Also, consider searching opposite of the fire attack entry point. We must flood the structure with firefighters and water at the same time, working in tandem to rescue civilians.
Breaking down search size-up
If we've heard it once, we've heard it a million times: Size-up is critical. This will always be the case.
The search size-up is no less critical, and it must take into consideration many different aspects of the fireground. Firefighters must have a deep understanding of building construction as it relates to smoke and fire spread throughout the structure. Based on the location and extent of the fire, firefighters must be able to quickly identify the most likely path of egress for trapped occupants and quickly occupy that space. This may necessitate the initiation of the search from the opposite side of the residence of the fire attack entry point. This is so that as the fire attack team occupies the area en route to the seat of the fire, the search team occupies the egress areas opposite that. These areas are likely paths of ingress and egress for people, and we must put ourselves there.
We must also acknowledge that since the rollout of the Close Before You Doze program, our citizens may be self-isolating behind a closed door, as they have been instructed to do to protect themselves from fire. They are waiting for us, and we must be there.
This situation will likely require a vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) tactic. All firefighters must be trained, able and willing to execute this extremely effective tactic for our citizens. We took an oath to protect them, and we must always be true to this.
Of course, with all this said, firefighters MUST be adaptable and mentally flexible on the fireground. We must constantly use the principles of the OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, act) to adjust to changing information all around us.
Bottom-line search decisions
Yes, size-up is critical and must continue throughout the search. No two searches will be the same, but firefighters must be able to put themselves in the most likely places to find trapped occupants. We need to be better at leaning on our experience and educate ourselves as to the most effective ways to do our job. And ultimately, we must be willing to adjust our tactics in a manner that best serves our citizens.
Bottom line: Search and extinguishment are two of the most time-critical tasks on the fireground, so let's make them a priority!
About the Authors
Chad Christensen is a battalion chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department where he has served since 2002. Christensen is a founding member of the LACoFD Fire Behavior Cadre and is the lead fire dynamics instructor for the department. He helped implement fireground tactical changes in Los Angeles County starting in 2013 based on UL Fire Safety Research Institute research, and continues to update department tactics based on new research. Christensen previously served as a technical panel member for the FSRI Fire Attack Study and the Coordinated Fire Attack study, and is a current member of the FSRI Fire Dynamics Boot Camp Instructor Cadre. Christensen assisted in the roll out of NFPA 1700 with UL FSRI’s online training program and ISFSI’s regional training, and has helped agencies across the country in developing live-fire training programs.
Kevin Lewis is a battalion chief with Cobb County (Georgia) Fire & Emergency Services where he has served 27 years with the department. Lewis is on the State of Georgia Incident Management Blue Team and the NFPA 1931/1932 committee on ground ladders. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware, and has instructed extensively in both classroom and hands-on training environments across the country. Lewis is a member of the Terry Farrell Firefighters Fund, supporting firefighters and their families.