Conducting the Primary Search
Over and over again we come back to this fundamental question: "Why does the fire department exist?" In answering it, we continuously return to life safety as the answer. Society keeps funding fire departments and other emergency services because it acknowledges implicitly that human life is fragile and explicitly that it's valued and deserves to be saved whenever possible. That brings us to the primary search.
The primary search is probably the single most important function carried out on the fireground. It's the best chance for saving lives at an incident. That said, the primary search is also the fundamental basis of a great number of lies told relating to the fireground in after-action reviews and awards ceremonies. So many people freelance in the name of searching that you begin to wonder if the search is actually that important.
This article will take a closer look at the search function on the fireground, provide some enabling structure to the risk benefit analysis as it relates to the primary search, make some suggestions for speeding up the search and finally question some common practices as they relate to the primary search.
It is important that we search every single structure where there is a reasonable chance of a person being alive inside. The focus here is on reasonable. It is reasonable to believe that the upstairs occupants of a house with a fully involved basement could be alive. But it is not reasonable to believe that those people still in the basement could be, too.
It is reasonable that a child in an apartment adjacent to the fire apartment, in a back bedroom with the bedroom door closed, could be alive. But it is not reasonable to believe that a child in a post-flashover compartment could be as well.
Human skin burns at about 140 F. People need the same oxygen that the fire consumes and are made ill by the same carbon monoxide the fire produces. A person in a compartment that catches on fire, who does not escape within seconds, is probably not alive. If they are, it is therefore a miracle — and those do not require fire department intervention.
Given this information, the risk/benefit analysis kind of does itself. Searching a structure is always the right thing to do to. But it's not always the right thing to do without the protection of a hose line or when the fire conditions make being alive an unreasonable proposition.
People try to work around the reasonable standard. They argue that we cannot "play God" by assuming that the occupants of a house are dead. They are same who call to get orders to terminate CPR, citing futile resuscitation rules.
Speeding the search
Conducting the search is obviously very important. To maximize the likelihood that it will be successful, the search should start in an area as close to the fire as possible. What should drive the decision? "If someone is still alive in here, where would they most likely be?”
This usually means that searching in the fire room has less to do with maximizing life safety than it does with getting some helmets dirty. In addition, all those people standing lined up in the hallway on approach to the fire room would probably be better served searching other areas.
A search should always be coordinated, which means that someone should always be placed in charge of it; I prefer to use a search group with an assigned search group leader. Assigning search to a group ensures that there is one person who is ultimately responsible for getting these things done.
Perhaps the best way to get a search done faster is to concentrate on areas that are not being searched already. What I mean is that each engine and truck, as they move through a given space, should spend some portion of their effort in searching the areas they are moving through. Engine companies can stretch out a hand or a foot as they move through the living room or down a hallway. The search is what is important, right? This also means that the search group should coordinate with other groups/divisions to reduce the duplication of effort. If the engine can verify that all the rooms in a given apartment between the door and the room on fire are clear, why should the search group search them again?
With regard to using the thermal imaging camera, I am torn. I have used it to search apartments and I have searched apartments without them. It is my personal feeling that I can move faster and be more efficient without the camera, but that is simply my opinion. I continue to acknowledge that the thermal imager is a tool with utility, but also one that should only be used after considerable practice time.
No matter what, everything — venting, fire attack, laddering, and all other fireground duties — should be driven primarily by the needs of the crews searching. When the primary search is declared over, then and only then should the focus shift to putting the fire out.
Questioning some practices
If we are there to conduct a primary search, doesn't it make sense to conduct that search under optimum conditions? If the people are more important than the property, then we should be willing to sacrifice property in order to facilitate saving people. Imagine then a three-story garden apartment at 0200 hours. The terrace unit is on fire. You stretch your line into the building's front door to find a light smoke condition in the common stairwell and the door to the fire apartment closed. Would you, A: Open the door to the fire apartment so that you can go put the fire out because "you put the fire out and all the problems go away," or do you instead do B: Leave the door shut until you can evacuate the remainder of the building?
A few paragraphs back we discussed some ways of speeding up a primary search and these suggestions assumed an apartment or compartment with little to no visibility. How much faster would the search go and how much more effective would it be if we could do it without any smoke condition at all because we left the door to the fire apartment closed?
When we arrive at the fire apartment on the 20th floor of a residential high rise, why must we open the door to the common corridor? Typically the answer is because we can't put the fire out with the door closed. But putting the fire out is not, or should not, be our primary motivator.
These are some interesting questions to mull over. I don't provide or even suggest any answers because the answers depend on the situation that you find yourself in. In my world, help is already there before I can get the hose off of the truck. Second-alarm units are usually arriving within a few minutes of the initial dispatch, but you may not be so lucky where you are.
I work with seven-person ladder trucks and six-person rescue squads; again you may not be that lucky. You must figure out what you have to do with what resources you have, but no matter who or where you are the same objectives apply. Do what is the right thing to do for the people — and then worry about the fire.