When conducting a primary search, the Officer must take several things into consideration very quickly:
While en-route to the call you need to monitor the radio. Listen to where the fire is located. Know the type of structure and occupancy you are responding too. As you arrive on the scene, look at as many sides of the building as possible. What is the construction of the structure? What is the time of day? What is the status of the occupants? With all of this information, as the officer you need to determine where you and your crew will start your search.
What type of building are you running? Is it a commercial building, a single family dwelling, a garden apartment or a high-rise? Treat all buildings as if they are occupied not matter the time of day of type of structure. Commercial buildings may have workers that are working late. There may be cleaning staff in the building during the time of the alarm. I ran a commercial high-rise fire early in my career. The time was 3am and the building was two doors down from the fire house. We arrived on the scene in seconds with heavy fire on the 7th floor. This particular high-rise had a radio station on the 10th floor with a DJ who was trapped and could not evacuate. Once the fire was knocked he was rescued. The same holds true for vacant structures. There may be squatters in the structure. A search must be completed, as long as it is safe to do so. The take away is to never assume a building is unoccupied. The type of building may alter your search. You may need to evacuate occupants from a residential prior to making it to the fire floor. Sometimes the best option is to shelter residents in place. Assure these occupants are safe and are away from the fire.
As you arrive on the scene listen to the crews operation on the scene. Listen to where they have located fire. Normally you would want to start your search as close to the fire and work your way to other areas of the structure. It is important to not put yourself and your crew ahead of the hose line while searching. Placing yourself between the fire and the hose can result in injuries form fire or a flowing hand line. The first in engine crew should be searching as they move the line forward towards the fire. As a special service (truck or rescue squad) you should be searching behind the engine crew and searching rooms off the hall that the engine crew is moving down. Once the fire is being knocked, you can vent while you search. This will improve visibility, as well as relieve heat conditions. When the fire location is not known ventilation should be limited and be a coordinated effort between the engine and the special service. Indiscriminately ventilating could spread fire onto your search.
Where are you going to start your search? In a house the choice may be easy you are going to start at the most severally threatened area, this is the fire area. When it comes to apartments and high-rises the decision may be different. When people are hanging off balconies you may need to deal with that before you can head inside. You must start with the most severally threatened. Occupants on the fire floor should be rescued first, then go to the floor above then the remainder of the hazard zone. If your efforts are going to start outside over ladders you must notify command so he/she can ensure a search can be done inside. The same holds true for interior search, fire apartment, fire floor, floor above and finally exposures. If manpower is not an issue these tasks can be accomplished simultaneously. Let command know you will be splitting your crew to do multiple searches.
What type of search will be employed; a simple room to room search using a clockwise or counter-clockwise pattern? Maybe large areas search using ropes? Do the conditions dictate a VEIS (vent enter isolate search) your scene size will dictate what you will do. When conducting a room to room search you can search several rooms quickly. Crews can use one firefighter in the room and one at the door or both searching in opposite directions in the same room. When the decision is made to use large area search, coordination is key. All members’ musk know what the plan is and how to deploy ropes and how to search off the main rope. Large area search must be practice in order to be proficient. There are many factors that need to be known such as air consumption, good communications and a marking system on the rope to know how far into the building you have gone. VEIS is a once maybe twice in a career evolution. This search technique is deployed what a direct search is done into an area of a known trapped occupant. This type of search may be done under adverse fire conditions with or without a hand line, over ladders over top of an uncontrolled fire. This type of search is one of the more dangerous tactics. When a decision is made to perform this type of search the first crew member will vent the window and allow the room to vent fire may erupt with the introduction of air. You may have to abandon the search if the room flashes. One the room vents and no fire follows the crew member enters the room and quickly finds the door and shuts it. This isolates the search from the rest of the structure. A quick search is conducted, if a victim is found they are passed out to awaiting crews. Once the search is complete notify command. Keeping constant communication with your crew and with command is key to ensure safety.
A good scene size up will ensure your crew is on the same page and will aid in a quick and search. Search and rescue is a skill should be practice often. Like any other skill it is perishable and the time for a refresher is not on the scene of a fire.