This article is inspired by a quick post I threw up on my Facebook page asking, "Is your Department Engine or Truck/Ladder Oriented?" Facebook- Backwards and Stupid. In that post I discussed many suburban departments tending to lean toward Engine work and leaving Truck work as an after thought. That's sort of where I am going with this post. In todays suburban fire departments and much of what is written about changing fire conditions and the need for different tactics we seem to be seeing one of two extremes. Either a ready acceptance to write off the fire building and any lives that may still be within or an aggressive push to advance the hose line and extinguish the fire rapidly before the new products of combustion can build and lead to flashover. But then does that push our primary role of life-safety protectors further down the list?
In the reality of today's fire service and the short-staffing that comes with it coordinated fire attack is not all feasible. Is it a surprise then that many departments cannot advance a line and mount an effective, aggressive search operation while trying to meet all the other fire ground benchmarks at the same time? Is an aggressive search operation even at the top of the typical suburban department's list? We all know it should be. We all know the textbooks and command classes say that it should be but many times departments become comfortable in the way that they run their "bread and butter" residential fires and become used to the fact that everyone self-evacuates. They rely on the neighbor's word that everyone is out. They lose the edge and don't expect anyone to be in the residence because the pressure is now off. Theoretically.
Not long ago a department in my general area was dispatched to a reported house fire. It was early evening, still before most people would have gone to bed for the evening. En route the local police confirmed a working living room fire and that "all occupants were out of the building." Upon arrival the first-due Engine found the front window of the living room had failed and was blowing a good volume of fire. The Lieutenant confirmed with the people standing out front that all occupants were accounted for and then issued his orders to his crew. The line was stretched and the couch and furnishings fire was extinguished quickly. Salvage, overhaul and the investigation was begun. By reports it was approximately 45 minutes after the extinguishment of the fire when crews went to the second story of the home to check for smoke trapping and to open windows if needed. It was there that they found the body of an elderly male. He was quickly removed and CPR and ALS care were attempted but he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead later at the hospital. The gentleman was the neighbor across the back yard who had seen the fire and run through the gate separating the yards, entered the home through the rear kitchen door and proceeded to attempt to search the house for the occupants knowing that they should probably be home. An autopsy later showed that the gentleman did have some elevated carbon monoxide levels from smoke inhalation as well as other chemicals from smoke but that he had suffered a massive heart attack as well. It was a tragedy for all involved. The family of the victim, the home owners and the fire department.
If we put the fire out does the situation get better for any possible victims? Yes. If we put the fire out does the situation get better and safer for us? Yes. Can the victims wait that long? That's the big question. Primary search needs to be accomplished as soon as your staffing allows. It needs to be accomplished early in the operation and with a purpose. The singular purpose of search for, locating and removing any viable life that may still be located within a building involved in fire. Even one that was said to be empty.