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Residential Search: Complacency and Priorities

            When answering an alarm for a residential fire there are many tasks and priorities that must be addressed by the responding companies.  One of the most important yet frequently overlooked tactics is the various and multiple potential rescue scenarios that the first arriving companies may be confronted with. 

            The primary decision faced by the first arriving company is something that the company officer must decide on his own, whether or not to keep the balance of the alarm assignment responding code three or to slow them down or even cancel the balance of the first alarm assignment.

            Many firefighters are familiar with the fire service axiom that states the first five minutes will decide the outcome of the entire incident.  Unfortunately, in spite of this truism, it is all to common to hear radio traffic that downgrades the response or even cancels the balance of the alarm assignment when the first company arrives on scene and finds nothing showing from the exterior of the structure.  More times than not, this radio report usually happens before there are firefighters inside the occupancy.  “Engine 1 is arriving at a two and a half story single occupancy dwelling.  There is nothing showing.  All companies with the exception of Engine 1 can cancel.” 

            This is a scenario that repeats itself hundreds of times a day across the country.  Activated residential alarms are a typical response for any fire department.  And, with the proliferation of monitored residential alarms this type of response is becoming all the more of a daily occurrence.  Regrettably, the reality of this situation is that over 80% of these calls are false alarms that end up serving to create a lackadaisical attitude within firefighters.  The other side of the coin that goes hand in hand with these activated residential alarms is that when there really is a working fire, 66% of all firefighter fatalities occur at a residential fire incident that could have been controlled with one attack line and which the initial size up report was “nothing showing”.

            The correct and responsible tactical action for the company officer responding to activated residential fire alarms is to keep all responding companies coming code 3 until firefighters can actually gain access to the occupancy, or at the very least visualize the interior and verify there is no emergency.  Making tactical decisions from down the block, based on bystander information or basing actions on the last twenty false alarms is irresponsible and unprofessional and this behavior will come back to haunt.  Additionally, responding companies and officers must take in to account that they may not be in full possession of all the information that the dispatcher has gathered.

            Moreover, how unprofessional and irresponsible would it be for the first arriving company officer to cancel the balance of the alarm assignment only to have them re-dispatched, usually in a very excited manner, two minutes later?

Responding companies can always be slowed down to code 1 or even canceled after the alarm status is verified by firefighters inside the structure.  Consider how outraged the public would be to find out that a police officer assessed then canceled off of a bank hold up alarm from the parking lot without ever actually entering the bank?  Yet this is what many fire companies are doing every day when they respond to a residential fire alarm.

Keeping all dispatched companies responding code 3 may seem like a waste of time and resources to some, especially given the high percentage of false alarms in the residential occupancy.  However, of all the services provided by the fire department, seeing into the future is not one of them.  Each and every alarm must be treated as an actual emergency until it can be verified as a false alarm.  Therefore, it could be successfully argued that complacency is the largest contributing factor in many of the actual residential fires in which a civilian and/or firefighter is killed. 

Firefighters that are operating in an investigative mode at activated residential fire alarms must do so ready to go to work.  That means members are wearing full p.p.e. and s.c.b.a., as well as carrying a full compliment of hand tools that should include, at a minimum, a set of irons (eight pound flat head ax and Halligan bar), the can (a pressurized two and a half gallon water extinguisher) and a six-foot hook (pike pole).  Engine Company personnel must be preparing for immediate deployment of handlines while the officers ascertains the nature of the call.  Also, all members should be equipped with portable radios and flashlights.  An activated residential alarm must be treated as an actual emergency until firefighters have verified the situation.  Complacency kills and firefighters without hand tools are nothing more than well dressed spectators.

While operating in the investigative mode firefighters have already initiated the search phase of the operation.  During the search firefighters are actively looking for something, whether the search is for fire, assessing interior conditions, searching for victims or all of the above.

When carrying out a primary residential search for victims during a working residential fire, operating firefighters must give special attention to focusing their efforts on the High Target Areas within a residential occupancy.  The High Target Areas are the locations within a residential occupancy that a victim in need of rescue is most likely to be found by searching firefighters.


 The High Target Areas, in order of priority are:

  1. In direct proximity to the main/front door to the occupancy
  2. The bedrooms
  3. The bathrooms


The vast majority of victims that are rescued from residential occupancies that are involved in fire are usually located within direct proximity to the main door to the occupancy.  This is the door that the occupant is most likely to use.  These are the occupants that were attempting to exit/self rescue when they became overcome by the noxious environment.  Because human beings rely on and resort to habit during moments of crisis, residential occupants will generally attempt to flee their homes by the main door to the occupancy; the one they use all the time.

The second most likely place for victims in need of rescue to be located is in the bedroom area.  Most people that are aware of a fire will usually attempt to self-rescue.  Those occupants that are unable to self rescue and those that are unaware of the fire would be those occupants that are asleep, sick, intoxicated or invalid. 

When searching the bedroom firefighters must search but not actually enter the closets that are located in the bedrooms.  Closets and all that they contain are potential entanglement and death traps for firefighters.  Because closets become impromptu areas of refuge for frightened children, searching members should quickly sweep and probe the closet interior with their hand.   Firefighters must not use tools to probe the interior closet space; probing blindly with tools is very dangerous to the victim.  Whereas using a hand to search the closet interior will afford the best opportunity for the firefighters to identify objects as apposed to the time consuming guesswork of judging and evaluating what is being encountered through the shaft of a blindly probing steel tool.  Moreover, the speed at which the primary search is carried out is the essential factor toward firefighters making a rescue.

Firefighters should also be aware that it is not just children that hide during chaotic and dynamic events; elderly people will many times act in a childlike manner to these hyper-dynamic situations and will hide or ignore conditions when they perceive danger or are trapped by a fire.

Lastly and most overlooked by firefighters during the primary search are the bathrooms.  Residential occupancy bathrooms must be searched because trapped victims are drawn to them for the misguided belief that this location is a safe haven.  Victims wrongly believe that the tub, the shower spray or the tile will provide and element of safety for them while they await rescue.  Searching members must be sure to investigate those areas within the bathroom that they cannot visualize; i.e. the interior of the tub/shower.  A simple shower curtain can cause a victim to be missed during the primary search.  To avoid this mistake firefighters need only to place their hand into the tub/shower area as they pass by during the search.  

When responding to residential fire alarms or performing a residential search firefighters must be vigilant and guard against the worst enemy of all; complacency.  Following established departmental procedures and following safety guidelines will keep responders safe and efficient.  Residential fire alarms must be treated as actual emergencies until proven and verified otherwise.  And when firefighters are a performing the primary search of a residential occupancy the High Target Areas must be the initial main focus of their efforts.   

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Comment by Skip Coleman on January 25, 2014 at 5:56pm
Very good comments Michael (Mike). I agree with everything you said concerning search. I realize that older homes have small closets while the trend over the last 20 years or so where I live is "walk in" closets. This may be a cause for concern. Bottom line, know your buildings and adjust accordingly.

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