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Interior Search - Flipping the Survivability Question

The practice of estimating the likelihood of finding living persons inside a burning building, and basing a large part of our risk determination on this calculation - more specifically, the decision whether to enter the building to perform a search - has spawned fervent discussions in the fire service, to say the least.  One side cites the lack of justification for risking firefighters’ lives if it is unlikely there is anyone alive to rescue, and the other argues that the only method for ensuring no savable victim is present is the interior search.  Some question the dogma of immediately entering a burning structure without first performing a risk-benefit analysis, and others point out the potentially self-fulfilling effect of delays imposed by such questioning.  As with many debates amongst firefighters regarding operational issues, where all participants actually share the same goals and aspirations, the differences are in the focus, not necessarily the execution.  That is, the debate is more philosophical than practical, although that renders the members of the various camps no less passionate.  And, as with many issues I have covered in this blog, I’d like to offer a different perspective altogether.

Much about the process of search is not up for debate.  It comprises one of the few absolutes in firefighting, in that it must always be performed at a structure fire.  Usually twice.  Some fire service commentators have compiled extensive listings of various non-residential, after-hours commercial, abandoned, or otherwise apparently uninhabited structures in which occupants were, in fact, found after a fire was reported, emphasizing this very point.  All of us in the fire service can also agree on why we search and what it entails, while who performs that process is a necessarily jurisdictional- and situational-specific decision, and therefore not an appropriate subject for this type of general discussion.  For the where, starting at the area most threatened by the hazard has been the traditional teaching, though this has been modified by some to instead initially focus on those areas most likely to remain tenable (e.g., separated from the involved area by a closed door).  Eventually, of course, it must encompass the entire incident scene.  It’s the when of interior search that inspires most of our disagreement, and which will be the focus of this blog.  (Please note that this discussion concerns interior search alone.  An exterior search is actually a part of size-up, which should precede any actions performed inside the involved structure.)

(This advocacy for interior search comes to you from someone who has gone on record stating my belief that the majority of fatalities from structure fires occur before we even get the call to respond [].  I hereby acknowledge the continued imperative of this activity, despite its statistical futility, with the intent of this post being to improve our ability to manage its inherent risks.)

Regarding timing, the general guideline is “as soon as possible”.  In reality, this ranges from "immediately" to "during overhaul”, or from the first thing done to one of the last, depending upon circumstances.  Efforts to minimize delays in initiating search infuse all aspects of firefighting training and preparation, such as by repeatedly drilling on its techniques, donning PPE and SCBA before arrival, and pre-assignment of the task.  The common situational factors that confound attempts to move this action closer to the front of the line in the tactical sequence include the number of firefighters available, which limits how many different tasks can be performed or areas searched at once; the intensity of the fire itself, preventing, as it can, entry before cooling; and the extent of structural damage already incurred, and resultant potential for collapse, which, in my opinion, is a primary component of firefighters' risk profile.  Our response to, and ability to manage, these three variables, or not, in large part determines our relative speed, and therefore potential success, in accomplishing the search function.

Looking at this short list of search speed determinants, the common theme is that each is firefighter-focused, not victim-focused, and this recognition, in my opinion, should therefore lead to a shift in the focus of our approach to, and discussions about, the topic.  Now, I know many readers might bristle (or stop reading) at the suggestion that we are more important than civilians, but that is neither what I said nor believe.  While estimating occupant tenability is a vital step, every structure still gets searched eventually, even those with flames coming from every opening on our arrival, where there is no chance of finding anyone still living.  Whether we hope they're alive or are sure they're dead, we search as soon as we are able.  Instead of victim survivability, then, which remains a valid component of any risk benefit consideration, I would argue that it’s firefighter survivability that is the most important element in calculating the “Go/No Go” equation regarding interior search.  This is not a matter of priorities, but of realities.  That is, we delay performing a search not because we think it will be fruitless, but because we think it not yet safe enough to perform.  Though there remains much disagreement about the definition of “safe enough”, that is the practical question that determines when "as soon as possible” actually occurs, and therefore should frame the debate.   

So, if we accept the universal requirement to perform a search, and are eventually going to do so regardless of the likelihood of occupant survival, or even presence, let’s take the time to look at the three variables identified above - staffing, fire, and stability - to more fully understand how they function as constraints, and how they might be addressed.  Note that each of these factors, while certainly interrelated, can impact operations independently of the other two: A lack of personnel might delay entry with even a small fire in a sturdy building, while an intense fire and/or an unstable structure can prevent an army of firefighters from entering.  They are also dynamic; often changing, for better or worse, as the incident progresses.

Simply put, staffing directly affects flexibility and efficiency, and therefore tactical timing and speed.  The more firefighters available, the sooner search can be initiated, especially if other activities are competing for attention (in particular, fire control), and the quicker it can be completed.  The hard stop in some cases is the OSHA 2-in/2-out rule, which precludes interior activities in an Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) environment unless at least four SCBA-equipped firefighters are on-scene or it is a confirmed rescue situation.  Unlike the other two issues, staffing is at least potentially amenable to preparation, using such strategies as increasing crew sizes, adding companies on initial alarms, and instituting automatic mutual aid.  Still, even if your department assembles a standard convoy of apparatus and firefighters before responding, there will be at least some instances when there are insufficient personnel on-scene to accomplish all of the necessary tasks simultaneously.  In those situations where the deployment of available personnel must be prioritized, the ideal initial tactic at a potentially occupied structure on fire would be that which is expected to have the greatest positive impact for building occupants.  Usually, fire control most quickly improves conditions throughout a structure, thereby buying time for anyone inside and still alive.  The search process, on the other hand, is necessarily methodical, and therefore takes longer to produce benefit.  (“Everything gets better once the fire goes out” may be overly simplistic, but it’s not inaccurate.)  When fire control cannot be accomplished quickly, there are relatively few viable search areas, and/or sufficient personnel are available, interior entry might then be undertaken earlier (think big or deep-seated fires, bedrooms, and/or Truckies looking for something to do).   

Which leads us into the next issue: Cooling, at least in the search area, is a non-negotiable prerequisite for search.  Much as we train, equip, wish and promise to endure fire in pursuit of finding victims, the most bad a** firefighter in the best PPE can at best tolerate temperatures up to about 400F/200C, well below that of any blaze, or exhaust flow path, prior to the application of water.  Fortunately, we now know that, when properly performed, fire extinguishment has no ill effects, and profound benefits, for occupants, reversing what had been fire service dogma delaying or otherwise constraining the use of hose streams before or during search.  We can sometimes skirt the fire control requirement, at least temporarily, by avoiding areas that communicate with the involved portion of the structure.  Such is the rationale for VEIS (Vent, Enter, Isolate, Search) - or what I propose to simplify and call WE (Window Entry) - especially if occupants have gotten the “Close Before You Doze” message.  Lacking sufficient separation of the entry point from the involved area, any openings created by searchers risk transitioning compartment conditions from tenable to untenable, so rapid assurance of door control is a necessity, and sometimes lifesaving (for both searcher and searchee).  

The final component in this risk analysis model - structural collapse - is simultaneously the least preventable, least predictable, and, arguably, least survivable hazard facing firefighters in, or near, a burning building.  While even a lone firefighter might be able to complete a comprehensive search in the right circumstances, and all fires will eventually be cooled to a level that a firefighter in PPE can endure, an unstable building can prevent entry indefinitely, sometimes requiring its dismantling as a precursor to search.  The few measures we have available for safeguarding searchers from this danger, involving sounding floors and the interior use of ladders across compromised areas, can protect us from falling, but only our helmets and wits protect us from the building falling.  Also, unlike the known parameters of staffing and the obvious barrier posed by uncontrolled fire, collapse is a hidden threat that requires careful inspection, constant suspicion, and extensive training and experience for its detection.  Certainly, obvious signs, such as cracked mortar, tilted flooring, and loud creaking, will lead to avoidance measures, but ascertaining the presence of undeclared deterioration requires our utmost attention and intuition.  Observation or suspicion of fire impinging on structural members, knowledge of heavyweight interior contents or rooftop components, and even such basic information as the location of the fire’s origin and current extent, help to inform this decision.  Still, it remains a difficult to assess and uncontrollable variable in the risk/benefit determination regarding interior activities.

The decision regarding when to initiate an interior search requires much more than intention and desire, both of which are in universally great supply amongst firefighters.  Making the best use of what may be limited personnel resources; rapidly cooling the interior environment to improve tenability for both firefighters and occupants; and accurately predicting the potential for, and avoiding the area that might be affected by, collapse, are requirements for maximizing our success with this tactic.  Our ability to address these challenges in large part determines our effectiveness as lifesavers.


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