Reposted from May 2011 on BackstepFirefighter.com
In my academy we were not taught the art of search, instead we did “search and rescue” drills. When we entered a building be it the drill tower or an acquired structure we would immediately start our search as we were being trained to do. Starting off right hand or left hand; from the front door we begin with the sole purpose of finding a victim or reporting primary clear. The monotony of the drills was occasionally broken when instructors would “really hide” a victim or baby and embarrass you when they were missed. To prevent future embarrassment the next time you went in you searched with an even greater focus (tunnel vision) on finding that baby.
A few months later I am assigned to the tower and a fire drops. The new guy excitement is high. I hear the Chief tell my officer “upon your arrival you got ‘search and rescue’” I know i am going to work. All that is running through my new firefighter mind is “are we going to go right or left? (SEARCH) and, this is the real world so I better damn well not miss any victims (RESCUE).” Herein lies the problem.
My initial training left me short sighted and it has taken years of experience, study and training to change that.
We search for more than just victims. We search for fire, extension, egress, refuge, landmarks, any and all information that we can gather through our senses. The more information we have the better our situational awareness and the more efficient fire ground operations become through relaying interior intelligence. We can’t let this ‘walk before we crawl’ training happen anymore, teaching our new firefighters how to search before we tell them what they are looking for. “Search and Rescue” is not a single operation in fact it is two separate disciplines and must be presented as such if we are going to create professionals. Of course the priority of search is life and the greatest emphasis should be placed on the rapid location and removal of victims. Unfortunately, by training from our first exposure with a single objective lends itself to tunnel vision and puts us at a greater risk. Teach them to search, Show them search, Make them search before we ever introduce them to “Rescue”.
“Rescue” is the removal of victims from hazards. Rescue training and teaching must be separated from search as much as possible, especially in initial training where search techniques are still being developed. Rescue training should be focused in carries, drags and removal techniques. By separating rescue from search we take away one of the most distracting words/operations in the fire service.
Today’s fire service training programs include “stress inoculation” like mask confidence drills and maze training all aimed at improving the situational awareness of firefighters under stressful conditions. Our search training should echo this thought process by truly preparing our firefighters for search operations.
Teach Them Search
Search is a high risk high reward operation it is also a heavily researched and reported tactic. We need to give it the time it deserves in a classroom before we stumble around in buildings. Provide new members with a base through a solid education of search types, targets and methods. Initial teaching should include resources like these: More Aggressive Searches – Pressler , FDTN Fireground Search , Size Up Before You Search – Rhodes. Use real world experience to teach our firefighters not just a testable text. Before they are in gear, present and discuss topics such as size-up from building layout to window sill height and help build the slide trays between the ears.
Show Them Search
We all know what we will see if you tell a group of recruits to search a room without any further explanation. Avoid this waste of time that a line of ducks and flailing tools creates. If you want them to do it right then demonstrate it right. Put on a clinic and have them follow your search. Tell them how you are judging distance, land-marking, taking note of flooring type and door swings, all while they are observing your positioning and technique. Explain why you might stop your search to pop off some base board or a heat register to check for extension. They must be shown the seamless stream of movement and thought. Without this example search is little more than pokes and prods and yes or no victim confirmations.
Make Them Search
Operations are the function of knowledge and tools. Start off small and build from there, keeping the fundamentals consistent. Some people would view Vent Enter Search as an advanced drill. I believe it is the best place to begin your initial search training because it is perfect for forging the fundamentals. 1. VES stresses the importance of searching from the greatest threat out by sending firefighters first to control the door. 2. VES drives home the importance of knowing your egress. 3. VES challenges our minds to consider room layout from the outside so we can anticipate from our entry point (the window) which wall has the door I want to control. 4. Due to the limited area a VES search is typically performed by a single member. This helps with initial skill and technique development because each member is relying on themselves for orientation and quality of search 5. Finally, due to the small area being searched repetitions will be high which accelerates technique development and skill confidence.
Once the firefighters are successfully demonstrating to you the movements and methods you demonstrated to them in the single room search, you can then expand to fire floor and floor above search drills. At the end of the day or week when firefighters are consistently performing quality searches make them provide the reports to reinforce the fact that they truly understand the totality of the mission. “Command from T10 – primary search on the 2nd floor is negative for victims and extension. Smoke conditions are moderate and windows have been left intact.”
I just want to conclude by making the statement that I know this is not a new message. It is very similar to that which Chief Rhodes presents in the article that is linked above and so many others out there are also communicating. For me it is the fact that our department is currently developing a class of recruits brought it to mind. I wish to ensure that they understand that search is an art and not just a question to be answered yes or no. I know that the counterpoint to this article will come from this community. Especially due to the facts that rescue techniques, tools and practices are always a hot topic. I welcome it for my own improvement and the fact is that this is simply my opinion and not factual material that can be proven. But before the barrage starts here is my message in black and white. I don’t wish to downplay the importance of Rescue training. I just believe that for initial instruction, optimizing understanding and skill development search and rescue must be separated.