Before we begin discussing the methods of primary search, let’s give it a clear definition. The definition I will present right now is an extended version of what you might have already read in the Firefighter I book and contains a number of additional fundamentally important principles.
Here it is:
Primary search is a rapid and systematic search for the survivable victims and a seat of fire during initial stages of firefighting expecting zero visibility and possibly unknown or modified layout.
Let’s take a look at the important principles built into this definition.
First of all, primary search must be rapid. It is conducted during initial stages of fighting the fire, when little is known about the extent of the disaster and victims still have the best survival chances. It is exactly because of that reason the primary search needs to be quick – for an unprotected civilian, whose body is exposed to smoke, temperature, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, every second can be a matter of life and death. Similarly, a rapid delivery of information about the location of the fire allows IC to direct the deployment of the first hose line in the most efficient way possible. This is important because proper placement of first attack line saves most lives in modern fires. So, the speed of the search is what differentiates primary search from other search and rescue operations that firefighters may be asked to perform, like secondary search or urban search and rescue. All methods of primary search must meet the requirement for speed, of course without jeopardizing the safety of the search teams.
Secondly, primary search must be systematic. This requirement stems from the fact that the fire in its nature is a chaotic phenomenon – it destroys structures created by humans (such as buildings and vehicles), while releasing tremendous amounts of energy. The job of firefighters is to stop the spread of this chaos. Given the fact that firefighters must come in proximity with this phenomenon while doing their job, it becomes clear that the chaos can easily spread onto the firefighters themselves – our actions, unless we plan and control them, can quickly degrade to frantic movement under stress, we can become witnesses or participants of panic reactions, including those involving whole groups of individuals. Lastly, similarly to the building structures, the structures of our own bodies will fail and disintegrate if we come into immediate contact with the fire.
In order to avoid such tragic outcomes and at the same time successfully complete the primary search, it is necessary to prevent the spread of chaos of fire onto ourselves. This can only be accomplished by conducting the search systematically – that is, by using the rules of search that were tried and agreed upon in advance, and by making a specific yet flexible plan of actions, as well as by assigning concrete roles to each search team member.
Thirdly, primary search is a search for and rescue of those victims who still can be saved. Compared to the fires we were seeing thirty years ago, modern fires are faster spreading, more toxic and more deadly to humans. This is happening because the fuel loads have changed. Furniture, household items, electronic devices, clothing, even some building materials are now made of plastic and other synthetic compounds which produce heavy and toxic smoke, while before it was all predominantly natural wood that was the fuel. Add to this improved energy efficiency of the building which helps trap the heat and toxins inside and one sad truth becomes evident – an unprotected human no longer survives in a compact fire compartment. All the efforts of search teams must be directed at rescuing the maximum number of those humans that are being affected by the products of combustion (smoke, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide), and not those few who were subject to the direct and lethal effects of the fire.
Fourthly, primary search should be taught and conducted with the expectation of zero visibility and unknown or altered layout. We will discuss this in greater detail a bit later, but here is a short version. Search teams must prepare themselves for the worst possible conditions and must be able to carry out the search assignments even if visibility is poor or absent due to heavy smoke or lack of illumination and the layout turns out not what you expected it to be. Because of that reason all practice evolutions, skills drills, navigation methods, selection of tools and their use must be aimed at working in exactly the conditions of zero visibility and unknown layout.
Zero visibility and unknown layout should be an operating norm for the search team members, while partial or full visibility and familiar layout should be treated as pleasant, but never guaranteed “presents”. Certainly, firefighters should be able and ready to use these “gifts” to their advantage by employing a more advanced tool or technique, thus accelerating the search, but they should never count on them. At the end, we bear a moral and professional responsibility to save lives in any conditions that are tenable for a firefighter properly dressed in full PPE.