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Is Large Area Search Really The Answer?

Keeping with our search theme from the last post this video highlights “Large Area Search” training. This is a tactic that is supposed to be used with large commercial occupanices in order to locate victims in the structure.

Honestly speaking this tactic in my opinion is a shot in the dark at best that will typically only succeed with a lot of luck on your side. The video speaks for itself, sure its training but that highlights my point even further. The technique is slow, and time-consuming under training conditions, these things will only be magnified under hostile conditions of high heat, noise, and additional building features.

These guys had a relatively easy evolution, aprox. 50 feet in a wide open concrete pad, with no ancillary noise (minus the victims pass device), and no random debris (pillars, machines, rack storage, etc.) and it still took them a very long time to reach their victims, they did not complete the rescue, and they ran low on air. Imagine if they had been further in a building, and their tag line (main search rope) was compromised (tangled, wrapped, cut, etc.) you’re looking at the makings of a multiple LODD.

There is just to many factors in this type of operation to go wrong in order for it to be a viable fireground option. I consider it only in Mayday situations. Not to say I will not use a tag line if I am going into a large occupancy but I use it for orientation to an exit not to perform a search, this also poses some of the same dangers and difficulties mentioned above.

Here is an additional video that illustrates some of the difficulties from FDIC 2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_p3A4gqZGc&NR=1

Bottom line is searching in a large commercial occupancy is a needle in a haystack adventure, success frequency is measured like Haley’s comet and not the new year (meaning it doesn’t happen often). We simply can not reach unprotected victims fast enough, due to the construction, our SCBA air, the hostile environment, the slow speed of the technique, and the hazards of using the rope. The only reason I would even consider this technique for a firefighter rescue is that they have additional protection from the hostile environment so we have a little more (not much more) time to effective a rescue with a positive outcome. Additionally we have tools to replace one of the things they are lacking (RIT bottle, and RIT Mask). However the same factors still exist, and same difficulties remain. Keep in mind Chief McNamee from Worchester kept men from going to rescue 6 men trapped in the cold storage warehouse once he felt it was a lost cause due to the length of time they were missing, fire, and building conditions. Have to guts to be like Chief McNamee and keep the firefighters that are still alive out if the situation has no benefit.

So if this is not the answer then what is? I know me personally my search on these buildings is focused on the standard egress points. I would have a special service company aggressively search the pedestrian door areas, and possibly extend a few feet in into the common travel ways. Reason being is that typically people are going to try to evacuate in an emergency and they are going to head to normal routes of travel as we are creatures of habit, they however might get overcome and fall short of the exit point.

What do you think? What ideas or operations can you come up with? Leave some feedback in the comments section. Stay safe and thanks for reading!

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  • patrickmackay

    Brother I agree with the majority of what you’re saying here and I completely hear your point. However, I would be cautious in denouncing conducting search operations in large buildings. Search operations are conducted for finding people AND fire. Before running handlines blindly into a large building, it may behoove you to send a Truck or Rescue Company to locate the fire. These crews would obviously operate off of a search(survival) rope. A few years ago John Salka wrote an editorial where he referred to the rope as a “survival” rope, because for a special service company it truly could be their means of survival as it provides direct access to a safe area. There are certainly fires in these large buildings which would be appropriately controlled utilizing interior fire suppression operations. The key is to do so in a smart, aggressive manner.

    Generally fireground operations are successful by keeping things simple and utilizing good sense. When folks start coming up with largely complex theories( I call them theories because they were dreamt up in an office and haven’t been validated on the fireground), things usually start to go downhill and continue on that way. I think this happens with too many Large Area Search practices. Many companies seem to come up with Large Area Search practices that have 100(maybe an exaggeration) different components and then “validate” them by taking all of the fire apparatus out of the bay and using the area to do search drills. It’s great people are training, but let’s get real. How many occupancies have wide open floors with no obstacles like an apparatus bay? Not too many. So many of these Large Area Search practices may not actually be successful on the fireground, and in fact, may contribute to more problems on the fireground.

    My opinion on Large Area Search practices is to keep it simple! Utilize a search rope and TIC……that’s all you need. The search rope will provide a direct link to a safe area, prevent crews from being split up, and provide direct access to the crew utilizing the search rope. The TIC will allow us to conduct a search without doing so “blindly”. The TIC can be used to lead your search based on what the user observes or the rope can be used to lead the search with the TIC being used to scan the entire area as you progress into the building. If you really want to get fancy, you can utilize personal webbing or rope to search off the main rope(when indicated, such as searching bathrooms while the main line stays outside the bathrooms). If you fail to use any of these components, you really are searching for a needle in a haystack and putting your crew in a bad position. When conducting Large Area Search operations we need to pay particular attention to our air consumption and make appropriate decisions based on this. We cannot utilize SFD tactics in a building that calls for Large Area Search. Kansas City Fire Dept. utilizes a great technique known as L.A.S.T. for searching for known objectives(i.e. lost fireman or civilian known to occupy an office in Quadrant B) that stemmed from an unfortunate incident where a BFC become disoriented and ran out of air in “cold” smoke during a warehouse fire. It’s quick, simple, and limits the amount of personnel searching which lessens the chance of somebody becoming separated and subsequent transmission of a “Mayday”.

    I think before we commence Large Area Search operations, we need to gather a few pieces of information. The first thing we need to determine is what we are searching for. Are we searching for the seat of the fire, civilians, or a downed fireman? It could be more than one of these things. The more information we gather, the easier(and safer) our job will be. This information needs to be combined with good, continuous size-up which will facilitate good decision making. Anyways, I’ve rambled on enough for one day. Stay safe!


  • Patrick,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts from another perspective, it definetly enhances the blog when people take the time to share what they are thinking.

    I do not think I was denouncing large area search, I just think I was highlighting some of its deficiencies, and providing an option that could still provide the chance to “search” high traffic areas, basically a VES of a commercial occupancy.

    I see a few problems with the TIC. Several times I have been using the TIC the enviroment has been hot enough for the screen to “white out” even adjusting the throttle on it is of no help in this situation I have found. Second how long does the battery in your TIC last, I know the one we have barely makes it through an investigation much less a fire, so depending on that to enhance my search is not going to help.

    I hate to say this because it is a thing I do not like, but if someone is in the middle of a commercial occupancy based on the time, construction, resources, and fire conditions the benefit may not outweigh the risk and in that case we shouldnt search. That is a crappy thing to say but again recognizing a loser when you see one is something we have to get better at doing.

    Again thanks for replying, and keep up the good work over at the Fire Tactics site….I really enjoy reading it.

    Stay safe brother.

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