Commercial occupancies are often hugely debated when it comes to several fire service topics. Search is no different. For the purposes of this discussion a “Commercial Occupancy” is any building that is not a residential occupancy. It can be a Wal-Mart, Subway, Mall, CVS, Grocery Store, Olive Garden etc.
When we think about the Commercial Occupancy we often focus on the “big box” or large occupancies but some of the smaller food eateries can be just as challenging. While smaller they can be more cluttered, more apt to having a fire (usually from cooking), and at peak meal times very populated.
Again prior to engaging in any interior search operation we have to perform a self assessment of our resources, and the battlefield we will be called to fight in, in this case the commercial occupancies in your area. Make sure you are intimately familiar with all of the commercial occupancies in your district. Preplan them aggressively and in addition to identifying building features, make sure you ask their hours, night-time staffing, and how busy they are at peak times. Find out if they have a shift leader that instructs them when to evacuate in an emergency and if they have an employee collection point. If they do not know, or do any of these things offer your services in assistance setting them up. The more you do on the front end the easier it is going to be when an emergency really happens.
Once you have preplanned your occupancies, you then have to asses things on your end. Response times, run assignments, water supply, etc. All of the things and factors that can affect your efficiency and the ability to perform fireground tasks.
Often times companies revert to large area search techniques for these occupancies, usually relying on a rope for orientation. These large area search techniques are usually needle in a haystack type operations. I do not know of any statistics but in my experience these techniques usually do not yield positive results and are very man power intensive. Larger departments with beefier commercial occupancy response plans and unit staffing may be able to successfully implement these techniques but in medium to light staffing departments focusing your search on the entry and exit points could yield more positive results, and maximize your man power. Much like in MCI we have to “triage” and do the greatest good for the greatest number. Sure the victims closer to the fire may be in more danger but can we get to them in time to truly make a positive impact?
Take a look at the video below. With the given building dimensions, and fire conditions present how long would it take your first alarm assignment to get a primary search on this occupancy? Even with this smoke condition and small occupancy size an interior search is going to take time, and significant resources, not to mention if you actually find someone the removal process will take additional personnel, as fatigue, and SCBA air will be exhausted rapidly.
The question is do you have the resources available to search this occupancy, and complete fire suppression operations? If not then an “Engine Company” search(Searching as you advance the hose line to extinguish the fire, then searching off the line once the fire is extinguished) should be your plan A when resources are at a minimum. Never put off fire suppression for search, the greatest thing we can do for any victim is to extinguish the fire. More victims have been saved by a hoseline than any search technique.
In summary based on the type of commercial occupancy, fire and smoke conditions, and your resources how you accomplish the task of search in commercial occupancies may be different every time, or different from other departments. The important thing is to get out there and practice your way, with your buildings, and your people. Only then will you be able to be succesful.
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