The Primary Search is Negative

Four words that are relatively simple
in their meaning

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 19 February 2010

These are four words that are relatively simple in their meaning but have significant meaning as far as fireground operations go.

It is a cold evening in January when a call is received for a building fire. A first alarm is dispatched along with a request for a line box engine* from the neighboring town. The first firefighter to arrive assumes Command and reports a two story wood frame approximately 25% involved with fire venting through the roof. He reports a hydrant in the front yard and directs the first due to come right to the building.

He notices a car in the driveway and is told that the occupant is disabled. The line box engine is coming around the corner and he assigns them to the primary search. As they gear up to go in they meet up with the officer from the first due engine and help stretch the attack line to the front door. The plan is to stretch the line in and conduct their search from the attack line.

Unfortunately Murphy is working this night as well. The first due can’t get water and the attack line is delayed. The line box company makes a quick search of the front rooms of the dwelling and notices the fire concentrated around the wood stove. They are ordered out by Command when the water problem is realized. Moments later the front room flashes over.

Eventually the line is charged and the fire attack and search continue. The report from the interior is “primary search is negative.”

What does it take for the task those four words represent to be accomplished? I would guess that a majority of the general public has no idea what is behind those words. I also often wonder if some of our brothers really know as well.

What is necessary for a Primary search? First off there has to be a plan. Whether detailed SOPs or operational norms or a brief meeting as you go through the door, everyone has to know what the plan is and what is expected. Obviously the better trained your people are, and the more that is known in advance, the smoother this operation will go. “Learn something right the first time and you’ll do right the rest of your life. Learn something wrong and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get it right.” – Sgt Steven Prazenka – US Army – TRUST -Trieste, Italy. (1)

Unfortunately many places do not have a search plan. It is not a task completed at every fire, but rather one completed only when needed. It is not a task trained on, but rather one that is based on some Firefighter I/II skills learned 10 years ago.

For the primary search to be completed you need the manpower to be able to search. Barely meeting 2 in – 2 out is not going to allow you to attack the fire and search. Your Department needs to have policy and procedure that allows for your manpower and conditions. But the bottom line is the search needs to be done. As John Norman says, “To be efficient, all searches must be planned events. That is to say that there is no room for uncoordinated wandering. Each member of a unit performing search functions must have a clear idea as to what to look for, where to look, and how to look.” (2)

Are you an engine company that will search off the hoseline? Are you a dedicated truck or rescue? What type of search will you perform? Do you have a thermal imager available?

The time for these questions to be answered is now, while sitting around the station. These questions should not be answered while you are responding, or worse standing at the front door waiting to enter. Of course if they haven’t been answered before then, they need to be answered before you commit to your search. There needs to be coordination with the other companies operating on the fireground. Sure you can commit to the search, but if the Engine isn’t stretching on the fire then you are going to have problems. If the fire extends and no one tells you, you will have problems. If other companies vent and draw the fire toward you, you will have problems. There are as many tool choices as firefighters when it comes to searching. Rather than spend pages discussing it, the important point is that you carry a tool. A tool can be used to extend your range/reach while searching, vent for life and force your way out if you become trapped.

So the next time you hear those words, think about what is behind them. There is certainly much more than was discussed here. Review your department’s search policy. Make sure your company is on the same page when it comes to searching. Train as if your life depends on it, because it just might.

* Line Box Company. Company that is close to the first due company’s response boundary; similar to mutual aid company.

Abandoned Aviation Bill Carey Bill Schnaekel Collapse Commentary Communication Data Dave LeBlanc Education Engine Company Expect Fire Fatalities Firefighting Gabe Angemi Gabriel Angemi Health & Wellness Homelessness Interior International Association of Fire Chiefs International Association of Fire Firefighters Leadership Line of Duty Deaths National Fallen Firefighters Foundation NFPA NIOSH NVFC Physical Fitness POV Question from a Reader Ray McCormack Reports Rescue Ric Jorge Risk Roadway Safety Scott Corrigan Social Media Suicide Training United States Fire Administration Vehicle Operations Violence Wildland

1. “About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior” Col David Hackworth
2. “Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics. 3rd Edition” John Norman

“Random Thoughts” Tom Brennan

Photo courtesy Cliff Shockley

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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