Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Tim-bits: July 2019

How to check for children in a house fire

June 17, 2019
By Tim Llewellyn
Some stacked beds feature a larger, full-sized bed on the bottom with one or more smaller single beds stacked on top at various offset angles. photo credit: Tim Llewellyn

Shortly after 2 a.m. the first-due truck company rounded the bend into the dimly-lit neighbourhood.

The apparatus fire radio crackled with an arrival report from the first-arriving engine: “We’re on scene with a two-storey, single-family dwelling, obvious fire from the garage on division 1, side alpha, smoke showing throughout. There are two cars in the driveway and no occupants appear to have evacuated. We have our own water supply from a hydrant across the street, and we’ll be stretching a 1.75-inch handline for fire control from side alpha. First-due truck, prepare for primary search of division two.”

Depending on the time of the day, one of the most important areas to search in residential structures are bedrooms. As the scenario above described, there was a fire in what was most likely an occupied home at night. The initial-arriving officer stated that there were two cars in the driveway and there appeared to be no evacuation from the occupants, so there was a high probability that people were still inside.

The initial-arriving officer from the engine used good, basic search profiling techniques to estimate the potential for victims such as: time of day – night; type of structure – residential; occupied status – cars in the driveway. When combined, these factors indicated an increased probability that there was someone in there.


In such a situation, when the truck company arrives and prepares to go to work doing primary searches, the crew can look for additional search-profiling cues to further estimate victim potential.

Children’s toys and athletic equipment in and around the yard are signs that children potentially inhabit the residence. Parents will often place stick-figure family decals on the rear window or trunk lids of automobiles. There is usually one appropriately sized or attired stick figure present for each member of the family. Looking out for these will give search crews a good estimate of how many adults and children to anticipate inside a single-family structure.

The noise and flashing lights from fire apparatus and emergency responders arriving and going to work late at night will typically alert neighbours and bring them out to the street. A subsequently-arriving firefighter can quickly ask bystanders how many adults and children live in the affected residence to alert search crews as well as the incident commander.

Searching for known or suspected trapped children is an emotionally charged event. The result of the search – either positive or negative – is likely to produce a significant emotional response from those involved, at some point.

While we always remain hopeful that the search turns up negative (everyone made it out safely prior, or they weren’t even in there at all), we need to ensure that our best effort was spent trying to find them. This best effort will help to reduce the destructive second-guessing that is sure to come about after the call ends.

This edition of Tim-bits is devoted to helping firefighters perform better and more complete searches inside the bedrooms of children.

As with all searches, a fast and orderly search of a child’s bedroom is essential. Upon locating the entry door to the bedroom, a left- or right-
handed search should be determined and communicated to the other search crew members.

Once the room is entered, it may be advisable to fully or partially close the door to limit the spread of smoke and heat into the room. Past experiences from firefighters who routinely perform searches offer that children may tend to hide in closets, toyboxes and under beds when confronted with a home fire.

A thorough primary search of a child’s bedroom includes a quick look into these areas as well as the other more common search areas such as open floor spaces, at windows, on beds or in cribs, etc. As always, firefighters should search with their hands, not with tools or tool handles. Leave the tools at the door to the room. A firefighter’s hands find victims, tools do not.

Two of the above-mentioned common search areas, beds and cribs, deserve special attention due to some lesser-known construction methods and search techniques for them. Out of necessity, children often share bedrooms. To make it work for the family, bunk beds or triple-decker bunk beds can be used.

A quick Internet search for these types of beds shows various configurations and bed stacking methods. Some stacked beds feature a larger, full-sized bed on the bottom with one or more smaller single beds stacked on top at various offset angles.

Upon encountering a bed in any bedroom, it should be searched fully for victims. Once the surface of the lowest bed is cleared, the firefighter should quickly raise his or her hands up, high overhead, out to the front and out to the sides to check for the presence of a bunk bed above. If one is found, again, after searching it, raise the hands up high and out to check for the presence of an additional bed above.

To save space, some beds are constructed as loft beds that are placed on tall legs over the top of desks or other functional areas.

If no bed is found at the normal ground level, physically checking the overhead areas on top of desks, toyboxes or dressers may reveal an overlooked sleeping surface.

Similar to bunk beds, manufactured cribs can be stacked as well in order to save space. Again, a quick search of the Internet reveals photos of double-height stacked cribs. The technique for identifying stacked cribs is the same as bunk beds. After searching the bottom crib, raise a hand high overhead to check for a stacked crib on top. Just like beds, cribs must be thoroughly searched, and the contents identified, as there may be numerous blankets, stuffed animals and/or dolls present.

A method of victim removal that can be employed if an occupied, single-height crib is found is to tilt the crib on two legs along its longer side down towards the ground. This can not be done to double-height cribs as they will likely be secured to a wall. Tilting the single height crib will cause the occupant to slide towards the rescuer and will prevent the sensitive victim from being raised over the crib wall at heights where the heat and smoke may be more severe.

This is not a complete guide to primary searches inside residential structures. There is no substitute for repetitive and realistic training on these and other fire-service techniques. The concepts identified in this article will aid the firefighter in giving a “best effort,” in the hope of the best outcome for searches involving children.

Now, get out there and practice primary searches – and when you find a sleeping surface, remember, raise your hands up high and out to check for another one above.

Tim Llewellyn is a firefighter for the Allegheny County Airport Authority in Pittsburgh, Pa., and an instructor for a number of fire academies and training facilities. Contact Tim at

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