Life-saving design: London Fire Brigade’s ‘Searched’ tags

London Fire Brigade’s in-house creative team has devised a simple product that could save lives: a re-usable tag which helps firefighters identify which rooms in a building have been searched during rescue operations. First trialled in 2014, they are now being rolled out at stations across the capital

The acrylic ‘Searched’ tags are waterproof and small enough to fit inside firefighters’ pockets, and each one is bright red with the word ‘searched’ in bold white type. Tags can be folded and hung from door handles or over the top of a door, and can also be inserted into key card slots in hotels.

Prior to using the tags, London Fire Brigade would often mark a yellow cross on doors. But as head of design Justina Leitão explains, this method was problematic.

“Each door could be covered in a different material, and sometimes wax on a smoky or burnt door wouldn’t take or would be very hard to see… on a wet surface it wouldn’t take either,” she says.

This would often create confusion among firefighters over whether rooms had been searched, or whether anyone else had used the same marking method prior to the fire, meaning rooms would often have to be searched twice. As well as hindering progress during rescue operations, the delay put firefighters at risk of running out of air.

The tags were introduced following an inquest into a fire in 2009 in which six people died. The blaze started in a flat on the ninth floor of the 14-storey Lakanal House building in Camberwell, South London, and quickly ripped through the building, leaving six people – including a three-week-old baby and two children aged three and six – trapped inside.

The inquest concluded that Southwark Council had failed to properly inspect the building, but it also criticised London Fire Brigade’s handling of the situation – in particular, the decision to tell residents who made emergency calls to remain inside their flats (in line with the ‘Stay Put’ policy, based on the theory that fires in blocks of flats can usually be contained without the need to evacuate all residents) and its failure to search some flats in time, due in part to confusion over the layout of the building.

Images courtesy of London Fire Brigade

Following the inquest, Leitão says London Fire Brigade “undertook a number of actions to improve its procedures and policies”. One part of this was a review of its search and rescue practice, particularly how firefighters search large buildings such as housing blocks, hotels or offices, and the process for knowing which rooms or areas have been searched.

“Discussions with firefighters initiated the idea to have a direct visual tool confirming that the room had been searched specifically by LFB,” says Leitão. “This idea was taken up by LFB’s Research and Development team who worked with the in-house Creative Services team to develop and progress the idea to production.”

4,000 ‘Searched’ tags were produced in August 2014 and are being trialled at six pilot stations across London. Tom Goodall, group manager for operational policy at London Fire Brigade, says feedback has been positive, with firefighters saying the product “saves them vital time and will contribute to saving lives in the future.”

“Additionally, firefighters who had personally experienced the problem of uncertainty in searching rooms, have commented on the simple effectiveness of the new design,” says Leitão.

The product will be rolled out across London’s 102 fire stations next year as part of its high-rise ‘FIRE (Fire Initial Response Equipment) Bag’, a portable kit containing essential ‘rapid initial attack equipment’ for fighting fires in high-rise buildings.

The project won the industrial product design category in our sister title Design Week’s annual awards scheme – you can see the full list of winners from this year here.

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