High-Target Areas for the Residential Primary Search

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there were 3,900 civilian fire deaths in the United States for the calendar year 2004. Of that number, 3,190, or 82 percent, occurred in a residential setting. In other words, 3,190 Americans lost their lives in their homes- the very place where people are supposed to feel safest.

During a residential fire, conducting a rapid and thorough primary search is imperative. As firefighters, we know that the vast majority of rescues and the greatest number of fire fatalities occur in residential occupancies.

In Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, Third Edition, John Norman (Fire Engineering, 2005) advocates that searching firefighters begin the primary search as close to the fire as possible and then work outward toward the entrance/exit. This accomplishes a few things. First, it allows searching firefighters to locate the seat of the fire. Next, it affords searching firefighters the opportunity to search the area around an entrance point and the path of egress toward that particular door. Once the seat of the fire is located, it keeps firefighters working away from danger, moving toward the ultimate safety of the exterior.

Firefighters will locate those victims in the greatest danger first by initiating the search as close to the fire as practical. Moreover, working from the fire toward the entrance/exit, searching firefighters will be at their freshest physical state, they will have an adequate supply of air, and they will be moving away from danger toward the ultimate safety of exiting the structure.

That having been said, firefighters are more likely to locate people in need of rescue in certain locations, or high-target areas, within a residential occupancy. The areas that provide the greatest probability for locating victims, listed in order of importance, are the following: the area behind or in direct proximity to the front/main door, bedrooms, and bathrooms.


In my experience, I have found that more fire victims are located behind or within five feet of the front door than anywhere else in the structure. Firefighters need to dispel the notion that they are going to play the part of Kurt Russell in the movie Backdraft-running through the door full of flames, coat flapping in the breeze like a cape. That’s just not reality.

The cold hard facts are that the vast majority of fire victims are located within five feet of the front/main door to the occupancy. More often than not, these victims have succumbed to the smoke and heat of the fire while attempting to flee the occupancy. And, unlike the character in the movies, real firefighters who perform these searches will be correctly outfitted in full personal protective equipment, including SCBA, and will perform appropriate forcible entry techniques and execute a proper search while making firefighter safety a priority. Properly executed searches do not just happen. Neither are successful rescues mere chance. They are the result of preparation and dedication on the part of the firefighters involved.

During forcible entry class, we teach our rookie firefighters to select the door that the occupant would be most likely to use. We should force this door first, because this is where the vast majority of victims will be located. Also, it will be easier to force entry here, because even the worst housekeepers still need to maintain some type of clearance around the main/front door so they can get in and out. Last, human beings under stress tend to act out of habit. More often than not, they will attempt to flee the way they came in.

Once the front door has been forced, searching firefighters should quickly evaluate interior conditions for tenability. Once interior tenability has been verified, searching firefighters should probe into the interior with their hands in an attempt to search/clear the area around the front door. (See “Probe with Hands, Not Hand Tools” on page 106.)

Additionally, they must examine the area directly behind the door. Depending on the circumstances, it may be practical to quickly remove the door and get it out of the way.


You will find victims who are unaware of the fire or unable to extricate themselves in bedrooms. Most firefighters expect that children will hide in bedroom closets or under the bed in a fire. Firefighters must remember that it is not just children who act this way. Elderly folks who are frightened or confused may attempt to hide as well. Understand that fear may make older folks act irrationally, and they may even become combative.

Over the course of basic training, many firefighters are instructed to perform bedroom searches as if the bedrooms were some type of vast daunting jungle. If we examine the average sized 20- × 20-foot master bedroom, there really isn’t that much space left for a human being once you factor in a bed, a couple of nightstands, one or two dressers, maybe a chair, and a television. That leaves very little space around the bed and possibly under the bed and the closets.

Primary search firefighters need to be quick, thorough, and practical. Be a thinking firefighter, not a reacting one. If you are lifting a futon to check underneath it, you are functioning on autopilot and are not being realistic. Additionally, picking up or moving furniture can be problematic, since the furnishings may be moved or thrown about and end up covering the victims you are trying to locate. Finally, use furniture as landmarks or points of reference to prevent or combat disorientation.

If you encounter bedroom closets during the primary search, search in only as far as your arm will reach. Do not enter the closet. Reach in, sweep the closet floor with your hand, and scan the closet with a flashlight. Remember, this is a primary search, and speed is the basic element for the primary search. This is not meant to devalue closets during the search. Firefighters must be practical, thorough, and fast. Closets can be dangerous traps for unsuspecting firefighters. Far too many firefighters have become entangled and disoriented in a bedroom closet.


Many firefighters discount bathrooms and overlook them during the primary search. Yet, many fire victims have been located in this diminutive room.

Many people erroneously believe they can seek refuge in the bathroom, because they think the water, the shower, or the tub will protect them. In fact, there are many accounts of firefighters’ locating unconscious victims submerged in the bathtub.

When entering a bathroom during a residential search, remember that bathrooms generally have much smaller windows than the rest of the structure. Therefore, it would be much more difficult for fully geared firefighters to escape through that window if the need should arise. While operating in the bathroom, maintain a heightened state of awareness of the fire conditions so you do not become cut off and have to rely on the bathroom window as an escape route.


Very briefly, vent-enter-search (VES) is a highly aggressive search technique in which a firefighter will typically enter the structure through a window, usually from a ladder and ahead of the fire. High-target areas will be identified from the exterior, the window will be vented, and a firefighter will climb into the room to perform a very rapid search. Classically, the searching firefighter will exit through the same window whether or not a victim is found. One room at a time is searched from the outside in a similar manner.

When considering the highly aggressive VES techniques, searching firefighters should think first of the high-target areas. Based on the scene size-up, and given the firefighters’ familiarity with the response district and the construction type, it should be relatively easy to identify rooms that may be bedrooms or bathrooms from the exterior. When considering implementing VES techniques, look for these locations.

VES is not for everyday use but for occasions when the rescue profile is determined to be high or urgent. It is for those times when there is a great possibility that you may locate a victim. Reliable information indicates that individuals are inside the structure and in need of rescue, and your size-up is telling you that you can safely pull off a VES through a high-target area window, such as the bedroom window.

Is VES a highly risky tactic? Absolutely. Then, why do we perform it? Because VES produces incredible results with a disproportionately high percentage of live rescues. A rapid risk/benefit analysis must be conducted on-scene; the results will vary.

When responding to fires in residential occupancies, all firefighters should be performing a size-up. What did the dispatcher say? Are there reports of people inside? Where are the bedrooms typically located in these structures? What is showing on arrival? What are possible secondary escape routes? The more information you can obtain, the higher the chance for a successful, safe outcome.

Ultimately, interior conditions and the experience level of the searching firefighters, coupled with their familiarity of a given occupancy, will determine how aggressive firefighters will be in searching the high-target areas that exist inside of every residential occupancy. Be a thinking firefighter, not just a reacting one.

Probe with Hands, Not Hand Tools

Firefighters should be probing with their hands, not with hand tools, because they will have a better chance of identifying objects with their hands than with a tool. To my knowledge, no fire department currently trains its personnel in how to properly identify and differentiate between piles of laundry or sofa cushions and unconscious victims in need of rescue while using a halligan bar or an ax handle.

And, if you’re thinking you won’t make a mistake like misidentifying an unconscious victim, you had better think again. The fire service is full of stories told by highly experienced firefighters who have literally crawled over human bodies, not realizing what they were until later. Furthermore, think of the possible harm an eight-pound ax or a steel halligan bar can do to a victim.

Some firefighters will maintain that using hand tools to probe allows them to reach into an untenable environment to search the area. Unfortunately, this is where their argument stops. What they have not taken into consideration is whether they can identify a human being through a halligan bar or an ax handle. Even if they are lucky enough to recognize an unconscious victim while probing with steel tools, how would they get the victim out of the area or room that is too hot for fully geared firefighters to enter? Would they simply spear the victim on the end of the tool and drag him to safety?

Probing around with hand tools into a room that is too hot for you to enter squanders time. The time it would take to probe into an untenable room, determine that there is a victim, and attempt some sort of rescue would be better spent isolating that room, if possible; notifying the incident commander that the seat of the fire has been located; and continuing the primary search. A savable victim could be dying right across the hall from the untenable room firefighters are attempting to probe with hand tools. If the environment is untenable, conditions will not permit fully geared firefighters to enter. Move on! The environment must be assessed as incompatible with human life at this point.

If you must probe or reach into an area, it is much more efficient to use the hand tool as an anchor device and reach out from there (photos 1, 2). First, establish that the environment is stable and tenable. This will take a second. You can then place the hand tool against a wall or a piece of furniture, hooked over a window ledge or around a door frame.

1. Photos courtesy of author.



Or, you can drive the tool into the wall and use it as an anchor point, which will provide the maximum opportunity for you to safely search and remain oriented to the environment. You will be better able to identify what you have encountered using your hands (photos 3, 4).




MICHAEL BRICAULT has been a firefighter with the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department for 15 years. He has authored several articles on residential search and rescue for Fire Engineering, is a lecturer, and has presented at FDIC.


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