The Long and Short of It: Maximizing Primary Search on the Suburban Fireground

A tactic that can help firefighters optimize their search operations

Our number one mission on the fireground is protecting and saving lives. Most fire department mission statements identify this goal as their number one priority. We raise our right hands and swear an oath to serve and protect our citizens in their darkest hour. Fire attack and search are two fireground tactics that provide the greatest return on investment in saving lives; doing both simultaneously gives us the best chance of success. When we win, lives are saved and property is protected.

Traditionally, engine companies confine and extinguish the fire while the truck company searches for and rescues the victims. These tactics are best implemented when an engine and a truck company are housed together or near each other’s response zones. This provides the optimum tactical deployment model: The engine company arrives on scene and initiates fire attack as the truck company performs coordinated ventilation while simultaneously searching for victims. Although this is common practice in the urban fire environment, suburban or rural districts may not enjoy this best practice.

Truck/Engine Companies

Many departments don’t have the luxury of dedicated truck companies housed in quarters with fully staffed engine companies. Sometimes, the truck company may be fourth or fifth due to a structure fire or the department may not even own an aerial device. Firefighters finding themselves in these situations often face a decision at a working fire with confirmed or suspected entrapment: either go into “attack mode” and put the fire out, thus halting the spread of the fire and products of combustion by cooling the fuel source; or, go into “rescue mode” and begin searching for the victims using various methods—e.g., traditional right hand/left hand search, targeted search, vent-enter-search (VES), and so forth.

Rapidly and aggressively putting the attack hoseline in operation will cool the fire environment and stop the greatest threat to both victims and firefighters—the fire. The late Lieutenant Andrew Fredericks from the Fire Department of New York stated, “The first handline is, without question, the most important life-saving tool at a structure fire.”1 By putting the fire out, we neutralize the enemy, which makes things much better for everyone on scene and buys time for later-arriving searchers to find trapped victims.

Of course, several factors enter into the first-arriving company officer’s decision-making profile as he makes the corner to the fire building. Can the crew quickly put a line in operation between the fire and the victims? What obstacles may hinder fire attack? Fires on upper floors, well-advanced fire conditions that may exceed what the first engine can handle with a single attack line, or access issues (long lays, hoarding conditions, and so forth) are just some examples, to name a few. Is tank water sufficient to confine and extinguish the fire, or is it just enough to protect the company while they initiate a rapid search?

firefighters with flames blowing out of home

(1) A firefighter and I prepare to make entry on a house fire where a short side/long side search was initiated, resulting in the quick rescue of two dogs from the home. (Photo by Jules Webster.)

Firefighter drags rescue dummy

(2) During live fire training, a firefighter removes a victim manikin that the attack crew found while initiating the engine search as they advanced to the fire for extinguishment. (Photo by Joel Richardson.)

However, sometimes fire attack may not be the best initial tactical option. If the first-due engine sees victims at windows and the next-due company is several minutes out, it most likely would be wiser to initiate rescue of those who are in immediate danger and delay the initial fire attack. Or perhaps the greatest benefit at that moment may be protecting the exposed structures around the fully involved building, not putting water directly on the fire initially.

Fire Attack Drawbacks

Initiating fire attack first has its drawbacks. If we are attacking the fire and our next-due company that will be assigned to primary search is several minutes out, then we are allowing those victims to remain in the hostile environment that much longer. We know that most fire victims die because of smoke inhalation, not necessarily because of the fire itself. Thus, while we have certainly killed the fire, it will take ventilation and time to remove hot, toxic gases—precious time the victims may not have. Additionally, we are assuming the fire attack will succeed. What happens to the victims if it doesn’t? What if we can’t make it to the seat of the fire, run out of water, or suffer equipment failure? Our victim’s survival chances decrease drastically if we fail to quickly extinguish the fire.

Search vs. Fire Attack

Conversely, going for the grab and delaying fire attack is a balancing act. On one hand, if we succeed, it gives the victim the best chance of survival. Search can be performed rapidly, especially if the search team does not have to drag an attack line as they search. The benefit of a rapid search goes without saying. More than 60% of victims are found by search crews on the fireground, according to Firefighter Rescue Survey.2

The downside to the first-arriving company going all in on the search is that it allows the violent fire behavior to continue to burn unchecked. This can create conditions that force the search efforts to cease and can make things much worse for both victims and rescuers. This decision is certainly a gamble that may not pay off, depending on whether the victims are saved and firefighters can get the attack line in service in a reasonable amount of time.

Fire Attack and Search

But what if the first-arriving engine company can do both? What if the engine could extinguish or, at a minimum, confine the fire while also beginning the search effort simultaneously? It’s no secret that engine companies advancing the attack hose to the seat of the fire find many victims. Fireground data supports this. Why? Engine companies usually advance hoselines through the main arteries of the structure. We are going to the most dangerous area (the fire room or rooms) through entrance/egress paths.

Now, let’s take it a step further. What if the door firefighter or officer gets the nozzleman into position for attack and then begins searching off the hoseline as they go? This enhances the search effort and begins this critical task often before later-arriving companies begin the traditional primary search. Searching off the hoseline is nothing new. Many departments have taught this tactic for years. However, there are many more that have not or do not practice this lifesaving tactical option.

Like any successful tactic, crews must understand how and when to implement it. Firefighters must not blindly perform the task; they must have a good understanding of the methods and techniques required to successfully implement it. We must have a purpose, develop a plan, and practice until we perfect the execution of the plan.

Long Side vs. Short Side

Let’s dive into “the long and short of it.” When performing fire attack, the hoseline typically creates a “long side” and a “short side” of the building. Imagine the house as a rectangle or square box (Figure 1). Let’s say the fire is in the guest bedroom on the B/C corner. The attack line will likely make access through the front door, which is often on the A side of the house. The line is advanced from the door to the back bedrooms. The area between the front door and the back bedrooms in the B/C corner would be a smaller geographical area in most houses and would constitute the “short side.” The area from the attack line opposite the short side would be the larger area or the “long side” of the structure.

Figure 1. Long Side and Short Side

long side and short side

Figure by author.

Although it may not be reasonable or possible for the engine making the stretch to attack the fire and complete a full primary search, the engine can often effect the search of those “short side” areas/rooms as the line is advancing. The smaller geographical area off the attack line allows for rapid search while still maintaining overall crew integrity and line advancement. On arrival, inform a second-arriving engine or truck company that the fire attack crews have searched the “short side” and any results. The primary search team can then focus on the “long side,” which allows for a quicker search of a greater area and reduces the overall time needed to complete the primary search.

Using the Tactic at a Fire

How does this tactic work in practice? My engine company was first due at a recent fire in a single-story, wood-frame private dwelling. Fire and heavy smoke were showing from windows on the A/D corner. We knew our second due would be a few minutes out because of the incident’s location. As I exited the rig and began my 360° size-up, I estimated that approximately two to three rooms were involved. The homeowner was outside with the emergency medical services (EMS) crew and reported that the family dogs were still inside.

Meanwhile, my nozzleman had flaked out the initial 1¾-inch attack line, and the irons firefighter was flaking out additional line inside the gate. I notified my crew that the pets were still unaccounted for inside the residence. The line was charged and bled; the nozzleman shot me a quick look as he opened the front door. Visibility was near zero with high heat conditions as the nozzleman began advancing into the structure. The irons firefighter began feeding hose at the door. I did a quick sweep of the entryway to gain orientation, assess fire conditions, and search for the missing pets. I did not see or feel any signs of the pets. I placed my thermal imaging camera briefly in front of the nozzleman’s face piece so he could see the fire and adjust his initial stream placement. I began searching the short side of the house while the nozzleman advanced, flowing water as he made the push. The short side of the structure was all clear.

Once I knew we had achieved a good initial knockdown of the fire, I informed my nozzleman that the irons firefighter and I would begin searching the long side just off the handline to find the family dogs. We maintained verbal contact as the nozzleman moved into the rooms to finish off the remaining fire. At this point, our second due arrived on scene and was assigned to primary search but had not made entry yet. I found the first dog behind a chair in the living room, about 10 feet off the handline on the long side of the residence. I quickly removed the pet to the exterior, where it was handed off to awaiting EMS personnel.


Aggressive and Practical Search: It’s Still About the Victim

Searchable vs. Survivable: Educated Decision Making

Primary Search: Accomplish the Mission

I reentered with the second-due engine company and verified my crew’s air supply and progress. The nozzleman continued to wash down hot spots while my irons firefighter and I joined the search efforts with the primary search team looking for the second dog. Within just a few moments, we located the second dog and removed it. At this point, my crew and I exited the structure while the primary search team finished searching the last couple of rooms of the house. Although we found no human occupants, the tactical decision to search off the handline allowed us to quickly extinguish the fire and remove both pets within a matter of approximately three minutes.

It is worth noting that the first due engine company removed both pets while also extinguishing the fire. Additionally, we had the fire knocked down and had removed the first pet before the second-due company was able to begin the traditional primary search. In this case, this tactic—searching for, finding, and removing the two pets expediently—gave our victims the best possible chance of survival rather than waiting for another company to arrive several minutes later to begin the search.

Using the long side/short side engine company facilitated search tactic is extremely beneficial in residential occupancies, especially in single-story homes and apartments in which all interior operations are typically on the same division, but you can implement it successfully on other types of structures, including multistory residences, commercial structures, and hotels. This tactic is effective because it places the attack crew closest to the fire, where occupants are most severely threatened. The long side/short side search approach has an even more profound impact on bedroom fires because it places the nozzle team in a position to search two critical areas in rapid succession: the egress path from the front door to the fire and the sleeping areas. Finally, using this tactic not only allows the attack crew to accelerate the primary search but also better directs the later-arriving primary search team’s operation by giving them important updates on landmarks, fire conditions, and the building layout, thus supporting a comprehensive, systematic search plan.

In our profession, effectiveness is measured in time and results. This method gives our victims the best chance of survival by saving precious time and increasing our chance of finding incapacitated occupants while simultaneously confining and extinguishing the fire. In the suburban fire service, we must strive to maximize our effectiveness since we often lack the needed resources of our urban counterparts. Searching off the handline, if planned and drilled on regularly, is a true force multiplier on the fireground. We owe it to our citizens to constantly strive to improve our capabilities as firefighters, crews, and departments. This tactical option gives first-arriving companies a method for rapidly performing the two most critical fireground tasks by covering the long and short of it.


Fredericks, Andrew. “Stretching and Advancing Handlines, Part 2.” Fire Engineering, April 1997.

Firefighter Rescue Survey Web site.

Nick Peppard is a 16-year career firefighter/paramedic and a captain for the Holley-Navarre Fire District in Santa Rosa County, Florida. He has an associate degree in fire science and numerous fire service certifications. Peppard is an adjunct instructor at the Northwest Florida State College Fire Academy; is the owner of North Florida Fire & EMS Training, LLC; is president of the North Florida Fire Expo; and co-hosts the “Make Due: Suburban Fireman” podcast series.

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