We are still discussing some of the differences–from texts, bulletins, and what I mean when I write this column–in the conception of tactics and how they relate to the strategy ongoing at your firefight. In last month`s column, we noted the differences in the philosophy of search. Notice that I didn`t say “Search and Rescue,” as it is termed today–as though it were one word. Just SEARCH.

What rescue is. Rescue (and its more commonly found companion “removal of victims”) is only a small part of the function of search on the fireground. Perhaps if this tactic as well as some others were not renamed and redefined, we would not be in the personnel dilemma we face today. We search a fire building to provide ongoing information to interior operations and to exterior command (on any fireground): Where is the fire? Who or what is around it? Where is it going to extend? What else is there?

Should we locate a victim who cannot get to safety by his own power, then we have a rescue, and the rewards of our profession rain down and are much deserved. But most of the search function is almost always unrewarding, frustrating, thankless, and difficult at best.

We search for (as I said) the location of the fire. We search for fire extension. We search for human beings. We search for information that will make or break the firefight or directly affect safety and support or change strategy.

How much faster do you move your hoseline to the seat of the fire if your search team communicates, “The fire is in the last two bedrooms about 30 feet down the hall”? How much safer is the fire operation if the search team discovers holes in the floor and missing stair treads? How is strategy affected by a report of “Fire is in the ceiling of exposure B1 also,” or, much better, “Exposure D is clear of fire extension also, Chief”?

Anyhow, with all that said, how can you not have an ongoing search tactic on the fireground? How can anyone hear on department radios the insane report, “Primary and secondary search are complete and negative”?

Primary search. For many reasons, the two parts of search can NEVER be performed at the same time, much less completed simultaneously! Period. (If you want to discuss this more, e-mail me or write me a letter.) For now, how do you perform the tactic of primary search on your fireground? In your department?

What I mean here is a tiny question that hardly anyone asks, “Do you begin your primary search from the point at which you enter the fire compartment (front door of a private dwelling or the fire apartment door in a multiple dwelling or the area of fire in a commercial structure) and continue the search to the fire location? Or do you scamper quickly to find the fire location and then search back, section by section, to the door you entered? Enough thinking!

What worked for me. What I found worked for me (after many frustrations) was that what I did depended on which level of the building I was searching in relation to the fire. If I were searching the fire floor, I went directly to the fire (find the fire) and searched back. If I were at the floor or floors above the fire, I would begin immediately at the point where I entered (stairs, fire department ladder, or fire escape) and continue to the next exit point. Why?

On the fire floor, you need to get to the location of the fire for many reasons. The first is that if there are any savable victims, the ones with the least amount of time to be found–and perhaps to live–are in and around the room on fire. Second, you can communicate exactly where the fire is in the building. Next, you are able to “see the enemy.” Your search timeclock will be on fast or slow, depending on what you find. A fully involved room(s) with fire just extending to the hallway ceiling over your head will set a whole new group of priorities for you than will finding a slow-burning mattress that is extending to a couple of drapery hangings.

You will be able to do something about the fire and gain additional time for yourself and the members stretching the line. The greatest tool in a successful primary search is to have the nozzle operating on the fire area while you are continuing your primary search. This is the best method for isolating the fire from the areas that can be occupied and need searching. A second method is to close the door. The third is to (God forbid you carry it) operate an extinguisher on the fire condition to momentarily reverse the positive heat balance and retard the pace of extension over time. Perhaps then you can even make a better search of the fire room or get to the door to close it.

Fire room accounted for, you are next able to move to less and less involved areas for a more complete primary search. You are now looking for victims who have more time to be found. And considering the hecticness of the first line stretch, you are out of the confusion and momentary disorder of getting water started on the area you had just covered. You are now moving in a less hazardous atmosphere and to the safety of the exit. It is a quicker, smoother, and more complete primary search–go to the fire first.

If my objective were to search the floor above the fire, I would begin my search immediately and continue to the second means of egress (your size-up, knowing you were assigned the search, should have solved the location of egress for you on arrival). You should know that there is or is not a fire escape on the building and, if there is one, where it is. Or you should know that any window you get to will provide a short drop to the ground from a two-story private dwelling.

Communicating to outside that you are attempting a search on the floor(s) above the fire should result in the positioning of portable ladders and an aerial to assist you and your team in the search by providing secondary exits. The locations of these exits should be announced.

TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the City of New York (NY) Fire Department as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief`s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He is the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. You can e-mail him at

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