All firefighters should be performing a scene size-up when they are dispatched to and when they arrive at the scene of a residential fire. This size-up process is not just the responsibility of the officer in charge of the company; it falls to every firefighter who responds to the incident. All responding personnel should be thinking about what they are about to get into. What do you see? What don’t you see? What are the specific, unusual, or immediate tasks that need attention at this call? What is the responsibility of your company; is it determined by SOP or arrival order?

Regardless of whether the call turns out to be a working fire or a false alarm, the scene size-up must take place. It is a way of prioritizing what tasks need to be addressed and in what order. Many things like hoseline deployment, water supply, and apparatus staging are routinely addressed in a scene size-up. The initial scene size-up and radio report should also include a Rescue Profile for the incident.


A Rescue Profile is a method of categorizing the way firefighters look at a particular fire with regard to potential or known life hazards and any subsequent rescue actions that are required. A Rescue Profile in the scene size-up provides in common language an indication to all responding units the status of the life hazard and actions being taken by companies operating on-scene.

There are four levels or categories to a Rescue Profile for a residential fire:

  • Low Rescue Profile
  • Moderate Rescue Profile
  • High Rescue Profile
  • Urgent Rescue Profile

Notice that there is not a “No Rescue Profile” category. Why? Because there is no such thing as an empty building until we, the fire department, have searched and determined the occupancy to be “All Clear.” At the very least, a residential occupancy cannot be considered devoid of human life until firefighters have completed a primary search. A primary search must take place at every fire incident to which the fire department responds. In fact, the only time a primary search should not immediately be initiated or completed during a residential occupancy fire is when

1. Fire conditions indicate that the interior environment is incompatible with human life, indicating the fire is absolutely nonsurvivable.

2. The structural integrity of the occupancy is compromised beyond the point of mounting safe interior operations.

Even under these conditions, at some point before the operation is concluded, the fire department will have to perform some type of search, though the rescue component obviously will have been changed to a recovery phase.


There is a very romantic idea in the fire service associated with the term “search and rescue.” In fact, these are really two separate terms denoting very different job functions.

Search is the act of firefighters’ looking for something. That something includes the location of the fire, interior fire conditions, and any potential victims. All of this gathered information must be reported to the incident commander (IC). Essentially, searching firefighters are performing a reconnaissance mission for the IC.

Rescue is the physical act of firefighters removing a victim from a dangerous environment to an area of safety or (if unavoidable) an area of relative safety. During a residential fire scenario, a rescue very often is the heroic end result of a properly executed, diligent, and swift primary search. To achieve this end result, firefighters can use rehearsed, standardized, practiced techniques or may have to substitute improvised methods and procedures based on the specific demands of a given set of circumstances.

Because of recent changes in society, we need to update some of the techniques we have relied on in the past.

For example, we have traditionally relied on the time of day during an alarm to be one of the primary triggers for creating a hazard profile indicating potentially trapped victims. We teach rookie firefighters that if it’s 2 a.m. and there is no one out front to meet you for a fire in what is an obviously occupied residential building, there is a great chance that there will be trapped victims to search for. If it is 1 p.m. or the building looks run down, the chances are very small that there will be anyone trapped inside. We are all familiar with these examples and the associated thinking that goes along with them. Usually, this instruction has proved to be reliable.

However, in today’s world, we must consider the possibility that there may be children in the building who have been left at home alone. Regardless of whether this is because both parents are working, the kids were sick, or someone skipped school, the possibility is there. Also, home schooling is a growing phenomenon that can increase the number of potential victims, and we must keep in mind that many people work nights and sleep during the day.

In today’s urban environment, we also confront the sad reality of an increasing homeless population and a proliferation of drug houses and the addicts drawn to them. Abandoned or derelict structures beckon to these people.

Given these additional concerns, the time of day or the appearance (maintained or rundown) of the structure can no longer be used as reliable factors for setting up our search priorities. As firefighters, we need to update our thinking to reflect the community in which we work.

The proliferation of homelessness and the drug culture make it likely that there are no longer any truly empty or abandoned structures in the urban environment. The only safe assumption for firefighters is to assume that all structures are occupied until a primary search proves otherwise. Any residential occupancy, regardless of the time of day, must be searched for potential victims.

Under any circumstances, remember that it is thoroughly unprofessional to rely on bystanders or neighbors who tell you that “nobody’s home.”


Low Rescue Profile: You suspect or believe the occupancy to be empty; it appears to be an abandoned house or apartment building that no one should be living in. It is a 21/2-story private dwelling that has no visible lights on inside or an abandoned apartment building. Many of the windows are broken or boarded up; the structure looks run down and uncared for. During the preceding weeks and months, this appearance hasn’t changed.

The problem with these structures is that they become attractive playgrounds for children, homes for the homeless, or drug dens for the addicted. We must also keep in mind that abandoned structures usually don’t set themselves on fire. Because of these extenuating circumstances, these structures must be searched. That being said, the level or aggressiveness of the search will be restrained.

A full rapid intervention company (RIC) should be in place prior to the search; water should be established and ventilation procedures initiated. Extraordinary search techniques will not be employed.

Naturally, circumstances can change to elevate the rescue profile up to the next level. Look for signs that people have been occupying the structure, such as discarded food containers; flashlights or candles; graffiti on interior walls; holes in fences; and boards pulled away from openings.

Moderate Rescue Profile: You are unsure if people currently are inside the structure, but it obviously is an occupied dwelling. This residence may be the abandoned/derelict structure described above, but it is exhibiting the telltale signs that someone is living inside. Or, the structure may look completely different in that it has the appearance of being maintained.

Some signals indicating a higher profile include the following: Are the lights on? Can you hear music or a television from inside? Are seasonal decorations visible? Are cars parked in the driveway, or in a designated space out front? People standing out front may indicate that the building is occupied to some extent, or they may in fact just be nervous or curious neighbors. Bystanders may tell you that they saw someone leaving (children, homeless people) when the fire started.

A primary search will take place in this scenario, but, as in the low rescue profile, extraordinary tactics will not be used. A RIC should be in place prior to commencing the search. The level of urgency and thoroughness of the primary search need to be elevated, however, as opposed to the low rescue profile.

High Rescue Profile: You have every reason to believe that someone currently is inside the occupancy. The initial dispatch said that callers were people were trapped in the occupancy. On arrival, you may see people in various states of undress and possibly even covered in soot. Someone may tell you that another individual is unaccounted for. Excited bystanders are screaming at you, “Mrs. Fishbiscuit is still inside!” They identify a family member or person by name and demonstrate that they are familiar with the occupants.

This is a highly suspected life hazard. You have every reason to believe that someone is still inside the occupancy and in need of rescue. In this instance, the primary search becomes paramount. All activity on the fireground must support the furtherance of a primary search. Aggressive search and rescue techniques, such as Vent-Enter-Search (VES) should be considered. Waiting for a RIC to arrive and set up may not be a practical option.

Urgent Rescue Profile: On arrival, you see a person or persons hanging out of a window. Or, the occupant-a mom or dad-is frantically screaming that the kids are still inside. A child points and tells you that he/she left someone behind, “In that room right there!” This is now a known/confirmed life hazard. Someone is inside. All efforts on the fireground must focus on rescuing the trapped victim. Aggressive techniques like VES are viable tactical choices to consider and should be implemented where appropriate. Waiting for a RIC, water supply, or handlines may not be possible (however, these activities should not be abandoned). Immediate action at this point is going to decide if someone lives or dies.

In both the High and Urgent Rescue Profiles, there is a sense of urgency: Someone will die without the instantaneous intervention of the fire department. The other key component is the direct knowledge that someone is still inside the structure. This information is vital to operating within a High or Urgent Rescue Profile. The only exception to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration two-in, two-out rule is a known or highly suspected life hazard inside the structure in which the victim will die without immediate intervention.

Lastly, a High or Urgent Rescue Profile falls in line with the standard NFPA 1500 Risk Management category “Risk a lot to save a lot.”

The use of rescue profiles should not be misinterpreted to imply that firefighters, particularly those in departments with substandard available staffing, should ignore other critical fireground activities at residential fires to which they respond until a primary search has been completed. That would be incorrect and inappropriate, especially since there are no absolutes in the world of firefighting.

The intent is to have firefighters include the Rescue Profile in their initial size-up and radio report so that personnel operating on-scene and incoming companies can have a more accurate picture of what is going on and thereby can complete the necessary tactics accordingly.

The most significant factors to be considered when determining the search parameters and the level of aggressiveness of the search at a residential occupancy should include the Rescue Profile, the size and location of the fire, structural integrity, as well as the available personnel on-scene and their experience level.

MICHAEL BRICAULT is a firefighter serving with the City of Albuquerque, NM, Fire Department since 1993. He is a certified fire service instructor and the author of the training manual, A Street Firefighter’s Guide to Residential Search and Rescue. Bricault is a frequent writer and instructor on residential search and rescue. He has published Residential Search and Rescue: Re-Ordering Priorities (Fire Engineering, December 2005) and Residential Search and Rescue: Methodology (Fire Engineering, March 2006). He was a presenter at FDIC 2006.

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