The fire service has a romantic perception of the term “search and rescue,” but in reality, they are two very different and specific job functions that are habitually and incorrectly misused to describe a multitude of tasks.

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

Rescue is the act of firefighters’ physically removing a victim from a dangerous environment to an area of relative safety. In a residential fire scenario, a rescue often is the end result of a properly executed, diligent, and swift primary search. To achieve this end result, firefighters can use rehearsed, practiced techniques or improvised methods and procedures.

(1) Crawling searching firefighter. (Photos by author.)

In the fire academy, firefighters are given a solid skill foundation by learning to perform a primary search using a right- or left-hand search pattern. The objective is for the firefighter to be able to perform a thorough, orderly search while remaining oriented to the environment. This type of search pattern, although initially great for the rookie firefighter as a foundation of training, has some drawbacks. First, and most importantly, it costs the searching firefighters valuable time. Following the wall can seem agonizingly slow, especially in the average-size residential room. As we all know, the quicker a properly executed primary search is completed, the better the chances for finding live victims in time. Second, using a search pattern that keeps firefighters tethered to the wall may inadvertently cause the search team members to miss a good portion of the room because of their lack of reach.

(2) Crouched reaching firefighter.

It should take firefighters no more than 10 seconds to search an average-size residential bedroom in a 1,400-square-foot residence in moderate smoke conditions. Ten seconds is a lot of time when the room is 12 × 12 and there is moderate, albeit limited, visibility. Additionally, half of the space in many bedrooms is taken up by very large pieces of furniture. Think about your own bedroom. How much floor space is there to walk on? Is there space under the bed? How many dressers or night tables are there? Many master bedrooms even have an entertainment center/dresser.


The search of the typical bedroom should proceed as follows:

• Enter the room, moving toward the bed.

• Search around the bed while moving toward the window. Maintain contact with the bed while simultaneously sweeping your hand across the bed.

• Examine the area under the window.

• Move to the other side of the bed in the direction of the closets while sweeping the top of the bed again with your free hand.

• Periodically look and feel under the bed if there is a void space below the bed. (Be practical at this point. If there is very limited space below the bed, don’t waste time searching or trying to lift or move the bed to get underneath it.)

• Open the closet and probe in with your hand.

• Exit the room.

Ten seconds is ample time to complete this type of search in an average-size bedroom under a moderate smoke condition. Remember, this is a primary search, and time is the crucial factor. However, the urgency for speed does not mean the search should be incomplete or haphazard. Conduct a thorough search and maintain a rapid pace.

When searching an average residential bedroom, a good way to increase the speed of the search is to have one firefighter wait at the bedroom door. Two fully geared firefighters moving around and working in this environment almost certainly will be in each other’s way. The firefighter at the door should monitor interior conditions, air supply, primary and secondary escape routes, elapsed time, and radio traffic. This method allows the searching firefighter to concentrate more completely on the search.

(3) Halligan around door frame.

Furthermore, the firefighter at the door can use his flashlight, bang a tool against the wall, or just speak as sort of a homing beacon for the searching member. These two firefighters must remain in direct voice and/or visual contact with each other.

If the searching firefighter locates a victim, the member monitoring at the door can radio the IC that a victim has been located and ask for any additional resources that may be needed to complete the rescue. Should the searching firefighter need assistance in removing the victim, his partner at the door can come in and help.

(4) Firefighter reaching on ground.

One tactical consideration that will dramatically affect the results of a residential primary search is focusing the search on the high-target areas of the residence. Statistically speaking, the areas of a residence where most victims will probably be located are the following:

• Behind/direct proximity to the main/front door of the residence (house or apartment),

• Bedrooms (in bed sleeping or hiding somewhere in the room), and

• Bathrooms (the belief here is that the water, shower, or tub will provide an element of protection).


During the primary search, as in all firefighting operations, firefighters are required to have tools with them to complete the tasks at hand. Any firefighter without a tool is useless and no more than a well-dressed spectator.

We have all been taught to use hand tools to extend our reach while performing a search. Rookie firefighters are taught to use hand tools to probe ahead of themselves and to feel around toward the center of the room while following the wall. But, probing around this way with a steel tool raises some interesting concerns.

For instance, do you know what a human body feels like at the end of a steel halligan bar? Can you tell the difference between a pile of laundry and an unconscious person while using just the handle of an ax in a low-visibility environment while wearing full personal protective equipment? Unless you train regularly in identifying and differentiating these objects, the answer is NO-you cannot tell the difference. All you will know is that the tool has struck something. As a searching firefighter, you have a better chance of identifying obstacles and locating unconscious victims using your hands. If you don’t think you could make a mistake like misidentifying a body using a hand tool, you had better think again. The fire service is full of stories of firefighters who failed to recognize a human being as they climbed over the body.

Additionally, you can do untold harm to a victim by probing around with or swinging a halligan bar or an ax.

The Anchor Point method uses the hand tool in reverse (photo 1). It is better to use the hand tools during a primary search to anchor yourself to an immovable object, which will extend your reach into a room (photo 2). Holding the fork end of the halligan, place the adz end over the windowsill or around a doorjamb. This will extend your reach into the room by approximately 36 inches while keeping you anchored to a secure, unmovable object (photo 3).

You can also drive the adz end of the tool into a wall, using a short chopping swing. This will allow you to anchor yourself into a wall anywhere in the room. Lay the halligan bar on the floor against a wall, or hook it onto a substantial object, something that isn‘t going to move. If you choose to follow the wall during a search and you encounter a change of direction or an obstacle, place the tool (halligan, ax, or six-foot hook) on the floor against the wall. Drive the tool into the wall or hook the tool onto something, and move out to the end of the tool and feel around with your free hand. When placing the tool on the floor against an anchor point, press your foot against the end of the tool and use both hands to probe and explore the area around you with better results (photo 4).

If you had to search an average-size bedroom under restricted visibility conditions, imagine how much faster it would be to anchor yourself to the doorjamb with a halligan bar and extend your reach into the room so you can touch the bed. Then, leaving the tool hooked around the doorjamb or driven into the wall, place your end of the tool on the floor and use the bed as your next anchor. While keeping one hand on the bed and simultaneously sweeping the top of the bed, move around the bed until you reach a wall that has a window. If necessary, you can open or vent the window, search below the window, and then follow the bed back around to the other side of the room and search the opposite side of the room and closets.

A good practice to help keep yourself oriented in the room is to reach down and locate the tool still anchored to the door or wall as you pass the corner of the bed where you started the search. This will give you a starting reference point and help keep you oriented in the room.

This Anchor Point search method can also be used when performing vent-enter-search (VES) from a window. Simply hook the tool over the windowsill or onto the wall when you enter the room and search from the end of the tool.

Doing so will keep the firefighter anchored to his escape route during search operations with restricted visibility. Using the Anchor Point techniques can increase the speed and safety of a searching firefighter as opposed to following the wall all the way around the room. This search method gives the searching firefighters fluid mobility while preserving the precious commodity of time.


This brings us to another point that should be made about the residential primary search. Firefighters should not perform the primary search in zero visibility if at all possible. I know that this will not always be feasible, but every effort should be made.

Searching in zero visibility is neglecting ventilation tactics. It is extraordinarily dangerous to firefighters, who can miss hidden hazards in the smoke. Moreover, the environment will continue to be lethal for any trapped victims. With everything that is happening on-scene, it is sometimes possible to overlook the fact that the victims for whom we are searching are not equipped with thermal imaging cameras, SCBA, or bunker gear. For every second the search is slowed down, the victim will be exposed to the hostile environment. Attempting a primary search in zero visibility will reduce the speed of the search to such an agonizingly slow pace that it will make any subsequent rescue almost impossible. Time is crucial.


One final consideration about the primary search in a residential occupancy is that, if possible, the search should start as close to the fire as possible. In an apartment or even the average-size 1,400-square-foot residential home, this is not that difficult. Consider that in a 1,400-square-foot home, you will never be more than 15 feet from an exterior wall.

Fire Department of New York Deputy Assistant Chief John Norman explains in Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics that “not starting the primary search as close to the fire as possible may cause firefighters to fail to reach the most severely threatened victims in time.” Starting the search as close to the fire as possible also has other advantages:

• Once the search begins, the direction of travel will keep the search team continually moving away from danger toward the ultimate safety of the exterior.

• The search team will be exposed to the greatest amount of danger when at their freshest physical and mental state at the beginning of the incident.

• As the primary search is being completed, the search team may very well run into the suppression team and thereby be better able to direct the suppression company toward their objective.

• • •

Saving lives is the first and most important objective in firefighting. Remember the acronym LIP. It stands for Life safety first, Incident stabilization second, and Property conservation last. Searching firefighters must be mindful that a properly executed primary search is swift and thorough. The primary search in a residential occupancy is a series of dramatic, dynamic, and rapidly changing events and tactics that must be addressed at the beginning of the incident. Although searching for those in need of rescue is our primary mission, remember that you are also conducting a reconnaissance mission for the IC. An incredible amount of responsibility rests on the searching firefighters. Be fast, be thorough, stay alert, and be safe.

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