Many of today’s buildings are constructed with large open floor spaces, a concept that presents a challenge to firefighters when performing searches under fire conditions: safely searching a large or maze-like area without getting lost. In small-area searches, such as a small apartment or single room, keeping one hand on the wall and following the wall around the room will usually bring the firefighter back to where he started. With this type of search, the member will also be able to cover most of the floor area by extending his arm with a six-foot hook or other tool as he searches.

When called to buildings with large unobstructed floor layouts or unique floor plans (known from experience or preplanning), using a search rope will improve safety and give firefighters a greater sense of security. Engine companies can also use the search rope as a guide when they are ready to advance the hoseline into the area.

Use search rope that is at least 200 feet long and packed in a bag for easy deployment. Attach the rope to the bottom of the bag so you know when you have reached the end of the line: When the rope tugs on the bag, you’ll know that the rope has run out. The search rope should be 5/16-inch thick and have a snap hook on each end. Attach one snap hook to the loop inside the bag, and use the other hook when tying off the rope to a substantial object outside the fire area.

The main search rope bag should have a shoulder strap so the firefighter controlling the rope in the search can place it over either shoulder. As this member starts the search, the rope plays out from the top of the bag (photo 1). Do not attach the rope bag to turnout gear or equipment—if the rope gets caught on something, the firefighter must be able to abandon the bag and follow the rope back to a safe area.

Keep the search rope bag in a readily accessible area on the apparatus, such as the cab or near a jump seat. Keeping it accessible with other tools such as the halligan, ax, or rabbit tool ensures that you will not leave it behind.

One person (preferably the officer) should control the search rope. Tie off one end of the rope to something substantial outside the fire area between chest and waist height. Tie it off by putting the snap hook end around the object and snapping the hook end onto the rope, forming a loop; or you can tie the rope itself to the substantial object using a clove hitch and a binder (photos 2, 3). This is important if you need the search line to find your way out. The line should not start in a smoke-filled area.

Regardless of whether you are searching for fire or trapped people, your department should have a standard search technique for using a search line.

The member in control of the search line must not be involved in the actual search but must keep control of the rope and supervise the other firefighters on the line.


Holding the main search line. In this technique, the firefighter maintains one hand on the rope while using the other arm to perform a sweeping side-to-side motion, across the floor. With your arm extended holding a tool, you can easily cover a semicircle of about nine feet. After you search the area on one side of the rope, switch hands and perform the same kind of search on the other side of the line. Another variation on this type of search is to position one firefighter on each side of the rope directly behind the team leader, sweeping the floor as you advance the search rope (photos 4, 5).

Searching off from the main search line. Each firefighter carries a short 25-foot length of 1/4- to 3/8-inch-thick utility rope in his turnout coat. The member can attach the snap hook to the primary search line and then extend the search away from the main search line, performing a floor search as outlined above with an extended arm and tool. When the search team member needs to return to the main search rope, he just follows his personal utility rope back to the line (photo 6).

The above search techniques should be performed under the close supervision of an officer or the search team leader. The officer or leader can be confident that firefighters who are searching off the main search line are always accounted for.

If staffing permits, two members working together can perform the above search technique. Keep one member on the main search rope while the other firefighter works using the utility rope attached to the main search line. As this member is performing the search, the supervising member should communicate verbally with the firefighter so he does not extend himself too far off the line.


The thermal imaging camera (TIC) is another tool to use when working with a search rope. In addition to its most obvious uses (i.e., locating trapped victims or hidden fire), the TIC, when used by a firefighter trained in thermal imaging, can be used to supervise the search and monitor other search team members, particularly in following their movements as they search off from the search rope to extend the searched area. Use the TIC to scan the floor area before starting the search, to get a better idea of in which direction the search should be conducted. It is essential that the TIC operator be specifically trained in its proper use.

JOHN MILES is a lieutenant with the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Ladder 35 in Manhattan. Previously, he served with Ladder 34 in Manhattan and Engine 82 in the Bronx and as a volunteer firefighter with the River Vale (NJ) and Spring Valley (NY) fire departments.

JOHN TOBIN is a 29-year fire service veteran and a senior captain and training officer with the River Vale (NJ) Fire Department, where he previously served as chief. He is a member of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy Advisory Board.

Photos by Nancy Miles.

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