Search Rope Basics

A search rope or guide rope’s primary purpose is to ensure that firefighters assigned to search operations in large, open, or congested spaces will be able to find their way out. These spaces range from warehouses and manufacturing areas to large retail malls with row after row of racked storage, retail goods, or production machines. High-rise buildings with hundreds of square feet on each floor laid out in small office cubicles would present a similar problem. All can be confusing to negotiate under ideal conditions. When these areas are filled with smoke, the likelihood of becoming disoriented is a real possibility. Many large city fire departments have been using search ropes of one form or another for years. As a result of the increase in these types of buildings in the suburbs and even rural areas and an increased awareness of the hazards these types of structures present, more and more fire departments are using search ropes to ensure that their personnel can quickly and safely find their way out of these buildings and to increase the effectiveness of the search operation. Search ropes are also being used as a guide for FAST/RIT operations. (Note: Do not confuse this rope with the personal escape rope firefighters carry. The personal escape rope should not be used for any other purpose to preserve its integrity.)


While researching in preparation for developing a search rope for our fire department, we found that a large variety of configurations are being used. Most fire departments use some type of rope. Some, however, use lightweight cable to guard against the rope’s burning through. The lengths of most of the ropes range from 100 to 300 feet. In most cases, two “personal ropes,” of from 10 to 50 feet-one to operate off each side of the search rope-are used. Some form of snap is attached to both ends of the personal rope. One end of the rope is secured to the search rope, and the other end-usually on the SCBA harness-is secured to the firefighter. This system allows firefighters to search off the main search rope and cover much more area while also permitting them to quickly find their way back to the main search rope and out to safety when necessary.

(1) Polypropylene rope of solid braid construction with a large carabiner attached to secure the search rope in a safe area. (Photos by author.)

In addition, most fire departments mark distance on the main search rope with some form of system so that the search team’s progress can be pinpointed and tracked. Should that search team need assistance, or if it is relieved by another search team, a definite spot on the rope identifies the area to which they should go or from which they should pick up the search without wasting time covering areas that had already been searched. In most cases, a knot is tied or spliced into the rope at designated specific intervals, usually every 20 feet.


(2) Two overhand knots are placed in the search rope at 40 feet. Each knot designates 20 feet on the search rope. This configuration can also be used to determine the desired direction of travel on the search rope.

We ultimately determined that rope would work best for us. After looking at a number of alternatives, we selected 200 feet of 7/16-inch polypropylene rope of solid braid construction. It is lightweight, stores in a relatively small area, and is inexpensive to purchase and replace. It’s large enough in diameter so it can be felt easily with gloved hands. In addition, it deploys well as long as the opening in the end of the rope bag is kept small. If the bag opening is too wide, this fairly supple rope can come out of the bag too easily, making it difficult to determine your location on the line.

(3) The first of three personal rope configurations tried.

Before choosing the 200-foot length, we had held discussions with members of other fire departments who have been using search ropes at incidents. We determined that based on the time and personnel needed to conduct a search rope operation, a 200-foot rope would be long enough. We have planned to conduct evolutions using the search rope during simulated FAST/RIT operations to determine if 200 feet is long enough for that application. Depending on the results of those evolutions, the ropes may be made longer in the future.

(4) The second personal rope configuration used the same rope as the first but had a modified large aluminum carabiner as an attachment point.

Large carabiners similar to those found on a ladder belt, already available, were placed at the starting end of the search ropes. This carabiner is used to connect the starting end of the rope to a secured object in a safe area before beginning the search. The opposite end of the search rope is secured to the bottom of the rope bag and tied off so that the rope cannot be separated from the bag.


These are the four styles of attachment points used along the search rope. The modified nonlocking carabiner, far left, best met our needs.

To designate the distance traveled on the rope, we placed a series of overhand knots in the rope; each knot designates 20 feet. One knot is used to designate 20 feet, two knots 40 feet, and so on, out to a series of nine knots, which designate 180 feet; the end of the bag represents 200 feet. In addition to the overhand knots, a butterfly knot is placed in the search rope right after the series of overhand knots. This makes available a place for securing the personal rope while working a search pattern off the search rope. These butterfly knots can also be used to determine the direction of travel in the same way as when following a hoseline, but this type of knot is much easier to identify. With the butterfly knots in place after each series of overhand knots, a firefighter who becomes confused about which way is out or a firefighter who comes across the search rope while looking for a way out would have only to run a maximum of 20 feet along the rope in either direction, feel the knots, and go in the direction of the overhand knots-just as is done when using the female hose coupling to point the way out on a hoseline.

(6) On the right is the modified nonlocking aluminum carabiner that was secured along the search rope and used to secure the personal ropes while searching. On the left is the modified large aluminum carabiner that was placed on both ends of the personal ropes. Both of these carabiners no longer qualify as load-bearing devices.

We chose 20 feet as the personal rope maximum length because it is difficult to manage a longer line. If 20 feet proved to be too long, the rope could easily be shortened. In addition, this rope had to be smaller so it could be easily distinguished from the search rope when using a gloved hand. At first, we settled on number seven polyester rope, which is between 1/4 and 5/16 of an inch in diameter and tried using large snaps and swivels on both ends of the line to secure them. The snaps and swivels were attached to the personal rope using a figure eight follow-through knot on each end. One end of the personal rope is wrapped around the search rope, and the snap is connected to one end of the swivel. The firefighter secures the other end of the personal rope by wrapping it around a portion of the SCBA harness. It quickly became apparent, after several hands-on evolutions with members having a blacked-out SCBA facepiece in place, that this snap setup was too difficult to manipulate with gloved hands. One of the members suggested replacing the snaps with a large rescue carabiner. Initially, this presented a concern because the rope could slip off the carabiner when the gate was opened, possibly causing the firefighter to become separated from the rope and become lost. After further discussion, it was determined that if we could prevent the rope from coming off the carabiner, the system would work well for connecting to both the search rope and the SCBA harness. It would also be much easier for the firefighter with a gloved hand to operate a carabiner than the snap.

(7) This technique for attaching the carabiners to the search rope allows for quick, easy, and secure attachment.

We had on hand a number of aluminum large locking carabiners that had been taken out of service for rescue work. We welded a piece of aluminum round rod across the inside of the carabiners below the gate, creating an enclosed area in the carabiner. After we did this, the carabiner no longer qualified as a load-bearing device. However, for this application, the carabiner worked very well. The personal rope was then passed through this enclosed area, which would not allow the rope to be separated from the carabiner, eliminating the potential for the firefighter to become separated from the search rope.


After more hands-on trials, we discovered that the butterfly knots, while being a positive point of connection, were difficult to distinguish from the rope itself while wearing gloves. In addition, the line used for the personal rope tangled and knotted too easily during use, which made managing the line very difficult and time consuming. After exploring alternatives, we developed three options for dealing with the problem caused by the butterfly knot:

  • Tape the butterfly knot open so that it would be more easily distinguishable from the rope.
  • Secure a 11/2-inch steel ring in a butterfly knot pulled tight on the line so that the ring would be held in place.
  • Place a smaller aluminum nonlocking carabiner on the line, again in a butterfly knot pulled tight to secure it in place. The initial concern about this option was that the carabiner could become separated from the search rope, causing a firefighter to become lost during the search operation.

All three of these options were placed on the same search rope. We conducted a hands-on trial to see which option was the easiest to use. Almost without exception, it was determined that the nonlocking carabiner secured on the search rope was the most advantageous, for two reasons: (1) The two carabiners were of different sizes and therefore could be easily identified when wearing gloves, making connecting and disconnecting easier; and (2) the larger carabiner, which is connected to one of the personal ropes, could be secured around the search rope in a safe area with good visibility, ensuring that it was properly attached. The second personal rope at the same time is secured to the first carabiner in the same enclosed area through which the rope passes.

By using the second, smaller carabiner as a point of connection on the search rope, the gate on the larger carabiner attached to the personal rope would not have to be opened, eliminating the possibility of its being separated from the rope. This carabiner configuration allowed for quick connecting and disconnecting with gloved hands.

(8) The completed personal rope configuration including the storage stuff bag.

An additional unforeseen advantage of the small carabiner and the steel ring was that as the large carabiner slid down the search rope, it made a distinct metallic sound when contacting either of the other two metal objects, making it easy for the advancing search team to identify where the next connection point is located. Prior to this, the team, on occasion, would pass a butterfly knot without identifying it as a connection point. To eliminate the possibility of this carabiner’s becoming separated from the search rope, we again welded a piece of aluminum round rod across the carabiners below the gate, as was done with the large carabiners. They were then passed down the search rope and secured in place by the butterfly knots, eliminating the possibility of their becoming separated from the search rope.

(9) The final search rope kit with all the components except the search rope in the bag’s equipment pocket.

A switch to a stiffer rope was needed to avoid the tangling and knotting problem. We considered going to lightweight cable but rejected this idea because of the difficulty in cutting it should it become tangled or caught. After further evaluation, we settled on 8-mm prusik cord for the personal ropes. This rope is stiff enough for easier management and different enough in size and consistency so that it can be distinguished from the search rope while wearing gloves.

The complete search rope kit.

We also found that if we secured the swivel to the carabiner by looping a short piece of rope through the swivel and the carabiner, securing the ends of the short piece of rope with a double fisherman knot, the swivels worked much better, reducing the personal rope’s tendency to twist as much, which helped make this rope more manageable.


To keep the ropes organized during storage and to assist in deployment, the personal ropes were placed in small stuff bags, which kept them from getting tangled with the other ropes. The best way to store the personal ropes in these bags was to stuff them in, as you would do with a rescue rope, and secure the end of the rope to the loop at the top of the bag. This caused the least amount of tangling and allowed us to get into operation in the shortest time.

At first, we used a single-ended number two rope bag complete with shoulder straps for storing the entire search rope kit. The search rope was placed in the bag first; the remaining kit components were placed on top of the search rope. It soon became apparent that this was not an ideal setup.

Some of the kit’s components could easily be removed from the bag wherever the rope was secured, but what if those components were needed at some point in the operation? We had to determine where they could be stored so that they would not interfere with the deployment of the search rope but yet would be quickly accessible if needed. We resolved this problem by purchasing rope bags that had a large equipment pocket (as well as shoulder straps). The search rope was stored in the rope bag, and the remaining kit components were stored separately in the bag’s equipment pocket. This configuration allowed for a quick, organized deployment of the search rope, whether it was being used to conduct a search or for FAST/RIT operations.

The complete search rope kit inventory consists of the following:

  • 250 feet of 7/16-inch polypropylene rope of solid braid construction. The exact amount needed will vary depending on the configurations of the knots used in the line. To construct a 200-foot search rope, 250 feet of rope is needed.
  • 50 feet of 8-mm prusik cord. This will include two 20-foot lengths and four 2.5-foot lengths for securing between the swivel and the large carabiner.
  • Four heavy-duty swivels with at least a 3/4-inch inside opening in the swivels’ loops.
  • Five large aluminum rescue carabiners modified to include a piece added under the gate to capture the line. Four will be used for the two personal ropes and one for securing in a safe area the starting end of the search rope.
  • 12 nonlocking aluminum carabiners. Nine of these carabiners would need to be modified to include a piece added under the gate to capture the rope. The remaining three carabiners would be used to secure the search rope during deployment.

Any time the search team meets an obstacle, such as a wall, all the members need do is tie off the rope so that it stays in the same path the team used to get into that area. The concern here is that should the rope move significantly from side to side, it could cross a floor opening the team did not encounter on the way in. Should the team have to exit in a hurry, one or more of the team members could fall into that opening and become injured, or worse. Because not all members are good with knots, especially under stressful conditions, the nonlocking carabiners were added so that a simple loop or bight in the rope could be passed around or through a secured object and the carabiner snapped, both through the loop and back onto the search rope itself, securing it in place.

(11) Air Consumption Worksheet on a metal clipboard.

  • Three wood wedges that can be secured on the bag for ease of deployment.
  • One large rope bag with a large equipment pocket that also includes at least one shoulder strap. It is recommended that the ends of any straps, the shoulder straps or any fastener on the bag, be sewn over so that the strap cannot come out of the fastener or the shoulder strap while the search rope is being deployed.
  • Two small rope stuff bags for storing the personal ropes.
  • An assortment of chalk, soap stone, and lumber crayons in a container to maintain their integrity. The crayons are used to mark off areas that have already been searched.
  • One thin metal clipboard with a variety of writing implements for different operating conditions, to store fire department forms for tracking air consumption.
  • One stopwatch, which is included in the clipboard for tracking the search team’s on-air time.


Another important safety component of a search rope is the form used to track the team’s operating time (see the Air Consumption Worksheet on page 100). Again, because of the nature of the buildings in which the search rope is used, it is critical that the on-air time of the searching firefighters be tracked to ensure that they have an adequate air supply to safely exit the building. If they were to wait until their SCBA low-pressure alarms activated, they may not have enough air left to make it out to safety.

We established operating guidelines for the length of time allowed on air, depending on the specific bottle’s rated duration. When using 30-minute bottles, we allow 10 minutes operating time, which allows for a 10-minute exit time, with a 10-minute safety factor. When using 45-minute bottles, the times are increased to 15 minutes, and to 20 minutes when one-hour bottles are used. The search team leader, who carries and deploys the search rope, is responsible for calling back and reporting the team’s progress on the rope to the control member, whose job it is to record the progress and track the on-air time on the Air Consumption Worksheet.

The sheet is designed so that both sides of the form are used. On the front is information about the team and the SCBA in use. A small part of this information is transferred to the back of the worksheet so that the control member can record time and progress on the same side of the sheet. At the end of the incident, the remainder of the information is filled in on the front of the sheet and is signed by the team leader, the control man, and the incident commander. It is included in the documentation for that incident.

Diligently tracking the search team’s progress identifies the location on the rope to which assistance should be sent if the search team finds a fire victim who must be removed or if the control member should lose contact with the team. This information could significantly reduce the time needed to make the rescue and increase the chance that the rescue will be successful. The Air Consumption Worksheets are stored in a thin metal clipboard along with a stopwatch and a variety of writing implements to meet different operating conditions.

We feel that the significant amount of time it took the training staff and line firefighters to develop this search rope was worthwhile in that we now have a tool we can use not only to be more safe and effective during search operations but also to increase the safety, effectiveness, and success rate of members during FAST/RIT operations.

SKIP DORGAN has 23 years of experience in the fire service, including having served as chief of a volunteer fire department. He has spent the past 17 years as a career firefighter with the Kodak Fire Department in Rochester, New York, where he is assigned to the training staff. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection technology and is an NFPA Level II Training Instructor and a New York State Fire Instructor.

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