Time is the most essential ele-ment in search and rescue work in an occupied structure involved in fire. Immediate entry and search while ventilating smoke and its toxins are critical to save lives. The firefighting profession understands the urgency of aggressive search tactics, which sometimes require the firefighter to conduct a search without the protection of water from a hoseline.

If a hoseline is not used as a guide during a search, then the traditional method of keeping in contact with the wall is necessary to provide direction in a smoke-filled environment with limited visibility The right- or left-hand wall search is a common tactic for a firefighter to use when conducting a search in a fire, but constant contact with the wall may be time-consuming or not possible under the following conditions:

  • Large search area. Because the firefighter cannot leave the security of the wall, the center of some rooms may go un-checked.
  • Removing a victim. Victims could be located anywhere in a structure, including away from the wall.
  • Collapse. In a collapse, the firefighter cannot use the wall as a guide.

If there is no hoseline and firefighters cannot use the structure—s walls for orientation during a search, the One Knot In/Two Knots Out search method described below provides an alternate means for orienting firefighters conducting search or leading lost firefighters in finding the way out faster because they will know which direction will lead to safety.


  • Donning the team search bag. The lead searcher (normally an officer) wears the team search bag, which he puts on after donning SCBA. To don the search bag, place your arm and head through the strap so the bag lies on either side of your waist.
  • Donning the personal search rope bag. Attach the personal search rope bag to the waist strap of your SCBA, which is fed through the three hook-and-loop straps located on the rear of the search rope bag. You can attach the bag to either side. Then adjust the SCBA accordingly.


The search team consists of a minimum of two interior firefighters. In addition to SCBA, one or both of these members carry a radio and search tools. Before beginning any search, notify the incident commander. A backup team of two additional interior firefighters equipped with SCBA, radios, and search tools are stationed at the point of entry, ready to assist if needed. Ideally, the search and backup teams should have the same number of members.


Each team entering a contaminated area (a smoke-filled room, for example) for search should have the following items: SCBA; radios; handlights; forcible entry tools such as an ax, a halligan, a hook, a search rope bag, and a rabbit tool; and a thermal imaging camera (TIC).


Photo by author

The team search rope bag consists of 200 feet of 5/16-inch nylon rope, knotted as follows: Every 10 feet, tie one knot. Leave a five-inch space, and then tie two consecutive knots. Perform this sequence of knots every 10 feet for the whole length of the rope (see photo 1).

This is the One Knot In/Two Knots Out method, which helps members who become lost or disoriented during search. Finding the rope and following the knots out (one knot, then two knots = IN; two knots, then one knot = Out) ensures that members are heading to safety (see photo 2). The search rope should pay out of the search bag so the single knot comes out first, followed by the two knots. The hook that is to be anchored outside of the structure you—re entering should be painted to identify as such; the color is up to the company. A silver hook attached to the other end of the rope should be hooked into the bottom of the search bag. This prevents the team search rope from coming out of the bag when the 200-foot limit is reached. In addition, the search rope bag should be distinctly labeled to remind members of the knots, “1-IN, 2-OUT.”


Photo by author

The personal search rope bag consists of 50 feet of 3/8-inch nylon rope that has a snap-on hook attached at both ends. The rope is laid in the bag so that it can play out from one end of the bag as the firefighter advances. After the search rope is packed into the bag, both ends of the rope are attached to eyehooks located on each side of the bag.


Size up, entry, and hand tools. A team can search more area with a search rope. Examine the search building exterior before entering, and locate at least two means of egress. A forcible entry tool aids in entry and expedites escape, permitting breaching walls and removing doors or windows if required. A search tool extends your reach during search in helping to locate victims and hidden dangers (e.g., holes or open stairwells). When making entry for search and rescue, take out the entire door if it—s made of glass; remove the entire window including curtains, blinds, furniture, and anything else that will impede entry.


Through a door. Tie one end of the search rope to a substantial object outside of the search area. The hook that is to be anchored outside of the structure you—re entering should be painted to identify it as such; the color is up to the company (see photo 3). The lead team member (equipped with the necessary search tools) dons the team bag. The lead team member enters the building and conducts a sweeping search using a hand tool. Search team members following the lead team member perform sweeping motions with tools, trying to cover as much area as possible.

Searching rooms off from the main search rope. The lead team member remains outside of the room being searched to monitor the team—s progress until all members searching the room return and are in contact with the search rope. When all team members return, the lead member progresses forward with other team members to continue their search. After each room is searched, they close the door and mark it to indicate a search was completed.

Searching rooms or areas off the main rope using personal search rope. If performing searches off the main search rope using your personal search rope, follow one of the following two procedures.

  1. Tie the main search rope securely at both ends to a substantial object so that the personal search rope will not drag around the main search rope.
  2. The lead searcher remains where he is as the search is performed. This maintains communication and ensures that the main rope will not move. Unhook the personal search rope from the back of the bag and secure it to the main search rope. As you progress forward, the rope will play out from the back. Once your search is completed, follow your personal rope back to the main search rope.

Searching off a ladder. If you are performing a search by raising a portable or aerial ladder to gain entry into a room, attach the personal search rope to the ladder positioned at the window. Unhook the personal rope from the back of the bag, and secure it to the ladder. Notify the incident commander that the search team will be entering a room before entering. Once a portable or aerial ladder is positioned and a member goes inside the search building from the ladder, do not move the ladder until the searching member says it is okay to do so.

Before entering the window, check for victims who may be in the room under the window. Then, using a search tool, check the floor for stability by tapping the floor. When the team enters the room, a member should position himself outside the window, on the ladder, to monitor the team—s progress and assist if called on. A second member is positioned at the butt of the ladder, to maintain stability. Notify the incident commander if a backup team is needed, then fill the positions immediately.

Accountability. A safety officer should be stationed at the point of entry to monitor the team—s progress The safety officer is responsible for tracking each team member entering the structure and monitoring the team—s time within the structure. If at any time the safety officer deems it necessary to abandon the search, he notifies the search team members and the incident commander by radio.

Joining team search ropes. Because of the probable large area to cover, the extreme stress firefighters experience in searching, and the lack of available air in the SCBA, no more than two team search bags can be joined together. This allows the search team to penetrate the structure up to 400 feet.

Joining personal search ropes. If conditions are favorable, searching firefighters can connect multiple search lines to cover a larger search area. Connecting a second search rope to the end of the search bag allows another 50 feet of area to be searched. In addition, this connection acts as a landmark for the firefighter and others in determining how far they are from the end of the rope.

After-use care. After any member has used a team search bag or a personal rope bag, he is responsible for checking it out completely before putting it back in service. This entails checking the rope bags for damage to the bag or eyehook connections and checking the rope for abrasions, tears, high-heat exposure indicators, and any other abnormalities. If for any reason you feel the rope/bag is not acceptable, do not put it back in service.

PATRICK J. LAVIN is an eight-year member of the Fire Department of New York and a 14-year member of the Westbury (NY) Volunteer Fire Department; he serves as a captain and a department instructor.

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