Searching Single-Family Dwellings


Search is one of the most important operations that firefighters perform. Regardless of the building type, firefighters carry out this lifesaving function regularly. Search procedures, tactics, and basic principles generally apply to most buildings, but for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on America’s most common structure fire: the single-family dwelling.

An aggressive, planned search for victims is a top priority at dwelling fires. For most structure fires, the first on scene pumper establishes its water supply and gets the initial attack line in operation. Crews operating this attack line must be aware that search teams will be operating in the immediate fire area and possibly above it if in a two-story dwelling. The attack line must move aggressively; if the line cannot control the fire, search teams must withdraw before the attack line is withdrawn. By their nature, dwelling fires will rapidly build up heat, smoke, and gases. To combat this, deploy search teams in a well organized, aggressive effort.

Teams must attempt a two-pronged search. In two-story dwellings, deploy teams to both floors. A search team using the interior stairway for second-floor search operations must ascend this stairway rapidly because of the danger of becoming trapped there. Once this team reaches the top of the stairs, members must move toward the area above the fire. This area is the most hazardous in the structure, but the search team must penetrate it and then continue in its original direction. If the team reaches the top of the stairs and takes a left-hand lead, members must continue with a left-hand lead. Follow the same pattern; it will be easier to keep your bearings. Retrace your path and, if necessary, abort the search.

Team members should keep track of each other by sight; sound; verbal communication; and, when team members are operating remotely, handheld radio. When operating above the fire, check hallways thoroughly just as you would any other area of the dwelling. If you are part of a search team, make sure that you have the appropriate tools to probe, vent, and check for fire extension. Once water is on the fire, vent upper-floor windows as you search. There will be a tough buildup of heat, smoke, and gases, but the interior stairway will act as a natural flue for all the hot gases and smoke, so venting these windows will allow teams their desired ventilation.

When moving from one room to another during the interior search, check the hallway as you move. If you enter the second floor by portable ladder, probe with a hand tool. Make sure to close the door of each search room; if you don’t, there is a chance you will draw the fire toward you. Children will seek shelter in places where they feel secure, so search teams must penetrate bathrooms, closets, under beds, behind furniture, and so forth.

In many instances, staffing will be low, so there must be no duplication of effort, at least not in the initial search. Maximize use of the handheld radio and reduce nonessential radio traffic. Fireground radio communications should be for just that—the fireground. Search teams must work as quickly as possible.

If you encounter a closed door, check for heat with a gloved hand. Be sure you don’t have a fire room on the other side. Also, determine which way the door swings, and maintain its control. Most bedroom doors open into the room. If the hinges are on the outside of the door, the door generally opens toward the search firefighter; these doors are considered the most dangerous to the search team because they may lead to a below-grade area such as a basement or cellar. Statistically, overcome victims are frequently found in the path of egress from a dwelling. When conducting aggressive dwelling searches, a blocked door may indicate that a victim is lying near or on the other side of the door. Probe the other side with your tool. While searching any room, always check behind the door you entered.

The thermal imaging camera (TIC) has added a new dimension to the search effort and should be a tool component for all search operations. Many of the newer TICs are lightweight and easy to carry. Have a standard policy on who will carry the TIC during search operations.

Once you locate a victim, it will take a coordinated effort to remove him. If the fire is under control, first consider using the interior stairs and the main entrance for victim removal. Further complicating a removal may be the victim’s size; you will need additional personnel for larger victims. As a last resort, it may be necessary to use a portable ground ladder for this difficult operation.

Searching single-family dwellings is a basic, vitally important tactic. Any firefighter may be required to conduct this type of search. Following are some reminders and tips for basic search operations:


  • Be equipped with a good light.
  • Ensure that search teams have the proper tools.
  • Work as a team.
  • Maintain verbal/handheld radio contact with team members.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and the conditions inside the structure.
  • Aggressively advance the attack line.
  • Difficult victim removals will require additional help.


    All departments must conduct realistic, creative, and challenging search operation drills to prepare firefighters for the difficulty of private dwelling searches, and all live burn exercises should feature search operations so firefighters can practice search techniques. Each year, firefighters save countless civilians. This is not by chance but rather by dedicated, trained firefighters willing to go the extra room.

    TOM DONNELLYis a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), assigned to Rescue 1; he also served as a firefighter with Ladder 176 and Rescue 2. He is an instructor at the FDNY Technical Rescue School and has been an instructor with the Suffolk County Fire Academy for 17 years. He also has been a volunteer firefighter for 24 years with the Deer Park (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree from Saint Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, New York.


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