Conducting a safe and effective primary search is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous fireground operations you will be asked to carry out during your firefighting career. The thought of being on the floor above a fire without the protection of a handline, searching through areas with which you are not familiar in dense smoke and high heat, is a huge challenge even to the most seasoned and experienced veteran firefighter. An abundant number of methods and techniques on how to complete this dangerous task are instilled in firefighters throughout their careers. Coupled with your department’s operational guidelines, these approaches provide a foundation on which you can build a personal course of action that will allow you to successfully accomplish a primary search that will ensure your safety and enable you to complete the task at hand. Although our own personal safety will always be our number one fireground priority, we must face the fact that completing a primary search under any fire condition is a dirty and dangerous job. Aggressive primary search is a main component of our profession. The search must be completed quickly, efficiently, and without hesitation, or the very citizens we are sworn to protect will perish.


To generate some insightful thought on the subject and positively increase firefighter safety while conducting this type of operation, I have gathered together the following “Ten Commandments” of conducting a safe and effective primary search. Although they are not written in “stone,” following these basic, yet essential, tips will improve your performance and safety while executing your searches.

  • Search with a partner. From the first day of basic training, this clear-cut and simple rule is instilled in our memory as the number one method of ensuring our safety while conducting primary searches. This is true: When you have a partner, you can quickly communicate your every move to the individual who undoubtedly will play a major role in ensuring your safety. Searching with a partner also allows for a great deal of tactical freedom relative to the methods and techniques used.

    However, let’s be honest. How many firefighters have the luxury of knowing that every time they respond to a fire they will be afforded the luxury of a search partner? I have found that this basic rule has been so severely compromised by staffing shortages that many firefighters are no longer afforded the opportunity of enjoying this vital safety resource. So the question is, How do we rectify the situation? Easily. Departments should purchase enough portable radios so that every firefighter riding on the apparatus carries a radio. This portable radio will then become the firefighter’s partner and his link to the incident commander (IC). In reality, we all know a radio will never take the place of a properly staffed engine or truck company. How-ever, it is a major step toward improving the safety of those members who have no other available options.

  • Conduct a size-up. It is common knowledge that on arrival at an incident, the IC will conduct a size-up of the involved structure to develop and implement a strategic and tactical plan that will allow his personnel to effectively suppress the fire. The fact that the IC routinely completes this task with the knowledge that he will probably never be involved in the interior firefight shows how critical it is that every interior firefighter commit to conducting his own personal size-up of the fire building.

    A thorough and effective analysis of a burning structure prior to making entry is one of the most valuable tools you can use to ensure your safety on the fireground. The quality and volume of information you can gather by completing this simple task may save your life. Information such as secondary access and egress points of the structure, the location and extent of the fire, the type of structure involved, the location of trapped victims, window locations, and laddering points will give you the opportunity to develop a mental picture of the structure before entry. Remember, the responsibility of personal safety on the fireground starts with you! Be smart: Size up!

  • Carry a tool and hand light. Unless positionally assigned, every firefighter, at his discretion, can choose the type of hand tool he is most comfortable working with while conducting primary searches. The most important fact I want to stress is, Whatever tool you choose to carry into battle, you must carry it every time. Get to know it, care for it, love it, and-most importantly-learn how its correct use can help you get out of dangerous situations.

    Carrying a hand light is another excellent routine to practice. When I speak of hand lights, I am referring to those powerful, high-intensity lights that are small and light enough to be carried around the waist or shoulder or can be attached directly to your personal protective equipment (PPE). Carrying a light in this manner allows using your tools in a “hands-free” environment. More importantly, there are countless factual accounts from firefighters who have been rescued by other firefighters from a collapse or “Mayday” situation because the rescuers were able to follow the beam of light from a flashlight. Be proactive: Carry a tool and hand light. Don’t diminish your level of safety.

  • Use proper personal protective equipment (PPE). As I already mentioned, fireground safety starts with you. Wearing your full PPE (including SCBA, PASS device, and hood) is a necessity in today’s fire environment. Unlike years past, the materials of today are burning hotter and producing more dangerous toxic gases than ever before. Structures are being built with energy conservation in mind. Improved insulation techniques, man-made materials, and thermal pane windows have increased the likelihood of flashover, backdraft, and firefighter burn injuries. Because we will always be aggressive interior firefighters, the only way to protect ourselves from these situations is to properly wear and use our PPE at every incident. Get into a ritual of consistently wearing your PPE. This habit will increase your personal safety and allow you to enjoy a healthful and successful career.

  • Control the door. Many firefighters have been seriously injured or killed because they did not complete this vital, yet sometimes overlooked, task. Whether you are attempting to maintain control of a door to provide the engine company with a coordinated entry by confining the fire, to afford firefighters with an area of refuge from the products of combustion, or to give yourself additional time to complete your search, the job must get done. Fire moves fast and with great intensity; maintaining control of the door is essential for the safety of members operating within the structure.

  • Have a plan. Develop a basic plan of action before entering a building to conduct a primary search. In reality, this strategy should be developed while at the fire academy, practiced throughout your career, and promoted by your peers. Academies teach new firefighters the basic tenets of accomplishing a safe and effective search. These principles are most likely based on common fire service practices in conjunction with the local department’s standard operating guidelines. Standardized instruction provides all members with the knowledge that other firefighters “working” the job have been trained in the identical manner and should be following the same basic plan. Thinking alike, as a team, will increase the efficiency and safety of the operation.

  • Stay in contact with a wall. It is highly improbable that firefighters will be familiar with the interior of the building involved in fire. We can find out what type of structures we will be entering and some key facts about them by sizing up from the outside. Typically, many types of private dwellings have been constructed using the same basic floor plan. Whether the structure is a Cape Cod, colonial, ranch, or split level, the floor plans should be similar, and firefighters should have a good idea of what the interior looks like. This is true only if the dwelling has not undergone any major interior renovations.

    When searching commercial buildings, you are faced with large, open areas; maze-like conditions; and floor plans that you have not seen before. In these instances, your primary search will most likely be rope guided, allowing you some freedom from directly contacting the wall. Searching with a rope also decreases the chance that you will become disoriented, establishes a point of contact from which members can initiate their searches, and allows you to become somewhat familiar with the area. However, when engaged in a primary search without a rope in any type structure, stay in contact with a wall at all times so you are close to areas of egress (doors and windows) in case a quick exit should become necessary. Remember that most victims will not be found sitting nicely against a wall. People who succumb to the products of combustion are most likely found in areas of egress such as windows, doors, and hallways or in the middle of a room. To complete an accurate search, you must use the wall as a point of contact and sweep the floor area of the room with the tool and personal hand light you should be carrying.

  • Ensure people know where you are. The accountability of all firefighters operating on the fireground is a vital factor to the overall safety of an operation. However, of much greater importance is the locations of firefighters operating within the structure. These members may be placed at great risk if the IC and other interior crews do not know their locations. A large portion of the IC’s strategy will be based on the locations of the search crews within the building. Without this knowledge, the IC cannot effectively direct the placement of ladders, the stretching of backup lines, the deployment of FAST teams, or the ventilation of the structure-tasks that if completed in a timely and effective manner would lead to the increased safety of these interior crews. Interactive communication between the search crew and the IC is the key to maintaining this coordination.

    Firefighters conducting searches on the floors above a fire are operating in what is arguably the most dangerous position on the fireground. It becomes vitally important that the engine companies operating on the fire floor are aware that members have moved past them to the floors above. These engine companies are the search crew’s safety net. If they fail to contain the fire or are pushed out of their position by untenable conditions, the crews on the floors above could be placed in a perilous position. Communicate your position to the IC and the other interior crews. It may save your life.

  • Monitor fire conditions. This is a critical task for interior search crews. Continually reevaluating the smoke, heat, and fire conditions in which you are operating will enable you to quickly remove yourself from the building should conditions become untenable. This can be accomplished in several ways: Reading smoke conditions (color, intensity, and volume), monitoring heat levels, and observing the location of fire within the building are all outstanding methods for carrying out this responsibility. However, probably the best way to keep a check on fire conditions within the structure is to monitor your portable radio. A vast amount of information can be gathered by listening to the ongoing radio transmissions and size-up reports transmitted by the various companies on the fireground. Use these re-ports and your personal observations to re-main alert to what is going on around you.

  • Remain oriented. Remaining oriented while conducting primary searches is a vital part of a safe and effective primary search. Personnel must become familiar with their location within the building by identifying as much as possible any object they contact. Beds will be in bedrooms, toilets will be in bathrooms, couches and tables will be in living areas. We do this because it will give us some idea of where people may be found within the rooms we are searching and, more importantly, will allow us to immediately identify our location within the building to the IC in case conditions rapidly deteriorate and it becomes necessary to quickly remove us from the structure.

    You must also remain composed under the duress that occurs while conducting primary searches. This factor does not exactly fit into the definition of orientation, but it is closely linked. If you succumb to the psychological stress of a primary search operation, you will lose your orientation, confidence, and self-control. You will be unable to communicate and may place yourself in danger. If this should occur, you would be at the mercy of the fire. Remaining cool, calm, collected, and oriented to your surroundings is the best way to prevent increasing the level of danger facing you while conducting primary search operations. Stay calm, stay low, stay oriented, stay alive!

    Conducting a primary search is a dangerous task. It gets a lot more dangerous when staffing shortages, fire station closings, inadequate equipment, and deficient training are thrown into the mix. These are perilous issues that firefighters nationwide face every day. Unfortunately, they will not be gone any time soon. Following the “tips” outlined here will reduce your chances of being affected by these concerns, keep you safe, and assist you in conducting an effective primary search.

    ROBERT MORAN, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Englewood (NJ) Fire Department and a member and former chief of the Leonia (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department, where he serves as the borough’s fire official. He is a state certified Level II fire instructor, fire official, hazardous materials specialist, and arson investigator. He is a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference advisory board, the Bergen County Prosecutors Office Arson Task Force, the Bergen County Fire Academy Advisory Board, and New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science.

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