Rope-Based Search Techniques


At any time, the search crew is at risk of being cut off or overrun by fire. An engine company hose crew must be assigned to protect them, or they should evacuate. There are times when the hazard is not from fire but from the inability to navigate the interior spaces because visibility is poor or the building is too complex to ensure an exit within the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) endurance time frames, or both. These rope-based techniques are usually employed when there is a reliable report that someone is missing and the distance or atmosphere rescuers must pass through represents a significant hazard.

This article explores four methods of using rope as an orientation tool while searching: Guide Rope, “Y” and “L” patterns, Team Search, and Straight Rope.


The most identifiable problem with using rope in this environment is the rope’s getting tangled. Then, rope management seems to become the focus of the assignment instead of finding the missing person. The answer to this is the same as it has always been: You must practice laying the rope out and gathering it back up with gloves on and in poor visibility. There is no magic method.

As with any rope operation, however, you must manage the logistics and have the rope and accessories (carabiners, tag lines, and so on) properly packaged and rigged for immediate deployment. Other issues for rope-based techniques are the following: your physical contact with your crew is diffused through the rope, the resistance you think is your partner may be you dragging a floor stool, mobility is limited to the length of rope, and being able to manage the rope.

Search/guide ropes can be applied in virtually any building, at any time. When choosing to deploy the rope, it is best to do it before conditions get bad. If you take a bag of rope with you as part of your rapid intervention team or search standard operating procedures, think about how hard it would be to split your crew halfway through the assignment, deep in the building. If you send someone toward the safe area to tie the rope off because the fire suddenly got smoky, you will be playing catch-up. Always consider the fact that good visibility may not be maintained through the course of your interior operations. For any good reason (complex building, wide areas, poor visibility, or just your gut), go ahead and tie your rope off in a safe area before you commit your crew.

Figure out what applications you want your rope to perform. If you bring rope inside because you feel there may be a possibility of having to rig the victim for extrication or to use as a “bailout” line, then you should not tie it off, which means you will need another rope. Plan your logistical needs, especially for this technique. By its very nature, the crew is extending far afield; extra help and supplies will be a long time in finding you. The search or guide rope should be one rated to stand up to thermal threats. There are several blends that are excellent choices. Ask for demonstrations, discuss the issue with your own network of rope gurus, and consult National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1983, Standard on Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services, 2006 edition, before making your selection.


This is the simplest and most commonly used method. We have deployed this technique at times because we cross-staff our engine with the medic crew. If the medic crew is out and we get a fire call with a rescue opportunity or if the nature of the investigation is such that entry needs to be made, we quickly attach the rope to the front porch column or the tip of the ladder (going into the second-floor window) and make an interior check. The firefighters have provided themselves with an easy orientation tool, allowing for a quick, short (duration and distance) entry to verify any issues that may be present. Single-family dwellings lend themselves readily to this. Another example would include attaching the rope to the doorknob of the smokeproof stairwell in an apartment. You must be careful that this short quick rope will not get you deeper into trouble. Maintain your situational awareness, and make sure the boss knows where you are all the time. Try to keep this rope two or three feet off the floor so it doesn’t get lost in debris and you can find it easily. The guide rope is usually a small-diameter line and is used for many purposes. It could double as a “bailout” line in an extreme emergency and a drop bag rope to haul/lower tools off roofs. These ropes are typically 25- or 50-foot lengths. Any rope that has life safety applications needs to be handled only for that purpose; you must inspect and care for it as the manufacturer recommends and in accordance with NFPA 1983.


This refers to the shape of the rope layout when the tag lines are attached and the rope is deployed in the building. Both of these techniques require three to four firefighters. Large commercial buildings, warehouses, large retail stores, and any wide open space lend themselves to an application of the “L” technique. When faced with complex floor layouts, like office cubicles or schools, employ the “Y.” The “Y” is generally considered the more flexible. Both systems are based on a low-visibility physical search environment. 

The “Y” and “L” have a few concepts in common with each other. When working through the building, leaving a trail with your rope, turning corners and so on as you search, do not let the rope create diagonals, which would indicate to a crew following you that it is a safe path but, in reality, it is one you did not travel. Do not allow the rope to cut off the corners of your traveled route. When you need to turn or change directions, find something to tie the rope off to, to accurately reflect your search path (photo 1). It is recommended that the main rope be at least 200 feet long and the tag lines no longer than 50 feet. If you need to expand the search—in other words, you run out of the 200-foot main rope—you can extend it by attaching another rope to the end of the first rope. Be sure to advise the control firefighter of this benchmark.

(1) A guide/search rope is tied off, creating a change of direction. (Photo by author.)

When, during the course of your search, one of the crew comes across a window or other exit/safe area, tie a knot in the rope to indicate its location. A knot could also designate the depth of penetration into the building if crews ran out of air or otherwise had to back out. Crews will need to be proficient not only in laying the rope and following it but also in gathering it back up and finding an alternate path if they go the wrong way and need to redirect.

Crew and equipment management need careful consideration. When working using the “Y” or “L,” the incident commander (IC) needs to stage up to six firefighters to rotate in and relieve crews. Depending on how deep inside the building or the number of possible victims, a rescue crew may need to lag behind the search crew with extra gear in a stokes basket (SCBA bottles, forcible entry tools, technical rescue equipment) to minimize the reflex time so that once a victim is found there will be a minimum delay in effecting the rescue and handing the victim off so that the search can continue uninterruptedly, increasing efficiency. I also recommend a separate radio channel for this extensive search operation.

The “L” or “Y” system needs at least three firefighters. The positions are as follows:

  • Crew leader: coordinates and determines search pattern, controls the rope bag, communicates/updates with crew and IC. Stays in contact with wall (for guidance/orientation, not necessarily as a search pattern) during “L.” This may not be possible in a “Y” deployment.
  • Control firefighter:maintains a position at the entry point, monitors fire/smoke conditions, sets a flashlight shining in the direction of the search crew, and notes the entry time of the search crew. Monitors the time during search operations and advises when the crews are at the SCBA exit time. Debriefs the exiting crew and briefs the incoming relief search crew.
  • Two searchers: work off the main line (crew leader rope bag) with a shorter rope (20 to 30 feet typical), physical search.

Note the tied off change of direction in the upper left corner of the room (Figure 1). The searcher’s tag line can slide on the main line as needed. A second searcher could be deployed inline with the one depicted in the illustration, to reach farther into the center of the area.

Figure 1. “L” Pattern: Working a Large Open Space

Figure 2. “L” Pattern: Working Multiple Rooms Off a Hallway

Figure 3. “Y” Pattern: Sweeping Through an Office Floor Complex

The main line is anchored in a safe area. You also could position an entry control person at the entrance.

If using a thermal imaging camera (TIC) with the “Y” or “L,” give it to the search crew leader. The crew leader can scan for victims, fire conditions, and holes; help keep orientation; look for victims; or pass it off to searchers as needed for their search. When crawling, try to keep your head up, and feel out in front you at all times for possible entrapment hazards.

It is worth saying again that you must manage the rope and not let it manage you. The intent of using the rope is to help the crew to stay oriented, not to constantly be trying to figure out how to play the rope out or in while someone is on his last breath waiting for you. However, when you learn this technique, you will have a powerful alternative for your community that very well may succeed where many other options have not.


Developed before the “Y” and “L,” team search lends many of its concepts to the “Y” and “L.” Efficient rope management is a must; tying off rope to create a change of direction and the use of tag lines remain mostly the same. This system is based on four firefighters—a search crew leader, an entry control firefighter, and two searchers. The rope is tied off in a safe area, and the crew leader has the rope bag. The two searchers are on either side of the rope with tag lines attached tightly so they will not slide (different from the “L”) to the main line back as far as the tag lines are long. Tag lines are also about 10 to 20 feet long. As the crew leader advances, the searchers hold their position until their tag lines become taut. The crew leader feels the line go tight and then holds that position. The searchers then swing out, one right, one left, in a semicircle (if no walls/rooms and so on are encountered). They meet back at the main line just behind the search crew leader where the cycle begins again. The crew leader advances, the rope goes tight (about 25 feet), the crew leader stops, and the searchers swing out and physically search. The crew leader could use a TIC to help maintain accountability. Accountability is one of the strengths of this system in that the whole team is assembled every cycle; if someone is lost, as long as he has stayed on the rope, he should be within 25 feet. With this setup, the SCBA time needs to be monitored and communications need to be tightly controlled. Search teams may need to be cycled; rescue crews may need to enter along the same path to effect extrication.

Figure 4. Team Search Deployment

With the growth of smoke detectors, the fire department often arrives earlier in the fire growth curve, before flashover. With proper venting and water application, citizens overcome or cut off by smoke/fire have a better chance of surviving a fire, and we have a better chance of getting caught in a flashover if proper strategies aren’t carried out. We will all stand a better chance of surviving if we plan and train ahead of time. I hope these search tactics improve your crew’s and your community’s chances.


The fire service needs a rope-based search system; it needs to be simple to deploy, easy to train, and easy to repeat. The above methods are successful and work. Each has a fairly steep learning curve. The technique presented here borrows from each, is easy to understand, and is simple to deploy. It works also.

The rope used for orientation should be made from fibers that make it heat resistant. We do not use knots or rings tied into the search rope; we found that these features inhibit movement and slow the search. When you need to create a fixed point in the rope to anchor a tag line or to mark the end of the search or window placement, simply tie it in yourself.

A standard method for rigging a search rope is to tie a knot at 10-foot intervals and to add a knot for every 10 feet with a steel ring onto which the searcher is supposed to clip in his tag line. We found that the 10-foot rigging points are random when applied to all the different floor plans we go into; of course, the knots are about how far you are inside, but associated with the knots are the steel rings for tag line attachments. This supposes that rooms/areas will be located in 10-foot increments. It also requires the searcher to clip and unclip at each location.

If the ring does not land at the door, and since the tag line will not slip along the length of the main line, a large amount of main line rope will be pulled and deflected into the space being searched. This usually translates into the unused knots/rings getting caught on table legs, corners, and so on. Obviously, we search spaces of all sorts and shapes. What we have worked out is how long, based on SCBA breathing air time, we can search a given size space. The 10-foot knots lose meaning as tag line searchers deflect the rope in and out of rooms.

During our drills, we have found that we can conduct a primary search (four firefighters) with just a straight rope and tag lines that slip along its length and cover 7,000 square feet on 50 percent of a 45-minute bottle. Essentially, the straight rope is a guide rope; there are still an entry control person, two tag line searchers (basically the “L” system, with no knots/rings), and an oriented firefighter. The main rope stays with the oriented firefighter. This person manages most of the rope. The tag line searchers ideally work off this rope. The tag line connection to the main line is made with a carabiner and can slide as needed.

Communication is important here, just as in any other evolution. The entry control person monitors time in the space (SCBA exit time) and acts as the last backup for the search team. If no one hears from the search team, it is up to this person to call the Mayday. The control entry person could also act as a rescuer, depending on interior conditions. A searcher locates and drags a victim out into the hall, and the control person (if no one else is available) crawls in and drags him out.

I also suggest that you go to a different radio channel (other than the fire channel) only if a search sector officer is designated. The search sector officer does not search but monitors the channel. This officer needs to be planning based on observations and resource availability to meet what the need is. Stay ahead of the smoke/fire and search crews. This way there is a direct link to command; command will not hear two different radio channels in the middle of a firefight.

The control person is responsible for extending the main search (orientation) line also. The rope is anchored in a safe area. But if the search crews run out of rope and still have rooms to clear, they call the entry control person and ask him to attach the next rope bag. The oriented firefighter ideally has a TIC and acts in the same manner as in the previously outlined oriented search.

As searchers exit an assigned area, they call out, “Coming out.” This signals the oriented firefighter to start taking up rope. This is done by looping it back into your hand. We have also adopted an “old school” method of tugging rope based on the OATH system. We teach the oriented firefighter to anticipate the need to play out and take in rope as the searcher expands and contracts toward the main line. If the tag line runs short and the searcher needs more rope (main line/orientation), the searcher tugs twice with arms at full extension; the arms then are briskly brought back toward the chest while holding fast unto the tag line.

The oriented firefighter lightly holds the main line, right side and left side, one for each searcher, and allows the main line to deflect into the rooms as needed to cover the area. This system maintains crew accountability and orientation. The searchers run out of air much faster than the oriented person.

If you need to cycle in a new search crew often, the oriented firefighter can stay as the new crew moves in and the first crew moves out. The first oriented firefighter can quickly brief the new crew leader and hand the rope/TIC over and simply move out along the rope. Accountability is maintained with the entry control person during the transition. We use air consumption instead of depth into the building as a measuring tool by counting knots. You still tie off and create a change of direction as needed. The searchers working the tag lines are working hard and are consuming air rapidly.

The techniques presented here offer methods to help keep orientation and thereby increase the safety of crews. But it is much more complicated than that: Search, especially above the fire, is risky business, and often the victims are not viable. However, with a search plan and technique that is practiced by your crews, one they have confidence in, the odds of getting in and out are better. Try these techniques; combine aspects of them, and match them to your situation.

STEVE SHUPERT is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant assigned to Engine Rescue Co. #48 in the Miami Township Fire Department, Montgomery County, Ohio. He also is a member of Ohio Task Force 1 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urban search and rescue team and is one of the East Coast representatives of FEMA’s Rescue Working Group.

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