Search in Burning Buildings: Plan for Success


“Search is the most dangerous fireground operation.”
—Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn,
Fire Department of New York

The plan is the most important part of search; without an organized, coordinated search plan, you will place firefighters’ lives at risk and may fail the community you have sworn to protect. You will have only seconds to formulate and launch a plan into the most dangerous environment many of you will ever encounter; at the end of the call, you will have to live with the consequences of your decisions. Hence, your plan must offer your firefighters and your citizens the best possible chance of survival.

According to National Institute of Standards and Technology studies, findings indicate that the typical time available for individuals to escape a growing fire following detection (largely because of modern, synthetic-based fire loads) has decreased from 17 minutes to three minutes.1

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, wood trusses can fail within 10 minutes during a fully developed fire; failure times for steel trusses are not much longer. Flashover can occur in as little as four minutes.2 Although it is not possible to accurately determine how long victims can survive or when trusses will fail, there is enough data to show that we do not have time to waste. The search plan objective is to find victims who cannot save themselves (or need help to save themselves—e.g., a ladder) and people who cannot make their location known to us. Just as we know of different ways to suppress fire (e.g., direct or indirect attack, Class A or B foam, fog or straight stream patterns, or master streams), we must train and plan to employ different search techniques that are appropriate for different types of structures and rescue situations.




People trapped by fire/smoke may have as little as six minutes to survive in an environment containing only 15 percent oxygen. The time is even shorter when you consider excessive heat and poor victim health. During company training, time how long it takes your crews to search an area of a given number of square feet and how much self-contained beathing apparatus (SCBA) air they consume in doing so. Based on such determinations, incident commanders can calculate the approximate time needed to complete search/rescue operations, weighed against resources, and the time needed to control the fire.

The following conditions indicate that search and rescue will be more complicated and thus require more resources than usual:

  • The need to use alternative routes other than the building’s normal ingress and egress routes. The entryways occupants normally use typically have fewer locks and are easier to enter, whereas back doors and other less frequently used entrances are often securely locked and sometimes blocked by furnishings.
  • Delayed forcible entry or fire attack.
  • Searchers must work above the fire or be otherwise exposed to a hazardous atmosphere. In this case, an engine company with a handline must be assigned to support and protect the search crew and the egress points.


Company level assignments must be focused to be efficient. If the search team needs to haul a hose through the building, it may lose precious time and negate its search efforts before the team even gets started.

Most of us were taught the following procedure when given a search assignment to enter the building/room: Crawl on your hands/knees; hold onto the front firefighter’s ankle; maintain contact with the wall to stay oriented; and in low-visibility conditions, carefully sweep with your tool to find any victims on the floor. Sometimes one firefighter will go right, and one will go left, but the tactic is essentially the same. You search along the edges of the wall until you find a victim, find your partner, or find another room to search.

However, this technique may or may not include deploying a handline. Right away you see its limitations: Large areas of the room are missed; progress is slow; and if the room makes several turns or opens into a larger area, you may search past your SCBA exit time. If you are working in pairs and your partner turns left and you turn right and the smoke/thermal layering descends on you, you may find yourself alone and disoriented.

If you contact something with the handle of your tool, you have to drop your tool and feel with your hands to determine if it is a victim, a stuffed animal, or a table leg. If it is not a rescue opportunity, you must find your tool and resume your search.

Some schools teach searchers to push furniture over and pull curtains down; this is also counterintuitive, since doing so may very well cover a victim (especially a small child), delaying his rescue. Moving the furniture around may also disorient the searching firefighters in medium to heavy smoke conditions.




All searches are based on clues. If responding at night to a two-story, single-family dwelling with heavy smoke showing and no one is standing outside, the bedrooms are a high priority in search planning; victims are more likely to be found there than in the kitchen. Air-conditioners in attic windows or lights on in the basement may indicate possible victim locations also. Firefighters must also remember to stop and listen (i.e., hold their breath) for victims groaning or calling out and occasionally call out themselves, which will hopefully stimulate a response from a downed victim.

Remember that people will often behave irrationally when confronted with fire and try to hide from it. Use all your senses during the search not only for victims but also for changing fire conditions. Closets, bathrooms including tubs and shower stalls, crawl space under beds, and cabinets (especially when small children are reported inside/trapped) are all possible areas of refuge and may need to be checked during a primary search.

Consider desperate acts of self-preservation to which victims may be driven; do not overlook what seems to be just a pile of clothes. People choking on smoke will try to insulate themselves from the heat and smoke; so open closets and give a quick look, sweep carefully under a bed, and feel on top of it, but do not rearrange the furniture.

If searching an office building or an apartment/hotel with which you are unfamiliar, take a quick look into uninvolved rooms and note the basic layout to help your orientation when you encounter smoke. Read as much of the building from the outside as possible; consider taking a search rope with you.

Small windows halfway up a wall may indicate a stairway landing (a potentially dangerous area that can be an avenue for fire extension to the floor above). Small windows may also indicate bathrooms; remember this if you need to bail out (if possible, retreat to a room with a larger window). Always look for alternative exit possibilities not only for firefighters but also as possible egress points for handing off victims to exterior ladder crews. A quick moment listening to a neighbor may just provide the information you need, but weigh bystander information carefully.

Preplan every chance you get—medical calls, false alarms, etc. All are opportunities to discuss initial company tactics while you are in the building. As you develop your search plan, one good benchmark is that any room/area that has sustained a flashover will not hold any viable victims. Scan the building exterior with your thermal imaging camera (TIC) to help identify fire-involved areas.

Although it is usually a good idea to follow the handline in, you may not need to follow it into the actual fire area. The engine crew will search there. If the search crew finds a victim, it can remove him if no rescue crew is assigned. This will allow the engine crew to get the fire under control more quickly. Otherwise, move on; this allows for faster coverage and keeps the line between the search team and the fire.

Continue sizing up the building as you enter it, noting the location of the fire in relation to stairs/exits, alternate escape routes, smoke level, and heat conditions. When crawling, take time to note the floor coverings for clues. For example, tiled floors in commercial buildings may indicate a high foot traffic path, indicating an exit or a service area such as laundry. Carpeted floors are typically found in sales and office areas. Remember to communicate back to command any fire extension, search progress, and roadblocks to your assignment. Negative reports, such as nothing found, are just as important.




Primary search is a planned, systematic, fast-moving search in areas that are most likely to contain victims, often before fire control efforts are in place. It usually starts in the area of greatest threat to civilians such as an area that is immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). This typically means the area immediately near the fire. The search team continues away from the IDLH, following the smoke, searching exit paths that victims would follow to escape. When possible, search toward an exit, focusing on IDLH areas, to prioritize sections of the building and properly manage personnel and strategy.

Searching firefighters must maintain their orientation while searching, for example, by placing a bright flashlight in the doorway in flash mode, if possible. Other visual orientation aids would be the flashing lights on apparatus as seen through windows. As you pass windows, look out to help determine and maintain your orientation. The search crew leader should call out to the crew to maintain voice contact and orientation.

Other orientation aids include a rope attached to a solid anchor outside the building, which the search crew stretches inside, and the hose (follow bumps to the pumps). Any of these tips can help you find your way out. Never search alone; at least two firefighters should be working search.

Sound and probe the floor to check for integrity and for any holes or stairs. Keep any stairs clear of people and equipment. When descending into cellars or into large commercial areas, leave a firefighter at the door, if possible, to provide a voice back to the entrance and also to monitor heat and smoke conditions for the searchers.

If possible, indicate that the areas have been searched. Leaving a mattress crossway on the bedframe in the bedroom is a typical indicator. Some departments use “Room Searched” tags for doorknobs. Deploy these tools when two or more companies are assigned to primary search to avoid duplication, and use only in large apartment complexes or other buildings with multiple doors/areas.

One way to help prevent unnecessary researching of areas during the primary search is to assign a support crew to the search assignment. As Toledo Assistant Chief (Ret.) John Coleman notes, “Search and rescue are two different tasks.” In a more perfect world, the search crew would have a separate handline crew with them to protect egress routes such as stairways, and a rescue crew to evacuate any victims found so the searchers can continue the search where they left off.

This is not that big of a stretch of staffing as it might seem; two firefighters on the backup line keep an eye on the search team, and if you are encountering victims, then it certainly justifies adding another company for rescue. Even if it’s just two firefighters to get the victims outside (or to a safe area) and turn them over to an awaiting EMS unit, it’s another support function of search. Only in extreme cases should a hose team be searching.

Always search behind doors as soon as you enter the room or area, and be alert if the door is hard to open or opens only partway; this may be the victim you’re looking for. If searching off a common hallway, keep in mind you may have to use a room as a shelter if you are cut off by fire, so always be ready to force entry. When entering a room, check to make sure the floor is intact before putting your weight on it, especially if entering through a window. Check the door to see if it will reclose but not lock behind you; if smoke is entering this room, reclose this door behind you (to keep the room as clear of smoke as possible while you search it); make sure your crew leader knows your location.

If you are searching ahead of the hose crew and find a room on fire, close this door without entering the room, to confine the fire. When opening doors, stay off to the side, never directly in front of the opening. When reclosing a door, make sure it will not lock. Open windows as you search as long as it will not cause the fire to extend or work against the ventilation plan. Listen for progress on extinguishment, be alert for ventilation crew activity, and know your department’s evacuation signal.

If the smoke condition is light to medium, you have visual contact with your crew, and there are no signs of flashover, you do not need to have physical contact. I tell our crews, “If you can see your feet, use them.” If you are operating in medium to heavy smoke conditions and you cannot see your partner within a couple of feet, then physical contact is appropriate. This almost always works better by having a short piece of webbing/rope (five to 10 feet long) between firefighters. Loop your arm through it so you still have use of your hands as needed, but realize that this can snag on furniture and may end up slowing you down.

I cannot stress enough the importance of interior communication between crews. As the search crew, if you are moving above the fire, be sure to let the crew supervisor on that division know that you are moving above the fire; as a search crew member, you may need to count walls/doors and communicate progress or obstacles encountered with your partner. Find out if you can vent as you move through the building. When reporting to Command, state which geographic areas of the building have been covered and declared “primary search completed” or where search was terminated and why.




Secondary search is a slower, more thorough search for any victims who may have been missed. It is a good practice to assign a different crew to perform this search; however, the primary search crew leader should brief the secondary search crew leader on his team’s search results, such as victims found, which areas were covered or not covered, and obstacles encountered. All areas are fair game during a secondary search; don’t overlook any cubby hole or cupboard. Check outside areas under windows in case a victim jumped and was not seen. Only after a thorough secondary search can you declare a building to be “all clear.”

Secondary search is also a good learning opportunity for all firefighters working the job. Crews should be careful about where they pile overhaul debris; they may cover a victim. When “following the smoke” as part of your search plan, consider HVAC ductwork and other routes that will allow carbon monoxide to travel and collect. This odorless/colorless gas can kill without the visual cues of smoke or fire and can be explosive in the right concentration.

If working a large complex building, devise a marking system to designate where searches have been completed. Consider adapting the urban search and rescue building marking system and use for individual rooms. Indicate the team that completed the search and when; note any hazards and victims found. A lumber crayon or similar device works most of the time in this application and is easily applied and cleaned off most surfaces (Figure 1).

Click to Enlarge

By now, some of you are rolling your eyes and saying, “It does not need to be so complicated; we have searched many buildings, and we cover what we need to cover.” You’re right; and I’ll bet you have pulled some citizens out of these buildings. However, read some NIOSH line-of-duty-death reports; many times, it is firefighters assigned to search who die. They enter in light to medium smoke conditions and then, for many reasons, things begin to go terribly wrong. But if you enter a burning building on a search assignment with an established plan and a well-practiced search technique, if you are cut off, caught in a flashover, have an SCBA malfunction, or are caught in a partial building collapse, you will be better able to maintain your orientation, the incident commander will have a better idea of where you are even if you cannot communicate, and your chances of surviving will be greatly increased. The winning is in the preparation.




I have discussed many variables associated with search. Planning and training are critical to a successful search. Most building searches will be very straightforward, but if you catch the big one, all the preparation will pay off. Flexibility and a rational view on what can be done and what can’t be done are vital. Most buildings are insured; the least we can do is rescue victims. But if you can’t search effectively, it won’t matter if you are the best trained rescue crew in the world.





1. “Performance of Home Smoke Alarms: Analysis of the Response of Several Available Technologies in Residential Fire Settings,” National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST Technical Note 1455-1, February 2008 revision.

2. “Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Fire Fighters Due to Truss System Failures,” NIOSH Publication No. 2005-132, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, May 2005.


Search Tips


Disorientation. If you become disoriented, try returning to the door or window from which you entered the area; this will usually help you to regain your bearings.

Likely victim locations

  • Under beds; use your leg to gently sweep area.
  • Low mattress may indicate a bunk bed; check for an upper bunk.
  • If you remove one victim from a bed, check for a second.
  • Between the wall and the bed.
  • Toy box or closet.
  • Cribs, which often have narrowed tapered legs with wheels attached.
  • Bathrooms, bathtubs, and shower stalls.


Best removal paths/methods for rescued victims

  • Interior stairs
  • Horizontal exits
  • Fire escapes
  • Ladders
  • Rope


Take steps to prevent ambulatory victims or occupants who have self-rescued from reentering the building.

STEVE SHUPERT is a 20-year veteran of and a lieutenant in the Miami Township Fire Department in Montgomery County, Ohio. He is assigned to the second platoon, Engine/Rescue Company 48. He is a task force leader with OH-TF-1 and serves on the DHS/USAR Rescue Working Group.


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