Searching Commercial Structures

By Mitch Brooks

Commercial structures such as manufacturing complexes, home improvement warehouses, large grocery stores, and storage warehouses have moved into suburban and rural areas—they’re no longer just a “big city” problem. Fire departments of all sizes respond to these structures and are responsible for the suppression and search and rescue activities.

Recently, I was asked by a neighboring fire department to put together a class about searching commercial structures. I tried to think of the training I had in this area, what worked and what didn’t work. My goal was to come up with a search class that would identify key differences between a residential search and a commercial structure search. I wanted a search technique that was quick, effective, easy to perform, realistic in light of today’s staffing levels, and as safe as possible. I came up with a search that is easy, requires four people to perform, is effective, and limits the search team to 10 minutes inside the structure.


First, searchers and fire officers need to forget about the “residential mindset” when dealing with commercial structures. A lot of the following statements are common knowledge but warrant reviewing.

Large floor plans. I know that this sounds like a no-brainer, but if crews are not used to responding to commercial buildings, they may not realize that these floor areas can be huge, sometimes taking up city blocks or acres of land.

Larger commitment of staffing and resources. There is no way that a single engine or ladder company can effectively search a large commercial structure such as a warehouse. Numerous companies will be needed, as well as numerous air bottles, rope bags, thermal imaging cameras, teams to open up the building, command staff, and so on.

Anxiety level of searchers. There is a huge difference between searching a commercial building on fire and searching a house on fire. The task can be overwhelming to say the least. Crews need to be prepared to go into these structures. That is where training comes into play.

Limited operating time in the structure. If you go into a residential structure to search, usually the search is completed well before your air expires. This is not the case in commercial structures. Searchers need to be mindful that their air must get them into and out of the structure. If searchers progress into the building on a search and rely on their low-level alarms to tell them when to exit the structure, there is a good chance they will not make it out before their air is totally used up.


Following are some factors to consider prior to searching a commercial structure.

Construction type. Most residences are wood frame, and crews get comfortable with that fact. Generally, commercial structures are built of a fire resistive or noncombustible-type construction, but they can be any of the five types of building construction. Why should you care about the construction type? Well, tool selection would be different for starters, fire behavior would be different, and fuel loads would be on a grand scale. If you need to force your way in or out of these structures, you want to carry a heavy tool; a pickhead ax or a small pike pole won’t do a bit of good in these structures. Think about a set of irons, a Denver tool, or a sledgehammer. Also, the most important tool to remember is your search rope.

Occupancy. We all have a pretty good idea of the occupancy of a residential structure, but what about a commercial structure? Anything could be in the structure. The name of the business hopefully would give crews a clue as to what they might face. Preplans and walk-throughs will be of great value for learning what might be in the structure. Also, identify hazards such as open shafts, pits, high-rack storage, and overall fuel load during tours and preplans.

Area. How big is the building? Can you effectively search it? The area will determine the tactics you perform on the fireground—tactics such as where to start the search, how many searches to conduct, apparatus placement, resources needed, water needed, and so on.

Fire involvement. Prior to searching, crews must determine if they need to take a handline with them (if one is not already stretched). Hopefully, crews will be attacking the fire while you prepare to search.


The search will require four firefighters—three on the search team and a timekeeper. Realistically, apparatus respond with three-person crews, so that’s how many we’ll use. The fourth person should be preferably a chief officer.

Before you enter the structure, tie off a search rope (200 feet maximum) somewhere outside the structure near where the crew will be entering. This is important because conditions inside can change rapidly and crews can get trapped if they tie off inside the structure. Also, tie the search rope at knee level. If the rope is tied too high off the ground, crews operating on their hands and knees might become separated from it and not be able to find it in a smoke-filled environment.

The search team will have an officer, or someone in an officer’s capacity, and two firefighters. The officer will tie off the rope (outside) and advance inside the structure, sweeping the floor looking for victims or hazards. The two firefighters position themselves on opposite sides of the search rope. They then girth-hitch the search rope with tied webbing. The webbing will slide on the rope with a slight tug as the searchers advance. (The webbing will be their tether and should not be longer than 10 to 15 feet. If it is any longer, it will be too difficult to handle, defeating the purpose of a simple deployment.)

When the officer wants the search to start, he will stop, hold the line tight, and communicate to the searchers to search toward him. The two searchers will search off the main rope with the webbing and an extended tool, creating a searched path approximately 25 to 35 feet wide. The officer will maintain his position until the searchers reach him. The officer will then advance farther inside the structure and repeat the search steps with the searchers.

If the officer needs to change direction, right or left, the rope should be tied off. This will ensure that when the crew members evacuate the structure, they will be crawling over an already searched area. This avoids surprises such as holes or open shaftways. If there is nothing to tie off to, a tool can be buried in the floor (if it is a wooden floor) and the rope tied around the head of it. If it is a concrete floor (most likely), then a member of the search team should be posted to hold the search line while the officer and other searcher continue the search. This places the posted member as an oriented man, acting as a “beacon” for the officer and other searcher. This also ensures that the team’s egress will be over already searched floor space.

After 10 minutes (remember our timekeeper) or if any search team member’s bell goes off, whichever comes first, the order will be given to evacuate. The officer will inform his crew to evacuate, turn, and place the rope under a knee, holding it tight. The officer then slides a hand, while holding the rope with a knee, allowing contact with a tightened rope. The rope bag should be left in place so that a second search team can enter after the first crew evacuates.

Ideally, a second search team will be standing by to aid in a rescue, act as a rapid intervention company, or enter and continue a search once the first team exits. The members of the first team must let the timekeeper know if they find a victim or if they need the second search team’s assistance for any other reason.

Remember the following to help make the search more effective and go more smoothly.

Try to ascertain the location or last known location of any possible victims. This will put the search team that much closer to the victims.

Consider multiple search points. This allows multiple searches to be carried out at once. Searches should be conducted on all sides of the building, if access is available.

Search main egress areas first. People are creatures of habit. They most likely will try to exit the way they entered the structure. A high priority should be placed on secondary emergency exits as well; employees and customers alike may try to evacuate the structure through side or rear exits.

Vent early. Open up the building. Open any large doors, skylights, scuttles, bulkheads, or whatever else may be present.

Always use a rope. Even if conditions are light, use a rope.

Make a chief officer or a ranking officer the timekeeper. Making a chief or ranking officer responsible for the time ensures that the order to evacuate will be followed. And, if any resources are needed, the chief can order the resources more readily than a lower-ranking officer. The chief will also ensure accountability is followed.

Separate radio channel. The search team and timekeeper should be on a separate radio channel if the situation escalates.

To use this search technique successfully requires training and the participation of all crew members. Firefighters must realize that there is no way they can thoroughly search huge commercial structures. They, however, can perform a more thorough and quickly executed search of the primary exit areas.

Do not wait until you are faced with searching one of these structures to try this technique. Train realistically until you are proficient in it.

Thanks to Lieutenant Mike Ruddle of Columbus Fire Engine 2 for his thoughts on commercial structure search.

Mitch Brooks is a lieutenant with the Columbus (OH) Division of Fire. A 13-year veteran of the fire service, he is a state certified fire instructor, a paramedic, and a rescue technician and is completing an associate’s degree in fire/EMS at Columbus State Community College.

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