“Primary and secondary search completed—negative.” (Or, followed by that ambiguous “All clear.”)

What is wrong with the above statement? It seems that much of the fireground terminology to which many connotative as well as denotative phrases have been attached over the years is tossed aside. What is w’rong with the above statement is that we conduct primary search on the fireground. and then we conduct secondary search.

Primary search, as discussed recently, is the initial, immediate, and aggressive examination of a fire building for people and information relative to the strategy and tactics in place at the time. Primary search is performed before the fire is declared under control.


Secondary search is begun after we reach that benchmark of “under control.” While the objectives of each part of search remain basically the same, the nature, methodology, and technique of secondary search differ from those of primary search. Let’s discuss some of those differences.

Supervision. One of the major differences is that secondary search is supervised. It is planned (to some extent, at least), directed, and controlled. A clear outline of objectives is given to each of the “players,” depending on all the constant and variable conditions of the structure and the incident at which you are operating.

Personnel levels. They are increased. (This is one time city management is not monitoring staffing increases.) Handlines are being shut down, ladders are being lowered and bedded or stored, relief crews are arriving, and preventive exposure control may be over. Groups of personnel who were not engaged in and responsible for the primary search (at least for the specific areas assigned) should be assigned to secondary search. A mind that believes a room has been searched is a convinced mind and generally will miss the same objectives missed on the first sweep.

Tune. While surely not on your side up until fire control, it assuredly is now. You have all the time in the world. To understand the meaning of this statement, let’s skip ahead to the one overriding quality/objective of the secondary search: It must be thorough and complete. There is no excuse for not locating every human being who may be inside or outside the structure in question—none. Some secondary search operations, at a fire and collapse, for instance, can go on for days. At one fire, our secondary search progress reports continued for four days. The four-story mixed mercantile establishment caught fire during Christmas Saturday at noon hour. It was fully involved on arrival. After early collapse, we refined (and refined) our list of reported missing; well into the fifth phase of collapse search, we still were looking for four people. How long do you think a secondary search of the World Trade Center would continue?

Fires have been set by criminals to cover up felonies, such as murder. Victims may be placed within voids of the structure, such as the cockloft. The fire is set in the hopes that the victim will not be found until all evidence has been destroyed and the cause of death will be pinned on the fire. Locating and accounting for such persons are difficult at best—and are even easily excused if not accomplished. But there are no excuses for not finding every victim. Secondary search must be that thorough.


Some of the search areas not involved in the primary search that must be examined in the secondary search include the following:

  • The other five interior sides of the fire. At a minimum during the primary search, we should have checked the fire area and floor or floors above and the halls and stairs that connect them. Secondary search must include the four sides surrounding the fire area on a horizontal plane, the floor or floors below, roofs and roof structures, and nonhuman occupancies such as unfinished attics and basements.
  • All work areas, locker rooms, refrigeration spaces, and storage rooms. People are creatures of habit and rarely use their imaginations in times of emergency. The routine becomes the behavior pattern. Thev return to
  • locker areas to get clothing and other “valuable” personal belongings. We lost seven people in a nightclub once when they detoured while evacuating to enter the coatroom to search for whatever they had checked.
  • Oil pits for commercial heating systems and other flooded spaces.
  • Elevator cars. They must be located in their shafts and examined.
  • Outside. All four sides, shafts, and in and under bushes and shrubs. Here, we are looking for those who may have jumped or dropped from the untenable intensity of the fire.
  • One area to be checked (that many deny, but which is factual) on most structural foregrounds is the debris so hurriedly tossed out of the structure: windows overhauled, mattresses, dressers and their drawers, closet contents—all of it.

Some of you may be asking, “Is he kidding?” No! My list was compiled not from some training bulletin but from experience. The listed areas are locations in which we found victims that I “missed”—both mentally and physically—the first and the second time.

Additional qualities that make secondary search less hazardous and less hectic and more orderly, systematic, methodical, and thorough than primary search are the following:

  • Less heat. The fire is knocked down.
  • Light and visibility. Ventilation should be complete, and overhauling lights and their feed wires should be stretched and in place.
  • More information. By now we should know how many victims may possibly be lost and where they reside or work within the structure.
  • Control. This results from a combination of coordination and adequate record keeping.
  • Communication. It now is more orderly and clearer.

So, you can see how’ terminology and misuse of colorful words that may be demanded on the fireground can lose a valuable effort and tactic. There are others; we’ll discuss them another time.

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