Fireground Search – Some thoughts

It goes without saying that the primary and secondary searches need to be completed at all fires. This article intends to provoke some thought and reinforce some lessons learned.

  • A door that is forced and won’t fully open are major indications of two potential things: A body behind or in the path of the door’s swing, or hoarding conditions. A Christmas fire in Northern, NJ several years ago proved to be fatal after a body was found in the doorway of the home. The body was found post extinguishment and during the overhaul phase of the operation. From my memory, the body was body charred and suffered several puncture wounds from tools of crews walking in and out of the home. Checking the immediate area, including behind the door should land somewhere in your flow chart after forcing or even opening a door at a fire.
  • The data that is being collected can be somewhat overwhelming to interpret and firefighter’s don’t like to read much, so I’ll make this simple: We are finding people in the common paths of travel within their homes; hallways being a major landmark. Think about how you walk in and out of your home, whether you’re heading to the grocery or escaping fire, you will follow your routine (or muscle memory). That being said, we need to focus on employing sound search techniques. Knowing this information, we make the main paths of travel within the structure- Aaron Fields calls this “the spine of the home.” A good rule of thumb would be to start our search at the area of the fire and work our way out. This allows us to find those in most danger first and will surely include traveling the main corridors. We don’t need to be statisticians, we just need to understand at a basic level what these statistics mean.
  • Remaining in contact doesn’t mean that you must keep your hand on my boot. As a matter of fact, this is probably the most unproductive thing you can do on the fire ground. Remaining in contact can fall under site, touch, or sound. If I can see you, call to you, or feel you, we’re good. A search train around a room is useless and covers almost no practical space. Think back to paths of common travel, how many of you leave your house under normal conditions by placing your right hand on the wall and walking the four walls to find the door? Zero of you. Occupy the space where people live and we can better ensure a positive outcome.
  • Discipline is paramount, be humble enough to ask for help. We can teach anyone to crawl a hallway and search a room, but applying a skill and actively applying education at the same time is a challenge. The thinking fireman is a disciplined fireman; staying in your lane, doing your assigned task, and knowing your job well enough to know your limits are all aspects that will contribute to your search. Although search can be a rather independent operation, knowing when to call for an extra set of hands is paramount. If you come across a victim, especially a larger one, trying to muscle that person in high heat and low visibility will often get you no where. Direct resources your way for help.
  • Cut off your path from the fire. This is nothing new. We teach the general public to shut the door for the same reason. We want to avoid drawing the fire on top of us. Don’t be afraid to close a door behind you, especially if you plan on taking a window in that room.
  • The secondary search is equally as important. This is often forgotten because the fire is usually under control or out, but this is the time for every inch to searched thoroughly, hopefully by a fresh crew. We are still finding people (ALIVE) during secondary searches, we are still finding pets, and on a solum note, we shouldn’t be missing bodies for investigators to find later.
  • Have a plan. I know we all get moved around from time to time and some in the volunteer world don’t get to chose their crews, but a simple discussion at the beginning of the tour or some chalkboard work during drill night is the difference that creates a well-oiled machine. Riding positions can help in splitting crews and assigning tools; it’s professional and it’s disciplined.

This information is neither new nor all encompassing. It is information that has been passed down to me through senior men and mentors alike. Being assigned search is a huge responsibility and figuring it out when you get there doesn’t fly. Be prepared and be proactive.


Angemi, Gabriel

Fields, Aaron

Firefighter Rescue Survey.

Sutherland, Derek

Willink, J., Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win.


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