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A firefighter’s guide to fireground search and rescue – Part 1

Detailing situational awareness, size-up and firefighter orientation during this vital operation


Every firefighter responding to a report of a structure fire must be prepared for search and rescue operations.


A firefighter’s mission is to protect life and property. This places search and rescue (SAR) operations at the top of the response priorities when answering a call to a structure fire. And with today’s lightweight construction and synthetic building and content materials, an aggressive search is even more critical to civilian and firefighter life safety.

Every firefighter responding to a report of a structure fire must be prepared for search and rescue operations. Whether assigned specifically to a search team or executing the procedures associated with looking for civilians trapped in a burning building while advancing a line or establishing ventilation, all firefighters must be task-ready to plan and coordinate essential activities supporting search and rescue.

Search and rescue definitions and standards

IFSTA’s “Essentials of Fire Fighting” includes the “Rescue and Extrication” chapter, dedicated to various types of rescues operations. IFSTA defines initial search and rescue as, “A rapid but thorough search performed before or during fire suppression”; however, firefighters must also never forget the overarching message of the IAFC’s Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting: Increase firefighter survival. [Download a copy of the Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting here.]

The IAFC’s message is a strong reminder of the extreme risks presented during fireground search and rescue operations, as detailed by Chief (ret.) Gary Morris: “Our goal as firefighters is to save lives. The fire service has a long history of aggressive search and rescue operations as an initial priority of first-arriving fire companies. History (and firefighter fatalities) also reflects that firefighters are exposed to the greatest risk of injury and death during primary search and rescue operations.”

The knowledge and skills needed to perform a safe and effective search and subsequent rescue are outlined in NFPA 1001: Standards for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. These requirements are for structural searches before and during a fire. NFPA 1001 references firefighter rescue as well as technical rescues, such as structural collapse, angle, ice or water rescues, industrial and mechanical rescues, vehicle extrications and, importantly, recognizes the need for specialized trainings in these areas.

Both firefighter rescue and technical rescues are covered in detail in NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program and in NFPA 1670: Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents.

Situational awareness applied to fireground SAR

All successful search and rescue operations depend on firefighters having situational awareness. The opposite of tunnel vision, situational awareness is the ability to observe the scene with an eye toward the big picture. Are there any indications of the fire’s location and is the structure occupied? Asking straightforward questions initiates an open view of the situation upon arrival.

Search and rescue may be incorporated into the tactics of an interior attack team or a team independent of suppression and focused solely on searching for, finding and removing victims. Regardless of how search and rescue is initiated, predicting fire spread and the risk of structural collapse begin the planning phase of any search and rescue operation.

Coordinating with on-scene command is essential for search and rescue teams’ situational awareness. Knowing location and status of other tasks such as ventilation and extinguishment is critical to search team movement and their risk assessment of the situation. Communications and a clear plan of entry, direction through the structure as well as an exit strategy are necessary for safe and effective search and rescue operations.

Search and rescue size-up

Before any entry can be made, a complete size-up of the situation is required. An officer conducting a walk-around the structure can gain insight into the building’s occupancy status, determine building type, location of doors and windows, all the while predicting fire location and movement by observing smoke conditions.

This tactical information begins the risk/benefit analysis necessary to make the decision to search, either before or during suppression activities. If it is determined that there are occupants, either by civilian information or clues, such as vehicles around the building, type of occupancy or time of day, then search and rescue becomes a priority and will be incorporated into a coordinated fire attack given adequate response resources.

There are certain areas of a structure that have a higher probability of occupancy. At night, bedrooms can be expected to have occupants. Other spaces, depending on usage, could be assembly areas, work zones or kitchen facilities. Basements and bathrooms are sometimes seen as protected areas where occupants congregate when threatened.

Preplanning and having access to building plans are valuable tools in advancing search and rescue teams. Knowing the layout of a structure allows teams to predict danger areas, probable occupant locations and exit strategies as well as general building orientation.

Firefighter orientation

Safe and successful search and rescue operations are dependent on building orientation and the ability of a firefighter to keep a mental picture of exactly where they are inside a structure. While difficult under the best of circumstances, it is critical to search progression, area accountability and firefighter safety.

Under the Incident Command System, buildings are labeled Side A, B, C and D, moving clockwise with the addressable or street side of a building being the A side. This allows immediate location based on letters, as fire on the second story of the B/C corner is now confirmed at the back corner, left side of the building.

While compass points may be appropriate in large open space situations, staying with ICS definitions promotes a universal understanding and permits firefighters from different agencies to work together.

Orientation within a smoke-filled structure can be a challenge for the most experienced firefighters. To stay oriented, firefighters use defined search patterns and specific techniques depending on the type of search being conducted.

In sum

Firefighter search and rescue is a critical part of any fireground evolution. Effective search and rescue depends on firefighters having situational awareness on scene and the ability to plan and execute successful search and rescue operations. Understanding fire behavior, building construction and the elements of risk are the essential fundamentals for a properly conducted firefighter search and rescue.

Part 2 will cover methods of search and rescue operations.

Editor’s Note: Do you have an extraordinary search and rescue story? Email to share your story.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.