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A firefighter’s guide to fireground search and rescue – Part 2

Detailing primary and secondary search techniques and various methods of rescue


A firefighter uses a traditional search on hands and knees to search for the door. They are searching the wall for the door or following directives from the officer with the TIC to follow a wall until the open door is located.

Photo/Chris DelBello

In Part 1 of this series, we reviewed search and rescue operations related to situational awareness, size-up and firefighter orientation. This month, we’ll continue the focus on search and rescue with a detailed look at the types of search and methods of rescue that firefighters can employ during structural fires.

But first, let’s review some search and rescue fundamentals.


The mission of a search and rescue team in a fire situation is to find victims and ensure their safety, but before beginning any type of search, there needs to be a high probability of survivors. If the risk is too great, entry cannot be made.

As with any type of search, teamwork is essential as is accountability, full PPE including a PASS device for each member, the right tools for the job and an adequate air supply. A firefighter accidently bleeding 1,000 psi out of a regulator bypass before entry eliminates them from the search team.

Radio contact with command must be maintained, and radio traffic must be monitored at all times for changes in fire conditions regardless of the type of search utilized.

Prioritizing search areas

Before a search can be conducted, priorities must be established. Order of search areas, the areas most severely threatened by fire and the potential locations for large victim numbers are considerations for establishing and prioritizing search operations.

Search priority as it relates to fire spread is based on fire behavior. Since heat, smoke and flame extend upward and outward, the immediate fire area and fire floor are the primary search areas. Next is the one floor directly above the fire spread, then the rest of the floors above, beginning with the top floor and descending. Finally, all floors below the fire are searched as primary searches end and secondary searches begin.

There are two main objectives in conducting a structural search: searching for life and assessing fire conditions. This is accomplished utilizing two types of searches: primary and secondary searches. A primary search is a fast, efficient and controlled method of finding occupants before or during fire extinguishment. A secondary search is conducted when the situation is under control and is thorough and methodical.


Primary searches are time-sensitive to finding survivors and keeping firefighters safe. A primary search is conducted using recognized patterns of movement and proven techniques.

A traditional primary search relies on teams of two with visual, voice or physical contact, utilizing the recognized techniques of wall contact and directional turns. A search pattern for a room is conducted in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, keeping consistent throughout the search and rescue operation.

Another primary search technique that is particularly effective in small spaces is called an oriented person search. One firefighter anchors the area with a powerful light and in some cases, an interior hoseline. Charged with keeping oriented to the building, the lead firefighter directs teammates as they move around the room while keeping contact with walls and other team members by hand contact, web strapping or a tool or line extension.

Sweeping the wall with a hand allows firefighters to feel for door openings, windows, furniture, appliances and victims. Firefighters need to stay consistent with procedures and remember to check door temperatures, watch for fire spread and have an exit strategy.

A safe primary search: To conduct a safe primary search, a firefighter must always search with a partner. They must conduct thorough size-ups throughout the search process and have an established and clearly communicated plan. All PPE, including PASS devices, SCBAs and tools must be operational and used in the proper manner.

Firefighters conducting a primary search must control the door, stay in contact with a wall, monitor fire conditions, and remain oriented to the structure at all times. Hand lights and entry tools including a thermal imaging camera (TIC) improve conditions and ensure survivability should conditions worsen.

Communications with team members and command is essential to search safety. Should a victim be found, the situation can be described and rescue initiated with the potential for additional help or equipment. To maintain safety in all search and rescue operations, command must have search team locations that are current and accurate.

VEIS: Another primary search technique relies on complete communication with command, working with a partner, watching for fire spread and having a hoseline available even if outside the structure. This technique is known as vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) and is designed for rapid search of threatened areas such as bedrooms above a kitchen or living room fire.

Using a ladder or porch roof, a firefighter first opens a small area of the structure such as a bedroom window. Observing a constant atmosphere, entry is gained through the window, proceeding to the door to ensure closure, followed by a complete search, checking under beds, behind furniture and in any closets or adjoining bathrooms.

Exiting is via the way of entry and immediate communication with command is required after exiting. This clears seemingly unaffected areas allowing for a more focused and timelier extinguishment.

[Learn more: How to conduct firefighter primary search training]


A secondary search of a structure is conducted after the situation is under control and conditions improve. A secondary search is a trained and practiced search through debris and the structure to locate victims not discovered in primary searches. A secondary search is not completed until all areas of the building are accounted for and primary search markers are verified.

Although they are still in hazardous conditions, firefighters conducting secondary searches can be methodical in covering all areas and may utilize additional firefighters with “fresh eyes” not always available during initial phases of operation. An “all clear” is given once primary and secondary searches have been completed with no victims found.

Search area markings

Most fire departments use a system of marking rooms or search areas defined by the FEMA. Search markings consist of slashing a single line to start a search and a second line across forming an “X” when completed.

Such marks can be placed on the lower third of the door or wall or in the landing area of a stairway. Inside the “X,” the left quadrant is used to identify the search unit or team, the top for time of completion, the right for hazards found, and the bottom of the “X” is for number of victims and their conditions.

Firefighter safety

To sustain maximum safety, firefighters search on their hands and knees or in a squat position. This establishes orientation in the direction of travel and if struck by debris, ensures the correct bearing will be maintained. Lower temperatures at floor level give firefighters an advantage should fire conditions change.

An occasional pause while holding a breath gives firefighters a chance to hear conditions. Firefighters can hear a victim moaning, the creaking or crackling of structures or the fire itself, or an information update via radio traffic. Such a pause allows for better orientation to the entire fireground as well as the immediate search area.


Once a victim is located, the methods for ensuring their safe rescue and removal can range from sheltering-in-place to moving a victim down a stairway or through a window. While victims must be removed as carefully as possible, firefighters must realize that rescue situations may not be perfect for the patient and the result of not moving a victim risks further injury or death.

Shelter in place: If a victim is conscious and in a safe area or can be moved to an area that is protected, a shelter-in-place approach may be considered. A command decision only, sheltering-in-place allows for patient care, additional assistance and control of the exiting process.

Victim assistance: A conscious victim who is ambulatory may walk to an exit with little or no assistance. If this method of rescue is chosen, accountability is essential because victims must be met at the designated exit and given appropriate care. Conscious victims at a fire scene can provide additional information if interviewed properly.

Carries: Victims can be moved to safety utilizing the seat carry or extremity carry. The seat carry is for conscious patients only and requires the victim to hold onto the shoulders of two firefighters walking in tandem, arms linked. The extremity carry can be used for conscious and unconscious patients and requires two firefighters suspending a victim by holding the victim’s arms and legs and moving along the line of the victim. This method of victim movement is especially effective in narrow hallways and through door openings.

Drags: The most efficient method of removing an unconscious or unresponsive victim is by dragging them to safety. The blanket drag uses a blanket or salvage cover to assist in pulling the victim. Its advantage is that a single firefighter can initiate its use until help is located.

Another single-firefighter rescue method is the lift and drag. Using their arm strength or a webbing strap, a firefighter lifts the victim up by the shoulders, minimizing body contact with the floor or ground and drags them to safety.

Finally, there is the push-and-pull drag. Two firefighters, one on each end of the victim, literally pull from the shoulders and push from the feet in order to initiate movement. This labor-intensive method of rescue is used in confined spaces where any other method is ineffective.

Ladder rescue: Removing a victim out of a window and down a ladder places firefighters and victims at considerable risk. Proper technique and physical strength and stamina are required. A ladder rescue should be initiated only when all other exiting options have been eliminated.

Mobile equipment

Once a firefighter makes contact with a victim, that victim becomes a patient. Checking for injuries and life-threatening conditions other than the fire are essential skills for rescue team members.

In the case of a confirmed injury it is preferable to use a backboard, stretcher or litter because they are designed to provide the maximum protection and immobilization safety. Patients must be secured with the spine immobilized and head traction supervised by a rescuer.


A major axiom of the risk/benefit analysis is that firefighters should not risk anything for something that is not savable. The challenge is that empathy and compassion are inherent to caregivers and especially active in well-trained first responders, but as such, should never be misplaced.

As professionals, firefighters cannot overstep their training and education to defy a safe and effective fireground regardless of intent or desire. This includes the search and subsequent rescue of potential victims.

The most difficult task for a search and rescue team is to recognize an untenable situation. The survivability profile of a victim inside a structure compromised by fire decreases as the length of time and temperatures increase. At some point in a fire’s progression, rescue becomes recovery, and it is essential for all firefighters to acknowledge and understand this certainty during fireground operations.

Editor’s note: What’s your best SAR training tip? Share in the comments below.

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.