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How to conduct firefighter primary search training

Tips for conducting search training at an acquired structure or at the station


All firefighters must train on primary search techniques to ensure that this essential skill comes as second nature.

Photo/Keith Padgett

The ability to complete a primary search of a residential structure is one of the most basic skills a firefighter should possess, and it must come as second nature on any alarm. All firefighters must practice this skill to ensure that we are on top of our game. After all, the search crew may not always be the truck crew or ladder crew; it could be a two-person team assigned to the engine or a team of volunteer firefighters assembled at the scene.

The primary search is completed quickly and covers the rooms of the house that are most likely occupied during the time of the fire, primarily, family-gathering areas and bedrooms. This should be accomplished within the first few minutes of arriving on scene.

Getting started: Donning turnout gear

Whenever you conduct training and there is a hands-on element, you should always have the group begin with donning their turnout gear. I am not speaking about having them wear their PPE, as it may be required for the training, but having them get accustomed to donning their bunker gear and being familiar with it.

I understand that this may sound simple or rudimentary, but I have found that firefighters often get complacent and believe that they are “good” with their gear. This is not always the case. Not every firefighter dons their gear every shift or even once a week. Further, some firefighters have the tendency to not don their PPE when the call requires that they have a certain level of PPE. Why? Some common responses: “It’s a pain to put on,” “I really don’t believe that I need it on this particular call” or even “It’s really hot.” I am sure you can add many more “justifications” that you’ve heard over the years.

The firefighter should have strong knowledge and comfort with their turnout gear. It should be easy to get on and they should know every snap, zipper and flap without having to look at it. They must keep their protective hood and gloves in a certain pocket that is always easily accessible.

Their gear must be kept clean and in the very best condition, and the firefighter should have no problem putting it on any time when asked or required.

One final note on this topic: This should not be a “quick dress”; it is just the donning of gear. However, once you feel that they are up to the required standard and want to move forward with a speed drill, that is your call. Just first make sure they are proficient with their PPE and its use.

Your district: Know what you’ll be searching

Searching a house, apartment or any type of single-family dwelling can be accomplished easily with some basic knowledge of the structure prior to entering.

As you work in the district every shift, you become familiar with the straightforward layout of many structures. You notice the type of design that is common throughout the area, where bedrooms and family rooms are in the different designs. The different layout of houses that your department has experienced should be discussed, and some unique ones that members may have come upon should be pointed out. An example: Someone may point out that in one area of the district, there have been a significant number of additions made to older structures and share how this has changed the configuration. Members should be made aware to take a certain level of precaution when operating in these houses and know the danger of becoming disorientated due to the uncommon layout.

Hands-on training for primary search

There are several steps for conducting an effective hands-on training for primary search skills:

Seek vacant structures: If your department is limited on training props, like a training tower, seek out vacant houses in the district and ask permission from the owner to use the structure for training. Conducting training in a local residential structure is invaluable to department members.

Use the station: If this is not available, utilize your fire station and construct a simple layout in the apparatus bay area with tables, chairs, bunk beds and pallets to create a basic search training prop. This can be altered to develop all types of arrangements to challenge your members, making it realistic and interesting. Practice entering and exiting through doors, having to search a closet or some form of confined space, but remember that this is a basic primary search and should not be an extremely difficult maze where firefighters would crawl under or climb over training props.

Assemble teams and tools: Start the training evolution by assembling two-person teams. They should have any hand tools that they plan to use during the search as well as a thermal imaging camera (TIC) if they are allowed to use this during the training, as searching with a TIC could be an entirely different training session.

Monitor radio use: Have the search crew don their PPE, including their SCBA, and prepare to enter the training prop to conduct a primary search. They should be instructed to advise the incident commander (IC) over their portable radio that they are preparing to enter the structure to conduct a primary search. This is great way to learn and for the instructor to evaluate if the firefighter can operate their radio in a real-world scenario. For example, can they operate the radio with gloves on, can they change the radio to another channel inside the training prop with zero visibility, can they communicate over the radio while on air and utilizing their SCBA? These are all vital skills that must be mastered in a training environment.

Make entry: Once they are ready to enter the structure, they should check the door for heat. Also, check the door to see if it is locked – aka “try before you pry.”

Sound the floor: As they pass through the door, they should begin pounding the floor to ensure that they have not entered a floor above a fire, risking a collapse situation.

Have a standard search pattern: Have the crew perform a basic search pattern that your department has adopted and always train utilizing that same search pattern. That way, everyone understands that process and is on the same page when they enter the building. You never want to hear “that’s not the way we have done it before” at any point during a primary search, training or not. Consistent training is vital for firefighters to comprehend and appreciate.

As the search crew moves through the search area, have an instructor walk with them using a TIC, overseeing the team and providing direction if the crew is getting off track or not performing as expected.

Stay oriented: The search crew should be sweeping the area around them with their hand and any tool they may have as they move forward, and should also attempt to identify different items that would be in the area they are searching. This could be a bed, nightstand, dresser and the bedroom closet as they move throughout a bedroom. This helps to identify where the crews is inside the house. More than once have I thought that I was in one room and found that I was not even close. With zero visibility, it can become extremely difficult to remain oriented. As crew integrity must be maintained, have the crew practice communicating as they move forward, passing along information of what they have found and where they believe they are at in the room.

Work at a controlled pace: Ensure that the crew is working at a pace that allows for a systematic approach and not a rushed search with the possibility of missing a victim. The primary search should be a controlled but swift search of the structure – never a mad rush to get it completed. Check off the rooms that you believe are in the house and work down the list.

Exit the structure: Once the primary has been completed and the crew is exiting the building, have them radio that information to the IC or their immediate supervisor with an “all clear” if no victims were found in the structure.

Make search skills second nature

Training on how to conduct a primary search can be an exercise that firefighters enjoy and find value in, with the takeaway being a highly important skill that saves lives. This skill in your department should be repeated many times to make it second nature.

Be safe and train hard!

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.