Anatomy Of The Search

Anatomy Of The Search

Introduction: Search by the numbers

When we talk about search and rescue, it is important to look at the numbers of actual confirmed rescued victims. Understanding the statistics can give the first arriving units a major advantage, if they are aware of where occupants are likely to be found.  Knowing where the occupants are located and the occupancy type (knowing your first due),  will help in deciding which search type will be used and where people may be located.  

Below are the statistics taken from actual rescues which occurred:

Location of victims:

  • Bedrooms (45%)
  • Family room (15%)
  • Hallway (10%)
  • Other (9%)
  • Kitchen (8%)
  • Bathroom (6%)
  • Balcony/Porch/Deck/Foyer (3%)

Floor victim was located:

  • Basement (4%)
  • 1st Floor (57%)
  • 2nd Floor (30%)
  • 3rd floor (7%)
  • >3rd floor (2%)

Type of Search used during rescue:

  • Split (37%)
  • Left/Right hand (25%)
  • Oriented (16%)
  • VES (21%)
  • Search Line (2%)

Conditions in the structure at the time of rescue:

  • High Visibility (8%)
  • Moderate Visibility (20%)
  • Low visibility (38%)
  • Zero Visibility (34%)

Means of removing victim from the structure:

  • Dirty Drag (82%)
  • Webbing Drag (3%)
  • Ground Ladder (14%)
  • Aerial Ladder (1%)

Primary Search and Rescue can be defined as a rapid but thorough search of a structure before or during extinguishment. Searches during these early stages of the incident expose firefighters to greater chances of injury. We are able to mitigate these risks not by avoiding them, but by becoming more proficient in our skills. We must use our knowledge of victim location, fire behavior, building construction, and occupancy type to attack our assignment like a master martial artist would attack a dangerous opponent. 

When we first arrive on scene, we are sizing up a structure and performing a 360. Considerations on size up may include:


  • Location of victims
  • Dispatch information and potential known details of the occupancy
  • Building construction
  • Size and extent of the fire
  • Smoke Volume, Velocity, Density, Color
  • Water Supply
  • Available resources

Our main objective in Primary Search is to locate victims and the seat of the fire. Ultimately, this would be much easier if we knew exactly where victims were located. This is not always possible which is why we need to search based on most probable locations, reports from bystanders, and areas closest to the seat of the fire. We can see from the statistics that regardless of time of day, the bedroom is the most likely area to find a victim (45%). The first floor is also the most likely area to find a victim (57%).

Some interesting statistics to consider when listening to reports of victim locations from bystanders:

  • 28% of victims found on primary search were NOT reported by bystanders on scene.
  • 5% of victims were found when all victims were reported out of the building.

How to Search

  • When we start a search, we should search the structure as close to the seat of the fire as conditions allow.
  • This allows us to reach those in greatest danger first
  • Survival is based on time, distance (distance off the ground and distance from the fire), shielding (closed doors)
  • Temperatures at or above 162F (72 Degree C) are hot enough to destroy skin and survival is unlikely
  • Search the structure systematically to increase efficiency and reduce the chances of becoming lost or disoriented.
  • Firefighters should pause any time they encounter a landmark such as a doorway, window, appliance or piece of furniture (think of where in a home a fridge or a bed would be located to orient to the structure)
  • The pause, albeit brief, allows you to stay oriented to the structure and the dynamic environment around you, listen for:
    • Sounds of victims (moans or groans)
    • Sounds of ventilation occuring (windows breaking or saws operating)
    • Sounds of the fire (crackling)
    • Sounds of extinguishment (hose stream operation)
    • Listen to the radio for fireground changes
    • Communicate relevant findings with crew members
    • When searching a structure with high-visibility, it is appropriate to walk. This increases speed and efficiency. 
    • With limited visibility, stay low and move cautiously
    • In an environment with obscured visibility, you must maintain contact with:
      • Wall
      • Hoseline/search line
      • Your crew members
      • Oriented via TIC

Position while searching:

  • While searching, a preferred position would be one knee down and one foot on the ground. This allows us to keep our weight back. Crawling around the structure on our hands and knees puts us in a position where all of our weight is forward, and may be catastrophic if we come across a hole in the floor.
  • When searching with a tool, use the tool to remain in contact with the wall. You should be searching with your free hand to use your tactile sensation to identify objects or victims in the space.
  • Searching with a tool in your outstretched hand may injure a victim if you come across one, you are also not able to identify what you are feeling for with a tool.

Search Methods (Anchored, Oriented, Split)

The methods of search described below are interchangeable from room to room in a structure fire. Your Officer may decide one room that you will be doing a right hand search, while the next you will be oriented to the room with your Officer communicating with you in which direction to search. It is important to train with your crew and officer to have a clear understanding of their expectations during a search.

Anchored Search (wall, hoseline, search line):

  • General methods for search will follow a pattern as previously discussed.
  • Start your search as close to the seat of the fire as conditions will allow.
  • When you enter a room, turn left or right and anchor to the wall with the left or right hand.
  • Follow the wall around the room back to the starting point.
  • Reach towards the center of the room, using your hand to feel for victims or objects in the space.
  • Remain in contact with the wall using your foot or tool.
  • As you leave the room, turn in the same direction you did when you entered the room.
  • Always exit the same doorway you entered.

Oriented Search:

  • The Officer remains anchored at the door, wall, or hoseline with a TIC and orients the firefighters doing the search to the room.
  • The Officer will communicate and indicate which direction of travel each firefighter will take.
  • The Officer will also indicate what the firefighter might encounter within the room.
  • After the Search is complete the firefighter will return to the anchored Officer.

Split Search:

  • The split search is a form or oriented search
  • This type of search would be used when two rooms are close together and the Officer can remain at the doorway and orient the two searching firefighters to their respective rooms.
  • Splitting the search is a way to search twice the amount of space in the same time.
  • This type of search is more efficient than putting two firefighters into one small room.

When or if we find a victim:

Before we ever leave the firehall, we need to be having discussions on what we are going to do when or if we find a victim. Say for example, we are searching the second floor of a two-story single family home and we come across a victim in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Our first instinct may be to remove the patient the same way that we came in. The problem with this is that we are exposing the victim and their airway to an IDLH. As previously stated, temperatures at or above 162F (72 Degree C) will destroy the victims skin, and cause significant damage to the respiratory tract. 

A better option would be to shelter the victim in place. Close a door between the victim and the IDLH and open a window to create a survivable environment. Inform command that you need a ladder to a second floor window and that you are bringing a victim out.

These are all discussions that need to occur before we ever turn out. The methods and tactics discussed in this article are only as good as the repetitions and practice that you are getting in. Remember, we don’t rise to the occasion, we fall to the level of our training.