Searching For A Firefighter

One of the most difficult task assignments during a fireground emergency is searching for a lost or missing firefighter.

  • Conventional Right-/Left-Hand Search
    This is basic search and rescue and will be the foundation of the firefighter search. Some of the other techniques listed below may allow you to minimize the use of the right-/left-hand pattern but there will be times during the search that it will be used.

  • PASS Device Assisted Search
    When searching for an activated PASS device the search team may be able to move quicker throughout the structure. The basic concept of this search is that the team listens for, and moves toward, the activated PASS. This is easier said than done when all the other fireground noises are included. This is not a search by committee! Listening for and moving toward the PASS is a difficult task to say the least. One member of the search team must be responsible for determining the direction of travel. Stop, listen and move. As the sound of the PASS gets louder, you know your team is getting closer to the downed firefighter.

  • Radio-Assisted Search
    If the missing firefighter is equipped with a radio, and the radio is turned on (volume up), it may be possible to create an improvised alerting device. How? By keying two portable radios close together a squelching sound is created on other radios. The search team may be able to stop, turn all radios down, key two radios together and listen for the squelching sound created. Difficult?Yes! Will it work? Maybe! Is it worth a shot? You bet!

  • Rope-Assisted Search
    When talking about rope-assisted searches there are usually two discussions personal search rope and team or large-area search.

    Personal search ropes may assist the search team by allowing members to quickly branch off to search areas where members can't keep in contact. By incorporating a search rope - that tethers members back to the main search party - the entire search team doesn't have to move in that direction.

    Team search involves a complete rope-based search system. The concept involves a main search line, controlled by the lead person, and individual (personal) search lines of a known length that become appendages to the main line. A half-moon search pattern, off of the main line, is used by the searching firefighters to cover the area being searched.

  • Thermal Camera-Assisted Search
    Thermal cameras give back some of the vision that smoke takes away - but not all of it! When searching for a missing firefighter, as with the other techniques, a thermal camera may help in determining the direction to take. One benefit that the other methods don't provide is the ability to see the firefighter from a distance - a distinct advantage of the camera. If a firefighter is missing and there is a thermal camera on the fireground it should be used to assist in the search - no matter what other task it may be performing!


Let's face it, fireground search is an important part of all fireground operations - but it's the most important part when there is a firefighter missing! How you train is how you'll perform. There's only one acceptable outcome in the search and it is tied directly to training.

  • Build a Solid Foundation.
    Continually practice basic fireground search and rescue skills. Conventional right- and left-handed search techniques are a must. The level of difficulty must constantly be increased during the training program.

  • Include Realistic Fireground Problems.
    The training setting should provide anything that the fireground setting may provide. Including but not limited to: Noise, obstacles, stress, limited visibility, smoke and heat.

    Building an effective search and rescue prop isn't difficult - it simply requires a little creativity and a lot of fireground thought. Don't hold back during training if you expect performance during an emergency. Excuses are excuses, nothing more!

Plan the Search, Search the Plan!

It would be great if all firefighters were equipped with integrated PASS devices, but they're not. It would be great if all firefighters turned their PASS devices on, but they don't. It would be great if all firefighters could be pinpointed on the fireground and we didn't have to expend time and effort searching for them, but they can't (economically!). In a true missing firefighter emergency use any and all means to locate the missing firefighter - Plan the Search, Search the Plan!

Jim McCormack has been a firefighter for 15 years and is currently with the Indianapolis Fire Department. Jim is also the founder and president of the Fire Department Training Network, a membership network dedicated to firefighter training.