The Search Rope = Survival

April 1, 2007
John J. Salka Jr. provides training on a basic, yet vitally important piece of equipment will save a firefighter’s life.

The first question that needs to be asked is, "Does your company have a search rope?" If the answer is no, you will be looking to purchase one when you finish this article. If the answer is yes, you do have a search rope, then that leads us to the second question, "When do you use the search rope?" This is not an action-packed article on structural fire tactics or rapid intervention operations, but it is an introduction and explanation of a basic yet vitally important fireground tool: the search rope.

What is a search rope? The search rope has been misnamed. Yes, we use it while conducting searches at structural fires, but the search rope would have been better named the survival rope. We don't use the search rope to locate victims or fire; we use it to find our way out of the dangerous burning building where we are conducting operations. Sure, it keeps us oriented, which lets us press on with our search, but the true value of this life-saving piece of equipment becomes evident when we need to escape or retreat from an untenable interior position.

Search ropes come in a variety of lengths and diameters and with a variety of carrying case types. We are going to look at some of the most popular of these options, discuss the benefits and shortcomings of each, and come up with realistic specifications for a search rope that will be useful and practical.

Rope Specifications

Let's start with the rope's diameter. Without getting too technical here, we want to use this rope by deploying it as we move into a burning building. The rope may be lying on the floor as it is deployed or it may be tied or looped onto objects and building components as we proceed to keep it off the floor. The rope must be small enough to be flexible yet large enough to be located with a gloved hand. It also needs to be small enough to let us pack enough of it into a single carrying case.

A diameter of approximately 5/16 inches for nylon rope or a kernmantle type rope of 7.5-millimeter diameter is the size we should be using. The rope should have a snap-type hook at each end so it can be easily connected to a substantial object or to another rope for extended operations. In addition to the snap hook at each end, a unit identification tag should be affixed to each of the snap hooks. This ID tag lets the incident commander or other unit easily determine which company is operating on the working end of the rope inside the building or hazard area. The rope must be carried in a bag or pouch that lets it deploy properly as the search team advances. Many search rope bags are equipped with a strap or handle so the firefighters carrying them can hold tools and the rope bag while maneuvering through a building.

Also useful on search ropes are distance indicators. These indicators can be knots or other tactile features that let operating firefighters feel or see how far on the rope they have traveled. A series of knots is tied in the rope at specific intervals indicating the distance from the end of the rope, which is secured outside the area or building; for instance, a single knot at the 25-foot mark, two knots (several inches apart) at the 50-foot mark and three knots at the 75-foot mark and so on until the end of the rope is reached. Additionally, a single directional knot can be tied 12 to 18 inches from the distance knots to indicate the direction to the exit end of the rope.

Knots are not high tech, require no special equipment, and cannot fall off or move on the rope. The only point that must be emphasized about the knot system is that with turns and other maneuvers inside rooms and down hallways and doors, a firefighter could travel 100 feet on the rope and still be a much shorter distance from the point of entry. The firefighter would still need to travel the 100 feet to escape, but the point of exit could be 40 feet away in a straight line.

When to Use the Rope

Search ropes were not developed for use in every type of building or area. Generally, they are not used for ordinary residential occupancies or small commercial or public spaces. What they are most useful and productive for is in fires in large, complex or difficult-to-navigate occupancies. A few examples of these are large hardware stores, schools and officer buildings, public buildings such as a library or city hall, and below-ground areas such as pumping stations, malls and restaurants. This is just a small sample of the places where an officer should consider deploying the rope. The important point to remember here is when in doubt, use it. As stated earlier, using the search rope will not materially speed up the search team's progress, but the fact that it is being used may provide the users with additional confidence and orientation that could hasten their progress. The most important advantage of using this rope is the speed at which firefighters can escape or retreat from deteriorating conditions with little risk of becoming lost or separated.

Many firefighters are injured and killed each year after they get lost. Many of these unfortunate firefighters run out of air, suffer serious burns or become trapped in a collapsing building after getting lost. Often, their deaths are categorized as carbon monoxide poisoning, thermal burns or crushing injuries, but the initial and primary reason for their demise is the fact that they become disoriented and cannot find their way out of the burning building. The search rope provides a dramatic advantage for firefighters to stay oriented, conduct a rapid search and find their way out safely from large, complex occupancies. Deploying the search rope is like posting exit signs along your search route. You may need them and you may not, but if conditions change for the worse, it could mean the difference between survival and death.

A second use for the search rope is during rapid intervention team deployment. In response to a Mayday or other fireground emergency, when a rapid intervention team is penetrating into the fire area to locate or remove a downed, lost or injured firefighter, it can also deploy the search rope. All the benefits of search rope use are realized along with another specific rapid intervention team benefit. Once the team locates the firefighter in need of assistance, other firefighters or teams can instantly join them by rapidly following the deployed search rope.

Search Rope Procedure

Once the decision is made to use a search rope, a specific set of tactics must be employed to use it properly and effectively. As stated earlier, the end of the rope is pulled from the bag and connected to a substantial object outside the fire or danger area. It is best to loop or tie the rope and then snap the snap hook at the end of the rope to the rope. The end of the rope is tied to the substantial object and the rope bag, with the remainder of the rope inside, is carried or worn while advancing into the building.

The obvious advantage to carrying the rope in the bag and deploying it as you advance rather than securing the rope bag outside and taking the end of the rope into the building is that you will not be dragging the full length of the rope as you proceed. If that was done, after you traveled 40 to 50 feet and around several turns, the friction on the rope would cause tremendous tension on the rope and eventually make it impossible to pull the rope any further. With the rope deploying out of the bag as you advance, there is no resistance or friction and the rope can be looped or tied to objects along the search route with little effort.

The rope should be kept taut as it is deployed looped or wrapped at points where there is a change in direction. As the search team proceeds, the team members, with their hands on the rope as they advance, should note the distance knots so they can keep track of how far they have traveled. Knowing that you are still just 25 feet into the building or, on the other hand, that you have reached the 175-foot point on the rope, is important information from both an operational and safety standpoint.

Knowing how to perform an effective search using the search rope is a skill that must be developed. Each firefighter on the search team is not continuously holding the rope. As they advance, firefighters can leave the rope to make short forays into areas and rooms and then return to the rope to move forward. A combination of search skills and search rope ability make for a productive search operation.

When the end of the rope is reached, a second search rope can be connected to the first using the snap hooks at the end of each rope. This will let the search team go beyond the rope's length and continue the operation. If the search team must exit for any reason, the search rope bag can be secured and left and the search team can follow the rope back to the entry point and safety. The backup or relief search team will simply follow the rope in until the members reach the rope bag, where they will resume the search. If the relief team enters before the first team exits, they will encounter each other on the rope, possibly in zero visibility. To avoid confusion or disorientation, they should communicate with each other and relay where they are on the rope, using the distance indicators. When they near each other, they should all make sure they have their right hands on the rope, which will let them pass each other on opposite sides of the search rope.


The search rope is a simple tool that can make a dangerous operation much safer for interior structural firefighters. The skills needed to use it are simple and easily learned and practiced. The cost of one of these ropes is minimal and every company should be equipped with one.

The most difficult element of search rope operations is getting the company officer to take it off the apparatus and deploy it when faced with the type of building and smoke condition where it would be most useful. If you don't have a search rope on your company apparatus, get one. If you already have a search rope, use it!

JOHN J. SALKA JR., a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran battalion chief with FDNY, the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department's Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course "Get Out Alive." Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book Forged in Fire: Leadership Lessons of the FDNY. He also operates Fire Command Training (, a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.

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