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Rescue ready: A guide to firefighter search and rescue training

A new recruit undergoes firefighter search and rescue training in a smoky room.

Learn about the gear and tactics necessary to conduct rapid rescue missions safely

No two search and rescue missions are the same. The strength and location of the fire, density of smoke, building structure and the number of potential victims – all of these elements and more combine to create distinct challenges for firefighters conducting a search and rescue operation. Despite this variability, there is one common enemy firefighters must overcome: time.

The average search and rescue survival rate within the first two minutes is 66%. The longer a mission takes, the lower the survival rate. Through the repetition of practice, firefighters can speed up readiness times, maximize firefighter safety and improve rescue outcomes. That’s why firefighter search and rescue training is essential for recruits and veterans alike. The following is an overview of standard tools and techniques firefighters must master when engaging in search and rescue operations.

Learn more about firefighter equipment, training, and more when you read The ultimate guide to firefighter training in 2024.

Important firefighter search and rescue training equipment

In firefighting search and rescue training, firefighters must be equipped with the right tools – as well as the knowledge required to use them effectively. Firefighters should be prepared to use most, if not all, of the following equipment at a moment’s notice.

  • Turnout gear: The firefighter’s uniform, turnout gear represents all the personal protective equipment firefighters bring to conduct a search and rescue. Trench coats, boots, gloves, helmets, face masks, respirators and toolkits are necessary gear, and firefighters must practice being able to equip themselves quickly to improve rapid response times.

  • Thermal imaging camera (TIC): In medium-to-low visibility rescue operations, a TIC is crucial for detecting the location of a fire, spotting high-temperature areas and finding people or animals hidden within the smoke. While TICs are powerful devices, they can only detect surface temperatures, meaning rooms should only be cleared after manual, thorough searching.

  • Fire tools: Firefighters carry a variety of tools with them into the field, including fire axes and forcible entry tools, to help them gain access to otherwise sealed-off entry points. Search rope and webbing can pull victims to safety in dangerous conditions. Other tools, such as ladders, fire hoses, and buzzsaws, should be available on nearby trucks if necessary.

  • Medical equipment: Once victims have been removed from a dangerous environment, they will likely need medical attention. Medical equipment should be on hand to deal with burns, smoke inhalation, broken bones, cardiac arrest or other potential injuries.

  • Cameras and radios: Effective situational awareness requires constant communication. While radios have long been a method for commanders to relay instructions to their teams, modern technology is changing how fire departments train for and respond to search and rescue incidents. As a result, more departments are embracing body and helmet cameras for additional on-the-ground insight. Axon Fire Solutions offers a connected platform of hardware and software that helps firefighters coordinate their response and review footage to improve rescue times. Discover how Axon helps departments all over the world unlock the full potential of their training and experience.

Firefighter search and rescue training techniques

The goal of any search and rescue mission is to bring all victims within the vicinity to safety. However, firefighters must also keep the risk to the crew as low as possible. Doing so requires the ability to make split-second decisions, as hesitation can lead to lower survival rates for both victims and first responders. As a result, firefighters must train in the following fire search and rescue techniques so response becomes second nature.

Know your role

Every search and rescue incident will require its own approach. And while every fire department will have its own team structure and jargon, everyone involved in a search and rescue will have a designated role to complete to ensure the maximum probability of success.

For example, Miami-Dade, Florida fire departments form a basic search team with three members: the officer in charge (OIC) of the operation, the point firefighter who acts as a second in command and the guy or girl in back (GIB) who forms the rear of the operation. Depending on the size of the building or severity of the fire, some search and rescue missions may require multiple teams; one to perform the search and rescue and another to provide backup investigation or fire attack if needed. Knowing and sticking to your given role in a high-pressure situation is crucial.

Getting a lay of the land

Virtually all search and rescue missions will begin with a 360-degree walk-around. When completing a walk-around, first responders must take the following considerations into account when planning their attack:

  • Look for survivors or witnesses: If people are found outside a burning building, they may have additional information on where the fire is, where survivors might be located, or whether there are any pets inside the building.

  • Look for the location of the fire: It may be possible to discern where the fire is located from the outside of the building. Other signifiers like smoke or structural damage can provide further details.

  • Building construction features: Building material, the number of egress points (like doors and windows) and building layout (such as areas where people might be located, like bedrooms) further inform the best plan of attack.

The walk-around and subsequent assessments must be conducted rapidly – usually within ten seconds of arriving on the scene of the emergency. The faster teams can conduct this assessment, the more time they’ll have to save lives.

Conducting a primary search

With the area assessed and roles assigned, it’s now time for entry. Search and rescue teams must act in groups of at least two or three, work together to clear rooms and stay in constant communication.

The Aurora, CO, department prioritizes searching for three elements during a search and rescue: life, fire and layout. Any information about these three elements – the location of victims, the location of fire or strength of smoke, rooms entered and obstacles – should be communicated loudly and clearly to the rest of the team.

Depending on the visibility, there are several methods for navigating through and searching rooms:

  • Anchored search: Used in low-visibility areas, firefighters keep their hands on the outer wall as an anchor and work their way around the room, extending into the center when safe.

  • Oriented search: Used in mid- to high-visibility areas, firefighters keep track of landmarks – such as windows or furniture – when moving through a room to orient themselves and keep track of exits.

  • Split search: A type of oriented search used in low-smoke situations where partnered firefighters search two nearby rooms at once, regroup, and then continue moving through the building.

Practicing these search methods is crucial, as you won’t know what level of visibility you will be dealing with until you’re at the incident.

Moving victims

Once victims have been located, firefighters must safely bring them out of danger. The ultimate goal when moving a victim is to keep their head out of smoke. The technique required for doing so will depend on the amount of smoke in the building.

  • High smoke: Keep the victim on their back and low to the ground. Grab their legs and drag them carefully toward the exit.

  • Medium smoke: An emergency medical service (EMS) carry is best. One person crosses and carries the victim’s legs while the other grabs and holds them from the waist.

  • Low smoke: If visibility is high and smoke is minimal, grabbing the victim from behind the waist and carrying them out of the building is the quickest and safest way.

Practicing these rescue techniques will ensure victims are safely removed from danger and transferred to personnel who can provide additional medical treatment.

Improve search and rescue response times with Axon Fire Solutions

When every second counts, you need all the help you can get. Axon Fire Solutions offers a connected platform of body cameras, vehicle cameras, drones and evidence software to provide full coverage during training exercises or live search and rescue operations. Fire chiefs can then review footage after the incident to improve individual performance, enhance response strategies and optimize coordination.

Want to add Axon Fire Solutions to your fire department's toolkit? Contact us today to learn more.