Primary Search is Negative

It is a cold evening in January when a call is received for a building fire. A first alarm is dispatched along with a request for a line box engine* from the neighboring town. The first firefighter to arrive assumes command and reports a two story wood frame approximately 25% involved with fire venting through the roof. He reports a hydrant in the front yard and directs the first due to come right to the building.

He notices a car in the driveway and is told that the occupant is disabled. The line box engine is coming around the corner and he assigns them to the primary search. As they gear up to go in they meet up with the officer from the first due engine and help stretch the attack line to the front door. The plan is to stretch the line in and conduct their search from the attack line.

Unfortunately Murphy is working this night as well. The first due can’t get water and the attack line is delayed. The line box company makes a quick search of the front rooms of the dwelling and notices the fire concentrated around the wood stove. They are ordered out by Command when the water problem is realized. Moments later the front room flashes over.

Eventually the line is charged and the fire attack and search continue. The report from the interior is “primary search is negative.”

What does it take for the task those four words represent to be accomplished? I would guess that a majority of the general public has no idea what is behind those words. I also often wonder if some of our brothers really know as well.

What is necessary for a primary search? First off there has to be a plan. Whether detailed SOPs or operational norms or a brief meeting as you go through the door, everyone has to know what the plan is and what is expected. Obviously the better trained your people are, and the more that is known in advance, the smoother this operation will go. “Learn something right the first time and you’ll do right the rest of your life. Learn something wrong and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to get it right.” – Sgt Steven Prazenka – US Army – TRUST -Trieste, Italy. (1)

Unfortunately many places do not have a search plan. It is not a task completed at every fire, but rather one completed only when needed. It is not a task trained on, but rather one that is based on some Firefighter I/II skills learned 10 years ago.

For the primary search to be completed you need the manpower to be able to search. Barely meeting 2 in – 2 out is not going to allow you to attack the fire and search. Your Department needs to have policy and procedure that allows for your manpower and conditions. But the bottom line is the search needs to be done. As John Norman says, “To be efficient, all searches must be planned events. That is to say that there is no room for uncoordinated wandering. Each member of a unit performing search functions must have a clear idea as to what to look for, where to look, and how to look.” (2)

Are you an engine company that will search off the hoseline? Are you a dedicated truck or rescue? What type of search will you perform? Do you have a thermal imager available?

The time for these questions to be answered is now, while sitting around the station. These questions should not be answered while you are responding, or worse standing at the front door waiting to enter. Of course if they haven’t been answered before then, they need to be answered before you commit to your search. There needs to be coordination with the other companies operating on the fireground. Sure you can commit to the search, but if the engine isn’t stretching on the fire then you are going to have problems. If the fire extends and no one tells you, you will have problems. If other companies vent and draw the fire toward you, you will have problems. There are as many tool choices as firefighters when it comes to searching. Rather than spend pages discussing it, the important point is that you carry a tool. A tool can be used to extend your range/reach while searching, vent for life and force your way out if you become trapped.

So the next time you hear those words, think about what is behind them. There is certainly much more than was discussed here. Review your department’s search policy. Make sure your company is on the same page when it comes to searching. Train as if your life depends on it, because it just might.


* Line Box Company. Company that is close to the first due company’s response boundary; similar to mutual aid company.



1. “About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior” Col David Hackworth

2. “Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics. 3rd Edition” John Norman



“Random Thoughts” Tom Brennan


Dave LeBlanc is a Deputy Fire Chief with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. While at the University of New Haven, Dave studied Arson Investigation. He also was a volunteer with the Allingtown and West Haven Fire Districts in West Haven. He spent his sophomore year as a Live In student with the Allingtown Fire District. His education included internships with the Aetna Insurance Company and the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad.

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