Traversing the Fire Building

I recently overheard a debate among some guys at the firehouse about how they prefer to move through the fire building. Of course, you’ve heard the old adages, “if you can’t see your feet, crawl”, and “if the heat is too high, crawl”. One guy brought up the ability to sound the floor while being cognizant of potential victims.

I found this fascinating and it got me thinking so here we are…

Throughout fire school we perform nearly every drill on our hands and knees. This teaches some fundamental skills we need not only to perform our jobs well but as a matter of survival in certain instances. Our basic search and rescue operations are performed crawling. We advance hose lines crawling. While crawling we learn to orient ourselves to the building while crawling, locating secondary and tertiary means of egress, mapping the building by detecting changes in architecture. It’s when we get out of fire school that we remember we are bipeds, we have the ability to walk and do so whenever possible because it’s easier and more efficient reserving crawling for when you can’t see your feet or it’s too hot.

I believe there are several considerations to how we should move through a building under fire that fall into two main categories, safety, and mission.


From a safety standpoint, crawling has some significant benefits. Our center of gravity is lower if we encounter a change in elevation such as a stairway or a hole in the floor, we more likely to stop ourselves before falling into it. Crawling also prepares us for the worst-case scenario. We orient ourselves to the building in the manner we may have to exit under emergency conditions. Simple things like the changes in floor coverings are important to maintaining our bearing especially if all of a sudden we lose our ability to see. Looking at the findings of “Project Mayday” a study of 1,000 significant mayday incidents, 25% of firefighters who called a mayday were lost or separated from their hose line. Are you maintaining a secondary means of orientation?

If we are at all worried about structural integrity (hence the need to sound the floor) speed shouldn’t be our first consideration. Again crawling lowers our center of gravity and allows us to use our tools such as the halligan to detect changes in elevation as we progress. According to “Project Mayday” the second leading cause of mayday incidents, 22%, were due to falls through the roof, floor, or stairway collapse.

While speed and efficiency are important especially today with rapid-fire progression, we must remain aware of our air supply. If you enter a building walking because it is faster, remember you may have to leave crawling. Are you monitoring your air supply to ensure you have the air to get out safely? The third most prevalent cause of maydays identified in “Project Mayday” was due to low air situations.


Another consideration is our particular mission at that fire. Are we advancing a hose line for fire attack, performing a primary search for life, or providing interior truck operations such as opening the ceiling? O

If we are advancing the hose line we might be the first to travel a particular path, we are responsible for navigation and ensuring the building is structurally sound. By advancing using a modified crawl with one leg forward we can accomplish two things, we are able to use our forward leg to feel the floor in front of us before we commit to it while moving significantly faster than crawling on our hands and knees.

If our mission is search and rescue, crawling affords us a few advantages. First, we are at the level of our victims. During primary-search we are checking likely locations of victims such as pathways to exits, in and under beds, on couches, etc. It is far more efficient to check on top of and under beds from the floor than standing up, kneeling down, and standing up again. Crawling also increases our wingspan, in low visibility conditions, we can cover more area more accurately by crawling instead of walking and using a tool to feel for victims.

If inside truck work is our mission, we are often operating independently of the hose line. What are we using to maintain our bearing to the exit? Opening the ceiling may require standing but most often in a single-family residence or even commercial buildings can be accomplished from a kneeling position with a 6-foot hook.

Abbott, D. (2016, February 1). The Mayday Project. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from


About Jon Misewicz 13 Articles
A 17-year student of the fire service, Jon most recently served 8 years with the Memphis (TN) Fire Department as a Firefighter / Paramedic and Instructor. He is completing a Master's Degree in Education. His passion is training that translates knowledge to real world applications.