Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Back to Basics: Occupant drags

By Mark van der Feyst   

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Photo 1: This saying refers to the position and orientation that you find the person. Photo: Mark Van Der Feyst

Occupants trapped inside a residence require our intervention to locate them and then remove them from the structure. The removal process needs to be quick and simple by utilizing exit points in the structure to our advantage. Using windows and exterior doors that are located nearest to the location of the occupant is going to be the best way to remove them. 

When we find a person, we tend to want to remove them using the same path that we took into the building. Most times, this going to be the front or main door of the residence. Depending upon where the person was located, the main point of entry may be too far of a distance to drag, resulting in delays in getting the person out as well as fatiguing the rescue team members. 

The closest exit point may be the bedroom window, the rear exterior door, the kitchen door into the garage, the patio door, etc. The main point here is to not waste time and effort dragging a person all the way through the structure just to exit the main door (see photo 1).

Locating the occupant is going to be conducted by searching – whether with a hose line searching off the line while advancing in to suppress the fire or without a hose line. Once located, they need to be removed. This will involve a drag on the floor of some type. We need to remember the fire environment that we are working in demands us to be low and working low: below the heat layer. We therefore need to remove the occupant in the same working plane which will be low and on the floor. 

In photo 1, you are going to see a saying that we need to remember when locating and removing an occupant – “drag as you find”. This saying refers to the position and orientation that you find the person. For example, if you were to locate an occupant on the floor and you came across their feet first, meaning their feet are presented to you first, then you are going to drag them or remove them also feet first. If you were to locate an occupant head-first, then you are going to remove them or drag them head-first. The time that needs to be taken to orientate a person so that they are always going out of the building head-first is a waste of time for both the firefighter and more importantly, the occupants themselves.

Our textbooks have shown and instructed us to always remove a person going head-first, but the reality is the occupant wants to be removed immediately due to the environment that they are exposed to, and the fact that they want to live and not perish in a fire. 

Photo 2: There are two main drag techniques: head-first and feet-first. Photo: Mark Van Der Feyst

In photo 2, we are seeing two main drag techniques: head-first and feet-first. With our head-first drags, there are a couple of options for us to choose from to assist with the drag. The first option is the wrist drag. This is our default drag that most firefighters will want to use – grabbing the wrist and pulling on the arms. The wrists are not the biggest part of the body to grab with structural fire gloves on and allow for the firefighter’s hands to slip off easily multiple times during the drag. This only adds to the frustration and fatiguing of the firefighter. 

The second option is the chicken wing drag. This is an adaptation from the EMS world in which we are grabbing under the arm pits with our arms, bear hugging the occupant around the chest but with the occupant’s wrists in each of the firefighter’s hands. The occupant will look like they are “chicken winging” their arms but instead, the firefighter has full control of the wrists, bear hugging them in front of the occupant’s chest, and is able to drag them low along the floor to the exit point. 

The third option is to use webbing around the upper torso of the occupant’s body. In this option, a closed loop of webbing is used to wrap around the upper torso under the arm pits of the occupant. Using a girth hitch, the webbing loop is secured around the chest allowing the firefighter to drag the occupant out of the building. Having a piece of closed looped webbing about 10 feet or three metres in length will provide better leverage for pulling using the leg muscles more and also provide the opportunity to have two firefighters pull if needed. 

With the feet-first drags, the feet of the occupant are being dragged out first toward the exit point. The two options here are going to be by the ankles with the hands or with webbing. The ankles of the body are attached to the biggest bones of the body, which are the femur and tibia bones. The joint between the tibia and the ankle is also larger in circumference than the wrist allowing for the gloved hand of the firefighter to grab and pull with. The upper torso of the body stays on the ground which is the heaviest part of the entire body. This makes it easier to drag because only the legs are being elevated and lifted up off the ground. 

Using webbing is the same as described with the head-first method except the webbing is wrapped around the ankles using a girth hitch. When dragging the occupant feet-first, the arms of the person will start to move upward towards the head and protect the head while it is being dragged. 

Removing a person from the building may sound easy but will require some basic skill sets that will enable the firefighter to perform these types of rescues so that they are both effective and efficient with their actions.   

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is currently a firefighter with the FGFD. Contact him at

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