Becoming a Search and Rescue Volunteer
What Search & Rescue is All About and How You Can Get Involved
Are you intrigued by stories about wilderness rescues and searches for missing hikers or stranded mountain climbers? If so, perhaps becoming a Search and Rescue -- often referred to as "SAR" -- volunteer might be for you.
I've enjoyed and benefited so much from being a member of a SAR team, I wanted to share that experience with others. If you too thrive in the great outdoors and wish to help your fellow fresh air, nature, adventure and outdoor sports lovers, or just other human beings in general (and sometimes even their pets) who find themselves in unfortunate situations, read on....
Search & Rescue is Teamwork
In the photo above, two Search and Rescue teams -- our county's team and volunteers from a neighboring county -- cooperate in a somewhat technical and physically difficult rescue of an injured hiker, who fell down a steep, rocky slope (which is much steeper than it appears in the photo).
Search And Rescue: So Others May Live
SAR Stories Abound
Ever get hooked on a news story about an unfolding Search and Rescue operation, obsessively tuning in to CNN every hour to see if the missing person has been found?
Like that time an autistic boy disappeared in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness. Remember that one?
Or what about the nine-day search for two climbers missing on Oregon's Mount Hood?
Sometimes the story has a happy ending, like when a California father and his three teenage kids were found alive, days after getting lost in a snowstorm while hunting for a Christmas tree.
On other occasions, the endings are tragic, such as the case of the missing female hiker who set out with her dog near the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and was later found murdered.
Sometimes, the victim's whereabouts are known, but bringing that person out of the backcountry to safety and perhaps to a hospital (or the medical care to the patient) is the real challenge.
And sometimes there is no ending; the subject is never located.
There are those who venture into the wilderness unprepared and get into trouble.
There are people who set out as prepared as can be, but accidents happen nonetheless.
There are those who fall and those who jump.
Floods that carry away more than just debris.
Avalanches and climbing accidents.
And the list of scenarios goes on.
So, what is it about a particular Search and Rescue mission that makes the national media take notice, while others warrant only a paragraph, tucked away in a local newspaper? Sometimes, there is no public story. But those stories are happening all the time.
Lives are being saved in the backcountry, all over the world on a daily basis, and those stories are a big deal to the people involved. On both ends of the rescue.
What Is Search And Rescue?
Types of SAR
Search and Rescue involves not only searching for missing people and rescuing injured hikers, climbers, skiers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts but also body recoveries, evidence searches, and disaster response.
Search and Rescue has a number of definitions and categories depending on the agencies involved.
Those categories and definitions include:
- Mountain Rescue (aka Wilderness) SAR: Missions in this category may take place not only on mountainous terrain but also in forests and deserts, caves and canyons, on rivers and lakes, and so on. This is where most of my own experience lies and the type of SAR this article is really about.
- K-9 SAR: involves the use of tracking, cadaver, avalanche and wilderness area search dogs. Dogs and their handlers undergo extensive and ongoing training. Many county SAR teams have K-9 units in addition to their "ground-pounders."
- Mounted SAR: involves searching on horseback; Some horses are also known to have great tracking abilities, similar to air-scenting dogs.
- Urban SAR: Missions take place in cities or other "front country" areas, often involving structural collapse and stranded citizens following earthquakes, storms, flooding and other natural and human-caused disasters.
- Marine Search & Rescue: In the U.S., these types of missions are often carried out by the Coast Guard.
- Technical / Rock Rescue: There are teams or units within SAR teams that specialize in high-angle rescue, involving systems of ropes, pulleys, and other gear specific to technical rescue situations. You can read more about technical rescue in my series beginning with Rock Rescue Academy Part 1: Learning to Rappel
- Confined Space / Cave SAR: There are teams or units within SAR teams that specialize in these skills.
- Swiftwater and Dive SAR: These really are two different disciplines I've combined here, each requiring specialized training. See the websites for the National Association of Rescue Divers and the Whitewater Rescue Institute.
- Ski Patrol: If you downhill ski or snowboard, you know who these men and women are. See the National Ski Patrol website.
And Who Are These People? Both Paid and Volunteer SAR Professionals
While some Search and Rescue professionals have paid positions, like members of the Coast Guard, specially trained National Park rangers, firefighters, Sheriff's deputies and helicopter rescue crews, many Search & Rescue participants are volunteers.
In fact, with more than 1,500 Search and Rescue teams in the U.S. alone and thousands more around the world, it's quite possible that volunteer professionals outnumber those who are paid. My own team consists of approximately 100 volunteers and paid Sheriff SAR Coordinators, who are sergeants, deputies and lieutenants.
Search and Rescue volunteers come from all demographics, with a wide range of ages, current and former professions, skills and experience. On the team I belong to, ages range from early twenties to mid-seventies. We do have medical professionals and firefighters in the unit, volunteering when they aren't on duty, but our membership also includes a graphic designer, an office manager, a cabinet-maker, retired pilots, students, a veterinary assistant, teachers and construction workers, to name just a handful.
Search and Rescue units do have minimum age requirements, but there is no limit to the types of people who volunteer, with all manner of backgrounds and abilities. As for me, I've been a paralegal, a medical secretary, a farm caretaker, a guide at the Grand Canyon, and an office manager at an apartment complex. And I'm currently a freelance writer.
The rescue depicted in the photo above occurred on Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, said to be one of the most difficult rescue operations in years. The mission, managed by Wilderness Search and Rescue in winds gusting up to 64km/h, took more than six hours. For more on the story, see Thomas Sly's Flickr page.
SAR Video: Rescue in Grand Canyon -- A young girl breaks her leg at the bottom of a waterfall in Havasupai. A helicopter rescue follows....
When a helicopter is available, the conditions are safe enough to fly, and the extent of the person's injuries and difficulty of evacuation by ground warrant it, wilderness Search & Rescue teams are often aided by helicopters. In this situation, the remoteness of the area where the patient was hurt would have meant a very long, physically extremely difficult, and potentially dangerous extrication by ground teams ... which would have included ours.
Here's an article about being a Search & Rescue Volunteer
- On Their Own Time and Dime
Four vehicles with 13 people and five dogs get stuck on a Forest Road south of Lake Mary Road on Christmas Day.
Recommended and Required Skills
Is SAR for you too?
So, who is qualified to become a Search and Rescue volunteer? Do you need extensive backpacking experience like I had? What about medical training? Or knowing how to rock-climb?
Well, those skills sure don't hurt, but they aren't necessarily prerequisites for joining a team.
Some SAR units do have more training and requirements than others, in part depending on the types of missions and terrain they most often face when there's a call-out.
One example would be Oregon's Crag Rats, the oldest Search and Rescue unit in the U.S. To be considered for a spot on the team, each applicant must not only live in Hood River County, but he or she must also have summited both Mt. Hood and Mt Adams.
Each organization has its own requirements -- or preferences, at least -- so you'd need to contact the team in your area to find out their specifics.
While having outdoor skills and experience is the norm for those who apply to become SAR volunteers, there is much one can learn while participating. The following is a partial list of trainings that my own team has offered since I've been a member. These courses, often involving both classroom and field instruction, are frequently taught by team members and most are free of charge. Some are required as part of Coconino County's Basic SAR Academy, which each member must complete before receiving a pager and being able to participate in missions, while other classes are optional (but highly recommended):
- Basic Map & Compass
- Basic GPS
- Alternative Navigation
- ATV training
- Truck and Trailer training
- Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) training
- Patient Packaging
- Low-Angle Rescue
- Helicopter Safety
- Advanced Navigation
- Technical Team (or Rock Rescue) Academy
- Wilderness First Aid
Many volunteers have taken the 80-hour Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course, offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School and other organizations, including some colleges and universities. Even those with an urban medical background, such as EMTs and paramedics, find WFR to be a great addition to their training. WFR teaches the first responder to deal with the less-than-ideal equipment, situations and settings often encountered during backcountry rescues, as well as improvise with whatever gear happens to be on hand.
In the photo above, students in a NOLS Wilderness First Responder course assess and stabilize a patient during a mock accident exercise. While there is plenty of classroom time during these 80-hour courses, WFR students run through many hands-on scenarios, role-playing situations dealing with physical injuries and medical conditions of increasing complexity in backcountry settings.
Physical Fitness for Search and Rescue: How much is necessary?
There's no getting around it: Search and Rescue is often physically demanding, so a moderate to high level of fitness is definitely an asset.
However, while a number of my own teammates are in excellent physical condition, others do have chronic injuries or limitations that prevent them from participating in the more physically difficult missions.
Keep in mind, there are many ways to help a team aside from the primary acts of searching and rescuing.
During a mission, not every responding team member hikes up a mountain with a backpack full of equipment or rappels into a canyon, but everyone does perform a function, even if that means simply sitting tight and waiting as backup if needed.
Tasks might include driving to and from staging areas so other team members can rest, helping to prepare maps and briefings for the missions as they arise, delivering food and drinks to searchers in the field, or driving perimeter roads to contain a lost subject.
Non-mission assistance can include maintaining equipment, such as vehicles and technical gear; serving on a team's Board of Directors; organizing and participating in fundraising events; representing the team at community fairs and functions, and so forth.
So if you have the desire to be part of a SAR team but do have physical limitations, your help and skills in other areas can often be of great value.
How to Find and Join a Search & Rescue Team
Okay, so you're still interested in Search & Rescue -- Now what?
In many U.S. counties, the local Sheriff's department is responsible for maintaining a Search and Rescue team, so that's a good place to start. Just contact the Sheriff's office or other local law enforcement in your area and ask them who oversees SAR and how you can participate.
In other places, teams are independent, most often nonprofit, organizations, which you might come across by searching online. Still, the local law enforcement will most likely know how to contact the team(s) in the area, because they probably call on them for assistance from time to time. So the sheriff or police department is still a good place to inquire.
Keep in mind, though, that not all areas have enough of the type of incidents that Search and Rescue would respond to to warrant have a designated team, so there may not be one headquartered near where you live. In those areas, when there is a need for SAR, the duties are either carried out by local law enforcement and/or EMS, or a team is called in from somewhere else in the state or even from out of state. If that's the case where you live and you really want to get involved with a team, you may have to travel a fair distance for trainings and missions.
SAR Mission Video: Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team -- The team was paged by police at 4 a.m. to rescue three young men lost on the north slopes of Scafell Pike....
If You Join a Search & Rescue Team - Just keep in mind....
Your SAR pager (or whatever means your team might use to call out its membership for a mission) can and will go off at all hours, day and night, weekdays, weekends and holidays.
Call-outs happen in all kinds of weather, no matter what you're doing. Maybe you're having dinner with your spouse at the nicest restaurant in town or reading the kids a bedtime story. Maybe you're enjoying a great movie or just getting ready to go for a jog.
You just never know when someone, somewhere, might be in trouble.
As a volunteer, sometimes you just won't be able to respond. You may be away on vacation or in a really important business meeting. Or maybe you're right in the middle of your own wedding. (Not a great time to say, "Hey, honey, can we finish this later? I have a SAR call.") And that's okay. You respond when you can.
But, as a member of a team, you should respond when you're able.
Sometimes, missions are cancelled before they get started. Maybe you left the movie theater right in middle of the mushy stuff you'd been waiting for. You're halfway across town on your way to the SAR building, trying not to speed, when your pager goes off again. You fumble for the gadget, glance at it quickly so as not to rear-end the car in front of you, and the code or message tells you you can do a U-turn and go home.
Sometimes, you and your teammates get to the SAR building, load all the gear and hit the road, only to drive a couple of hours to the staging area and arrive just as the subject shows up on his own.
Sometimes, the whole thing was just a bunch of misinformation and there never was an emergency or a lost or injured person to begin with.
But if all of that doesn't deter you ....
...if you thrive on adventure and the satisfaction of helping others....
...then definitely go for it and find out more about becoming a Search and Rescue volunteer.
My Own Search and Rescue Experience -- In our country's second largest county, home of Grand Canyon and the San Francisco Peaks
In October, 2007, after fifty-six hours of basic training, I became a volunteer with the busy Search and Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona, the second largest county in the U.S.
I'm an experienced hiker, having completed a 2200-mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike and many shorter backpacking trips, but those experiences were all about taking care of me, watching my own steps, handling my own gear.
Search and Rescue, on the other hand, meant acquiring a new skill set.
It meant learning to look for and take care of others while, at the same time, watching out for my own well-being and, as a member of a team, the safety of other volunteers.
It meant learning to navigate in a number of different ways and how to communicate on a radio.
I had to learn how to track and spot clues, and what to do with those tracks and clues once I found them.
There's learning how to use ropes and other rescue equipment, and operate ATVs and snowmobiles.
Low-angle rescue, high-angle rescue, snow and ice skills. And the list goes on.
Search and Rescue involves ongoing education and practice, and those learning opportunities are often at no cost to volunteers.
If you'd like to read about my personal experience as a SAR volunteer, please visit my blog....
A Rescuer's-Eye View of a Mid-Face Short-Haul -- High risk, high drama in the Canadian Rockies
Past Search And Rescue Missions In The News -- Some Interesting SAR Headlines:
- Woman Buried in Snow for Three Days Found Alive
A SAR dog in Ontario, Canada, finds a housewife who'd been missing for three days. She was literally found lying, almost completely buried but responsive, in deep snow. Read more....
- Backpacker Rescued In Australia After 12 Days
Jamie Neale, 19, was last seen July 3 after leaving his youth hostel in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Read more....
- Dramatic Rescue Of Hiker Found in Slot Canyon in Southern Utah
Jim Williamson, 49, an experienced hiker from Salt Lake City and missing since Sunday, was found in a slot canyon close to the Gunsight Trail on Red Mountain. Read more....
- From an Icy Slope, A Medical Miracle Emerges
Why it pays never to give up....
- Family of Eight Survives Two Snowy Nights Near Breitenbush Lake
When their Astrovan becomes buried to hood in snow, a father and his seven children become stranded. Read the story....
- This Is a Human Being
How tech rescue volunteers dropped everything to recover a body found in the Eel River
Search & Rescue Team Members In The News -- I'm always looking for news stories about SAR members and will share them here as I come across them.
- Arizona Teen and Her Search Dog Pass National Certification
A Paws of Life Foundation search and rescue dog recently was certified with her handler, 16-year-old Taylor Lane of Mesa, Arizona.
- U.S. Honors Yosemite Search & Rescue Ranger
Danger is a constant in Yosemite National Park, where the towering cliffs, thundering waterfalls and rugged wilderness combine with an unusual knack among humans to stumble into horrifying predicaments.
- Searching With Compassion, Surviving With Grace
"If you're looking for courage, dignity and faith this holiday season, it's in plain sight with search-and-rescue teams and the loved ones of the lost..." Read more in the Oregonian.
- Rescuing climbers: Local man is one of region's leading search and rescue professionals
This summer, Idaho State University physical therapy instructor Darin Jernigan was part of a search-and-rescue team that pulled off one of the biggest and most dramatic mountain climbing mass casualty rescues ever, involving 17 stranded climbers inju
- A Day in the Life: Outdoors with a Purpose
This article actually features ... well, me. Our local paper does these "day in the life" stories once a month, I believe. This one is about me as a member of a Search and Rescue team.
SAR Stories and Topics
Mountain Rescue Doctor - Treating medical emergencies in the backcountry
As a Search & Rescue story fan, I've read my share of books by and about the men and women in the field, whether volunteer or paid SAR professionals. Certain books have stood out for me, and I'd like to tell you about two of my favorites.
So, imagine sticking a breathing tube down someone's throat. Now imagine having to do that without accidentally inserting the tube into the patient's esophagus or breaking his teeth. Then imagine doing this while kneeling on sharp rocks on a narrow ledge, as a rescue helicopter hovers above you, the downdraft threatening to blow you off your knees and that ledge while spraying you and your patient with dirt and debris.
Endotracheal intubation is one of the most difficult medical procedures an ER doctor performs, and that's within the clean and controlled hospital setting with skilled assistance. But Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg has also been forced to intubate in much less than ideal backcountry conditions as a member of the Hood River Crag Rats, the oldest Search & Rescue team in the U.S.
Christopher Van Tilburg is not only an emergency doctor and a ski patrol and wilderness physician, he's also a top-notch writer. I spent a few days reading during every spare moment (even a paragraph at a red light, I must admit). Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature
Along with insights into the ethical challenges a wilderness physician faces and the techniques and tools of backcountry medicine, Tilburg describes many suspenseful missions. One account involves a call to Columbia River Gorge, where he intubated an unconscious patient who'd fallen from a cliff. Another chapter concerns the rescue of an injured and hypothermic man who'd fallen onto a logjam. Dr. Tilman writes about rescuing cliff divers with spinal injuries, rushing to rescue a trapped climber within the "Golden Hour," treating the victim of a rattlesnake bite, and participating in a grizzly body recovery at the scene of a mountain plane crash. Tilman has been involved in numerous high-altitude winter missions, including a much-publicized search for three missing climbers on Mt. Hood.
My only disappointment was that, in certain cases, the reader is left wondering what became of the victims Dr. Tillman had worked so hard to save. Did they live? Then I happened across a blog post by the author, in which he states that, "Yes, several chapters don't really say what happens to the patient. That's part of the deal with mountain rescue missions: we hand off the patients to a helicopter or ground ambulance crew and sometimes we never find out the end result."
As any member of a SAR unit knows, that statement is very true. The last we sometimes see or hear of a patient is when they're whisked into the sky in a Stokes litter, spinning at the end of a 200-foot rope.
Another Good SAR Book: Coming Back Alive
Tales of exciting (and very risky) Coast Guard rescues
Among the stack of books I've read about the lost, the stranded, the injured and the rescued, another of my favorites was by Spike Walker. Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas
This is a book about eight amazing rescue missions off the coast of southeastern Alaska, culminating in the edge-of-your-seat account of the Coast Guard's efforts to save the lives of five crewmen from the fishing vessel La Conte, which sunk in 100-mile per hour storm winds and record 90-foot seas in January, 1998. Without a life raft, the men are left to drift in the freezing water for hours, as three different helicopter crews try in turn to save them.
Author Spike Walker worked for years as a deckhand in Alaska. He researched "Coming Back Alive" meticulously, through hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors.
This is one of those "I don't care how tired I'll be at work tomorrow, I have to keep reading" books. In fact, I was so intrigued that after finishing "Coming Back Alive," I started following Coast Guard SAR headlines on Twitter with links to their news releases. (Follow @USCG)
An Excellent Book About Search & Rescue: Skills, Studies and Theories
This book is a bit pricey, yes (although lower priced used books are often available on Amazon), but for good reason. It's put out by NASAR, the National Association for Search & Rescue, and is the only resource that covers Search and Rescue Technician (SARTECH) III & II test requirements -- a test that's optional on many teams in the U.S., but many members do strive to earn this credential.
Regardless of whether you take the test, this book is still valuable. It provides an overview of all aspects of search and rescue procedures and equipment. "FUNSAR," as it's often referred to, teaches the essential techniques employed by nearly all search and rescue personnel and offers an in-depth and practical approach to search and rescue. The book is ideal for both paid and unpaid professionals--any person who functions on search and rescue missions as a field searcher.
FUNSAR offers an excellent mix of photos and illustrations, pullout boxes, key terms, survival methods, and numerous forms and checklists.
This is another book I highly recommend, whether you're a SAR coordinator or otherwise help run missions, a Search and Rescue volunteer field searcher, or just very interested in SAR and how lost people of all ages and many other demographics behave.
From Amazon: "Lost person behavior is the cornerstone of search and rescue efforts. Based on a landmark study, this book is the definitive guide to solving the puzzle of where a lost person might be found. It presents new and updated subject categories, behavioral profiles, current statistics, suggested initial tasks, and specialized investigative questions. Whether the subject is underground, underwater, under collapsed rubble, on land or has fallen from the sky, this book delivers what search managers need."
Search And Rescue Websites And Blogs - Here are some Search & Rescue resources you might find interesting and helpful:
- National Association for Search and Rescue
NASAR is a "not-for-profit membership association dedicated to advancing professional, literary, and scientific knowledge in fields related to search and rescue. NASAR is comprised of thousands of paid and non-paid professionals interested in all asp
- Dog Finds Man: Canine Instinct at its Best
A blog from KWDogs, including firsthand accounts by a search dog handler
- Call Out
Real search and rescue mission episodes and SAR member blogs
Questions or Comments About Search & Rescue or Becoming a SAR Volunteer?
Please leave me your questions and comments in the guestbook below. If you have a question about Search & Rescue, I'll do my best to answer or at least point you to a good source.
Would you like to see what's in my SAR pack? See some of what I carry with me on missions here.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
How do I become a search and rescue volunteer?
If you're interested in joining your local/regional Search and Rescue team, I would contact your area's sheriff's department and start by inquiring there. In some areas of the country, SAR is overseen by local law enforcement. But it depends where you live. That's not the case everywhere. And each team will have its own requirements to become a member. So there's no one simple answer to your question. I do cover this in the article in more detail.Helpful 5
© 2008 Deb Kingsbury