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Becoming a Search and Rescue Volunteer

I've been an active Search & Rescue volunteer since 2007 with the Coconino County Sheriff's SAR Team in northern Arizona.

What Search and 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 and Rescue Is Teamwork

SAR is Teamwork

SAR 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.

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Lost children.

Alzheimer's patients who wander off.

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.

Search & Rescue in Action

Search & Rescue in Action

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.
A canyon rescue in Arizona

A canyon rescue in Arizona

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.

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.

Article About Being a Search and 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.

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):

Medical Training

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.

Wilderness First Responders

Wilderness First Responders

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.