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How to Join a Search and Rescue Team

Author:

As a search and rescue team crew leader, Outbound Dan Human delivers his best tips for hiking safely in all seasons.

SAR team members get ready to conduct a hasty search for a lost person.

SAR team members get ready to conduct a hasty search for a lost person.

Outbound Dan on a SAR patrol.

Outbound Dan on a SAR patrol.

If you enjoy pushing your way through thick brush in the middle of the night during an ice-cold rain, you may want to join a Search and Rescue team. Every year, lost and injured people rely on the life-saving services of volunteer and professional Search and Rescue (SAR) groups.

A person spending the night in sub-freezing temperatures will be glad to see an emergency responder in an orange shirt coming to their aid. It's also a good feeling to be the person doing that rescue. So, how do you join?

Though each team's application process differs, there are similarities in joining any team. This article provides tips on what skills you should know and how to become a SAR team member.

A SAR team briefing on a cold and rainy day for a search that will extend into the night.

A SAR team briefing on a cold and rainy day for a search that will extend into the night.

Many Types of SAR Teams

Though there are a few professional search and rescue organizations, most of these teams are volunteer. You may even be surprised that as a volunteer you'll probably have to invest much of your own money for training, equipment and transportation. Your location determines the type and scope of search teams available to join.

Common Types of SAR teams:

  • Urban
  • Wilderness
  • Mountain
  • K-9
  • Horse
  • Dive
  • Mountain Bike
  • High-Angle

It is possible for large teams to consist of many components and specialties. For example a primarily wilderness team of human searcher could have sub-teams for K-9, high-angle and winter mountaineering.

Rappelling is a skill that most SAR teams should master, especially those with steep canyons and cliffs in their area.

Rappelling is a skill that most SAR teams should master, especially those with steep canyons and cliffs in their area.

Skills that SAR Teams Look For

Though most groups have excellent training programs, it is a great idea to have some sort of background prior to filling out the application. Most teams tend to attract outdoor experts: licensed guides, climbers, mountaineers, backpackers and survivalists.

These are a few of the most sought-out skills on a SAR team.

  • Navigation
  • Radio Communication
  • Wilderness Survival
  • First Aid
  • Rope and Climbing Experience
  • Leadership and Teamwork
  • Experience Trekking in Harsh Environments



Wilderness First Aid Skills

Though every team differs, most require some sort of first aid and CPR certification in order to be a member. The most common certifications are Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness First Responder and CPR for the Professional Rescuer.

The biggest difference between wilderness medicine and standard first aid is the remoteness of the incident. Sure, paramedics may be able to meet you at the road, but you have to figure out how to stabilize the patient and move them miles over rough terrain.

Please remember that first aid is a perishable skill and it must be practiced frequently to hone your abilities. Though most first-aid certs last two or three years, chances are you'll forget how to splint, bandage and otherwise treat after only a few months.

It never hurts to pick up a wilderness first aid book now and then, and to incorporate a medical portion into each training session.

Wilderness first aid relies on skills and improvisation.  In this picture, a trekking pole is used to form a traction splint.

Wilderness first aid relies on skills and improvisation. In this picture, a trekking pole is used to form a traction splint.

Take Free ICS Classes

Getting certified in Incident Command System procedures is a free and easy process. Achieve most of your certification classes online for free at the FEMA site. After completing an online training module you'll receive a professional printable certificate.

As you progress up the ladder in ICS, you'll have to attend actual classes. Be sure to register as soon as possible when you see these courses as they are rare and highly competitive. Remember that all emergency responders, SAR, Fire, EMS, HAZMAT and Law Enforcement require training in ICS and NIMS.

What is the Incident Command System?

Following the tragedy of September 11th and the mass confusion of Hurricane Katrina, the nation's emergency responders unified their approach to managing incidents and standardized their procedures with the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS).

As a component of NIMS, the The Incident Command System (ICS) is

"a standardized approach to incident management that is applicable for use in all hazards by all levels of government."

From traffic accidents to large-scale disasters, ICS exists as the overall command system.

Though a newbie searcher won't end up deploying tactical resources as the Operations Section Chief, it is important to have a good understanding of this system before your first search.

The following courses are great for most SAR team members.

  • IS 100 (ICS 100) Introduction to the Incident Command System
  • IS 200.b (ICS 200) ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents
  • ICS 300 Intermediate ICS for Expanding Incidents
  • IS 700.a NIMS, an Introduction
  • IS 809 ESF #9 Search and Rescue
Search and Rescue high-angle equipment is generally team gear.

Search and Rescue high-angle equipment is generally team gear.

SAR Equipment From 24-Hour Packs to Uniforms

Being a SAR member requires a lot of gear, most of which is your personal equipment. You may not want to pick up too much gear until you are approved to join a team as some teams have specific gear requirements.

  • 24-Hour Pack:

Within your 24-hour pack, you carry all the gear you need to sustain yourself and your mission for 24 hours. As a general rule, always keep your pack on your back and never separate yourself from your gear - it is what keeps you from becoming an additional victim.

Many SAR veterans are well acquainted with the dreaded pack check in the NASAR SARTECH II Exam. And though there will always be questions of why one must carry the 10-feet of woven steel wire, it is a general guideline for what you should carry in your 24-hour pack.

It is common for a team to have their own pack content standards. Remember that the mission and environment dictates what you carry.

  • GPS:

Though every wilderness responder must know how to navigate using map and compass, GPS usage is a critical skill. From marking waypoints of critical clues, to recording tracks of your search passes, you must learn to use a GPS proficiently.

The most popular units for SAR teams is the Garmin GPSMap 60CSX and the new GPSmap 62 series. Be sure to check out "How to Use a GPS for Search and Rescue Operations" for more information.

  • Chest Harness:

It's really hard to answer your radio when it is stuck inside your pack. It is likewise hard to navigate using a GPS when it is buried inside your jacket. A chest harness holds radios, GPS units, pens and maps with ease.

Most chest harnesses are cut to wear with backpacks and even for high-angle rescue.

  • Search Bag:

Each responder should put together a bag to keep in their vehicle for meeting the needs of any emergency. Sure, keep search materials like extra rolls of flagging tape and string line in the bag, but keep comfort items in there too. It's nice to return to the staging area to find a change of clothes and a warm sleeping bag.

  • SAR Clothing:

Established Search teams usually have uniform requirements in their standard operating procedures. Whatever the uniform choice is, there will be times where it may be worn for a few days straight. The only washing it may see will be when you cross a waist-deep frozen stream. Most people don't have the courtesy to get lost on sunny temperate days.

Characteristics of SAR Uniforms:

  • Made from non-cotton performance materials.
  • High-visibility colors: orange, yellow and red are common colors.
  • Made from durable materials that hold up to thick brush and thorns.
The North Face Terra 35 is a nice size for a SAR 24-hour pack.  The Coaxsher radio harness is a necessity.

The North Face Terra 35 is a nice size for a SAR 24-hour pack. The Coaxsher radio harness is a necessity.

SAR members climb up out of a steep traverse at Zoar Valley.

SAR members climb up out of a steep traverse at Zoar Valley.

SAR Physical Fitness Standards

Carry a 200 hundred pound man on an improvised litter over rough terrain for a few miles and you'll learn while it is critical to be physically fit. Each member must be able to respond quickly and deftly without becoming a victim themselves.

The wildland firefighter Work Capacity Test from the U.S. Forest Service is a favorite and fair standard that several SAR teams use. In this test, members walk a relatively level predetermined course, with or without a weighted pack. Each member must complete the course in the time allotted.

Remember that for any test like this, must be conducted safely and consistently throughout your membership.

Work Capacity Test Standards

Work Category Pack WeightDistance Time

Arduous

45

3 miles

45 minutes

Moderate

25

2 miles

30 minutes

Light

None

1 mile

15 minutes

An Awesome SAR Recruitment Video from New Zealand

About NASAR

The National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) is an educational and certifying agency for professional and volunteer Search and Rescue members. Joining NASAR exposes you to the world of recovering lost individuals and earns you discounts toward training and search gear.

How to Find a Local Search and Rescue Team

The internet is the best source for finding a local Search and Rescue team to join. Many SAR units have established their own websites and Facebook fan pages. Check out Niagara Frontier Search and Rescue's Facebook community page for an example of how emergency responders use social media.

If you seem to be striking out in finding a local team, contact County Emergency Services or your County Sheriff. Ask those two entities just who is responsible for finding missing persons in their jurisdiction. You may find, that in many areas that the local fire department is responsible for conducting searches.

Policy differs for each state as well. For example, in New York State, DEC Forest Rangers are ultimately responsible for wildland searches. However, the member units of the NYS Federation of Search and Rescue Teams work closely with the Rangers to provide the expertise and manpower to conduct efficient searches.

If you have any questions on joining a SAR team, please ask in the comments section below.

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

Question: What is the age limit for search and rescue?

Answer: The age limit for SAR tends to be 18 to as old as you want to be and still drag stuff through the woods.

Question: If I'm interested in having a career in the search and rescue field, what should my first steps be?

Answer: If you are pursuing a paid career in search and rescue, begin your research on the requirements for being employed at those agencies. For example, here in New York, DEC State Forest Rangers coordinate and are responsible for search and rescue. To take the exam, you must have earned a bachelor's degree, with at least thirty credits in environmental science. I would start gaining some experience by volunteering with a local search and rescue team.

Question: I have prior military service and have a seventy percent disability rating when I got out. Will my disability rating stop me from joining a search and rescue team even though I'm in good health?

Answer: As long as you can make the physical and mental requirements for joining a particular SAR team, you should be able to join. The best idea is to contact your local team and investigate their joining standards.

Question: What if you have a felony, can you still join search and rescue?

Answer: It depends upon the agency. All teams perform background checks on applicants and evaluate them for admittance to the team.

Question: Would I train my own dog if I wanted to be a K9 handler or could I be paired with a dog much like the military?

Answer: For search and rescue, K9 handlers train their own dogs from the puppy stage while training with a team to hone their own SAR skills.

Question: Is a search and rescue job seasonal or year round?

Answer: Search and rescue is a year-round job. However, there are many places that hire additional rangers that may assist in search and rescue during peak seasons throughout the year.

Question: What degree do you need to be in search and rescue?

Answer: Most volunteer SAR agencies do not require a degree, however, most professionals ones do. Law enforcement, environmental conservation, and emergency medical programs are common undergraduate degrees for search and rescue professionals.

Question: Is it possible to make SAR a career?

Answer: Yes, it is possible to make SAR a paid career. There are dedicated search and rescue teams, not to mention state and federal ranger services.

Question: What does the k-9 team do during a search and rescue mission?

Answer: It depends upon the mission for what a member of search and rescue K-9 will do. Generally, for searches, K-9 members check in and receive their assignment from IC. They may run patterns to cover areas of forest or search trails. In the event that K-9 resources are not needed, the handlers become crew members in the regular SAR land team.

Comments

Roger on June 16, 2020:

Hello, my name is Roger. Where do I need to go. I live in Vermont. The classes that I need too would be great.

TressieMyers on May 18, 2020:

Search for missing on water.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on April 16, 2020:

Melanie, Here in NY and many other places, the first step is for the K9 handler to reach a certain proficiency in SAR. Generally the handler must be a SARTECH II before bringing on a K9. The dogs might be able to find a person but they can't read a map, operate a radio or perform first aid. Generally you'll have to train yourself first before bringing on a K9. I would reach out to your local sheriff's department and see if they have a contact so you can get started. Also look into Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States SARDUS to see where you'll eventually need to do. Thanks for the interest.

Dan

Melanie on April 16, 2020:

Hello..i am very interested and passionate about k9 s in search and rescue. I am a dog trainer but personally have never trained in this field. I am actually looking into a bloodhound pup to get as a puppy and train for search and rescue. I live in Phoenix AZ currently..any advice or information on local groups in my area? Thank u so much Melanie

Ernie on February 17, 2020:

Im a prepper i have very good skills

ishita on December 27, 2019:

i'm 17 years old and i'm an indian ...i'll be glad to know if anybody could answer me as to what to do for my first step to be in a rescue team ...should i just choose Btech as my bachelor degree first

Sarah on March 01, 2019:

I'm a student who wants to become a SAR K9 handler and I have a few questions, what degree do I need, what school do you recommend and do I need to be able to speak any certain languages?

jack on December 13, 2018:

im 13 years old and think I wil do this when im older,how old do you have to be and how much money do you make

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on September 28, 2018:

Lee, your best course of action is to find out who is responsible for wilderness search and rescue in your area. I'd contact your sheriff's office, local fire department or state conservation authority for that information. They should be able to direct you toward a volunteer group to affiliate and train with.

Lee on September 27, 2018:

I’m 37 and retired military with infantry as well as FO background. My bread and butter are topographical map reading and land navigation via lensatic compass. Recently was turned down by local authorities in the search of a 6 year old boy that was found lifeless several days after. Wandering how or what I need to do to be able to get into the system as a volunteer and put my recourses to action during times as this.

Jim Pfost on July 12, 2018:

Having been lost before in the mountains early in my life taught me the importance of knowing how to survive. I’ve taken CPR classes in the past, learned to read topography maps, use GPS and how to use a compass. I’m ready to join an SAR team.

Madeline on May 14, 2018:

I would like to join a SAR team, but am not sure how to get on one that is a full-time position instead of a volunteer team. I am also wondering if I can join a team with an RE-4 reenlistment code from the Navy, I got it from an honorable medical discharge.

MeAna Vice on February 17, 2018:

i want to train my pup in K9 search and rescue and i am reading up on it hes only 5 months and knows plenty of tricks ive also always been interested in S&R for myself

Els Anderson on February 17, 2018:

K9 Search and Rescue has been something I am interested in learning about and joining for a long time. Now that I will be retiring and I am in excellent health and condition, I want to learn where I can go to start so I can help.

maano on January 28, 2018:

I want to join the team but I don't know how or where to go

Bo Halford on September 26, 2017:

I want to join but I don't know how or where to go.

Thanks Bo

Daniel Kegerreis on September 08, 2017:

I was wondering what all I had to do to sign up with a search and rescue group. I live in Bethel Pennsylvania.

Thanks Daniel

Rob Bailie on August 28, 2017:

I want to get certified. I need training.

I want t o help.

Where do I go?

Thx

Tshering Phuntsho on August 27, 2017:

i am having basic training but want to know much more about search and rescue because i am having keen interest for helping other.

Amanda on July 01, 2017:

Is there a certain major that works well/is desired for Search and Rescue?

Max on March 26, 2017:

This sounds pretty good! Being a travel person I am, living short periods of time on random places it's kinda impossible to join in. But once I'll settle somewhere, I'll definitely join in!

BUSAR on March 25, 2017:

Great article. Reposted it on our team's FB page.

Deliliah on February 25, 2017:

I'm looking for a way to join search and rescue. Anybody know how to point me in the right direction?

Bob Pauls on March 25, 2016:

I just read and liked the book "75 Search And Rescue Stories" by Shaun Roundy from UCSSAR.org

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on September 20, 2014:

Ha, very true Kristina. "Luckily" for us people continue to go hiking in unfamiliar terrain that exceeds their ability and without any emergency gear. We count on their lack of judgment to keep us busy.

Kristina Pitts from Greenville, SC, USA on September 20, 2014:

You forgot one thing. In order for there to be a team to join, you need someone to go missing.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on October 19, 2013:

You are welcome bensen32 and thanks for reading. If you are LinkedIn, there is a Search and Rescue group there too which may be able to get you some more information.

Thomas Bensen from Wisconsin on October 19, 2013:

Very interesting, thanks for the info, motivates me to look into my area see what they require

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 05, 2013:

Jim, great to read your comments and thanks for your service as a SAR team member. You've also included some great resources that I plan on adding to my reading list. I'll pass those titles to members of my team, especially with a half-dozen new recruits this year.

Thanks again for reading!

-Dan

Bim on February 12, 2013:

Good show!

My son, PommeFritte, commented on one of your Hubs about hikes in the Adirondack High Peaks. He also saw this Hub and it rang a bell with him because I was a Wilderness Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteer in New Mexico for over seven years. After about three years of SAR work, I was so impressed by what we did and accomplished that I wrote a memoir about my and my team's experiences. Entitled SAR-WE HAVE A MISSION, it is now available on AMAZON as an eBook. I have to say those seven years provided some of the most rewarding and satisfying years of my life. I urge those people who might be interested to give SAR a try.

Your Hub gives excellent directions for getting into that activity. I feel you have done a good job laying out the requirements. I would only add that experiences will vary from place to place. In my case, New Mexico is a different ecosystem than the Adirondacks and the search experiences will differ slightly. However, the point is that people get into trouble and SAR members, usually volunteers, have to help them.

For books on the subject other than my own, try THE FALLING SEASON about Aspen Mountain Rescue in Colorado, and MOUNTAIN HIGH MOUNTAIN RESCUE about El Paso County SAR in Colorado. These books provide stories people can read and learn what the activity is like.

Teylina on July 21, 2012:

I would believe that, a good heart, and hard-to-believe training and stamina would definitely pay off w/fab feelings on nights like last night--good endings! I'll drink to that!. I'm so glad for every single person you must have saved or helped; I hope the good endings give you enough memories are the ones that you remember most-- that's probably one things that keeps you going. So happy for you and those you've helped, because the only ones I've seen are the unhappy ones. You should carry a smile for a while! Thank you again--for your help and for the hub. I hope it inspires some who are able to follow in your footsteps. Many people want to help but don't know where to start, and that's what really drew me to this hub because I've seen those like you bring back or not the ones I dealt with: there aren't enough of either.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 21, 2012:

Just had a late night search last night at one of our large local parks, luckily the missing people were recovered a few hours later. Happy endings when nobody is hurt are always a good thing.

Teylina on July 20, 2012:

Your last two lines summed up all I was capable of doing--but I was horrified at first to find how these peoples' fear, guilt, whatever, got in the way of you truly needed responders. My heart goes out to all victims, their families and, yes, to those of you who put your lives on the line to help--sometime with more hindrance than help! Don't know how you do it. Yes. I do. Nike said it: Just do it! I'm grateful to everyone who has gone through your experiences; lifesavers.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 15, 2012:

One thing we must always be mindful of on a search is where the friends and family of the subject are. Sometimes, they will join search parties or be inside the incident command building. The worst thing to do, is to speculate on the whereabouts or condition of their loved one - even when you know that the chances aren't good.

It's up to the crisis specialists to distract, reassure, and keep them (and responders) as calm as possible.

Thanks Teylina!

Teylina on July 12, 2012:

You are right about the responders. While I was doing that, we were called immediately by police or fire dept depending on need. They rarely failed to let me know (I'm sure others too) how glad they were I was there. Someone watching their home burn to the ground often puts firemen in precarious positions when they've already got their hands full, and nobody likes watching the body bag of a loved one taken out of the water or out of a house. So in a very small way, I learned people can be trained to be of help so the real SAR and first responders can do their job w/o family/friends trying to help or get questions answered and only making things worse. I hope it helped everyone just a tiny bit. It was all I could do, and I think that's the trick. We need to all think about what we CAN do--you superheroes who are able to do the tough jobs can always use a little TLC of your own, too.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 08, 2012:

I have to hand it to the members of fire-departments around the country - they do so much more than put out fires (as if that wasn't enough).

The metal crisis team is an integral part of any emergency response community. Within my experience, some searches are really tough on the responders as well as the families. I know that the service is greatly appreciated by all.

Thanks for reading and commenting Teylina!

Teylina on July 08, 2012:

What a fantastic hub! Wish I could have found something so perfectly laid out and concise when I was physically able--accidents and age don't go together--did take a less intense form of "SAR" thru fire department re primarily hurricane/ disaster type work and also trained and joined for a "mental crisis team" on-site, on call 24/7--victims left in shock in fatal accidents, etc. Very small sense of helpfulness--the latter more so because constant needs (drownings/suicides, etc). If I had the physical powers now, YOUR HUB would have me searching for a truly REAL SAR team! Fantastic writing! Everybody out there, if you can do it and have any desire, follow Outbound Dan's steps. You won't regret it!

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 06, 2012:

Many of the guys on my team multi-task too: ambulance, fire, and SAR.

Thanks so much for donating to your local team, I know how much it is appreciated. Though the occasional grant come through, we depend mostly on the good will of community members.

Right now we are in the process of acquiring interoperable radios - it is a very pricey venture.

Thanks for reading Mark and thanks for supporting search and rescue.

Mark Shulkosky from Pennsylvania on July 06, 2012:

Very interesting Dan. Being a small community in the Allegheney Mts. my town has a SAR team. Many of the guys I work with volunteer (and also on the volunteer fire depts. or ambulance services). I don' t volunteer, but I do send in a donation every year to support the SAR team mission. As you point out, the volunteers often have to supply their own equipment. There is still plenty of equipment that has to be purchased for the team. That money comes from donations. I hope everyone, if they can't join the team, they at least support it.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 06, 2012:

I've seen "Missing 411" start to pop up around the SAR community, but I haven't had a chance to snag a copy yet and read it. I'll have to check out some of Paulide's interviews - it is a fascinating study.

I've been part of searches for people that have never turned up despite how many weeks and how many resources were spent in the pursuit of finding them. That feeling of not knowing is the worst - you can't even bring closure to the family.

Generally, I think most of these unsolved cases involve a devious demise. That said, I've studied searches that went totally wrong in their execution. One more reason to standardize training for responders.

Thanks for reading and recommending the book(s) Serge!

Sergemaster on July 06, 2012:

Hey Dan,

Another great article, and I especially dig the video, very cool! Since you brought up SAR and folks that go missing, there's a great 2 volume book that just came up on the subject. It's called, "Missing-411 - Unexplained disappearances of North Americans that have never been solved" by David Paulides.

He has documented going back about 100 years, hikers, hunter, backpackers, and ordinary folks that seem to disappear from state and federal parks, sometimes literally in the sight of others, never to be seen or heard from again. He really details the initial responses of SAR teams that were dispatched and their total lack of explanation of what happened to these people.

He found so much information thanks to FOIA requests to the government, that he broke it into 2 volumes, Eastern and Western US and Canada. You should check it out. He has some of his radio and television interviews that are posted on Youtube.

I think you would find it absolutely fascinating just as I did. Especially being a fellow outdoorsman. Makes you think twice before going solo into the woods.

Cheers,

Serge

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 06, 2012:

Being a SAR team member is a fantastic way to give back to the community. It is kind of a pain though living in an urban environment when you are responding to the great outdoors. Sometimes it take several hours for team members to respond where I live based on location and general time for gearing up.

Thanks fr stopping by CF!

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 06, 2012:

Mountain bikes are actually a pretty efficient way to covering a lot of terrain during a hasty search. My team has been contemplating instituting mountain bikes into our training.

Though ICS has been around for years in the wildland firefighting service, it took September 11th to get the ball rolling on a national system. It took Katrina to solidify the need and test how it works. Now 7 years later, the system works pretty well with most units.

Thanks for reading and sharing CC!

Liam Hallam from Nottingham UK on July 06, 2012:

Fantastic article. Once I head out of the city and into the countryside to live this is on my list of voluntary things to do to give back to the community. Awesome

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on July 06, 2012:

Wow! What an awesome, comprehensive hub! I didn't know there were mountain bike SAR teams. Hmm, perhaps if I could get in gear, I could help out with that. Good to know!

I also like that NIMS formed after Hurricane Katrina - if only it was in place before that. But, I remember thinking that we needed a much better system than what we had. There were so many people put in harm's way unnecessarily because of lack of organization.

Many votes and shared.