How Search and Rescue Works

By: Charles W. Bryant
Rescue helicopter flying with military propeller.
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Every t­ime a hiker is lost in the woo­ds, the local news stations will no doubt show images of helicopters buzzing overhead, German Shepherds sniffing the forest floor and scores of people combing the woods in search of clues. This brief bit of insight into the world of search and rescue (SAR) teams is about all the general public ever sees. In reality, SAR goes way beyond these glimpses on the news -- it's an extensive emergency service performed by highly trained military specialists, local law enforcement and civilian volunteers.

The goal of SAR is to locate, stabilize and extract individuals in distress. That can mean a hiker on the side of a mountain, a sailor lost at sea, a trapped urban disaster survivor, a captured soldier or an Alzheimer's patient wandering city streets. Each area of SAR employs techniques specific to the circumstance. Air and sea rescue requires skilled ocean swimmers and helicopter pilots. Combat rescue uses the military's most accomplished Special Forces teams. Urban SAR requires hazardous material experts and structural specialists.


­From FEMA to county­ sheriff departments, expert technicians to local volunteers -- SAR teams do important work all over the world every day. In this article, we'll look at the different training SAR­ teams undergo to perform their duties as well as the vehicles and equipment they use. We'll also highlight specific areas of SAR and learn about the methods and techniques they use to safely locate and extract people in need.

SAR Training

Man floating in ocean.
A downed pilot awaits rescue at sea.
© iStockphoto/Brasil2

The National SAR School for the U.S. Military is located at the Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, Va. Jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Coas­t Guard, its motto says it all: "Always Ready, That Others May Live." The school started with a scant $15,000 and only six trained instructors, but it celebrated its 40th anniversary in October 2006, having trained more than 29,000 people from 148 different countries in maritime and inland SAR procedures [source: Coast Guard­].

Students at the school are trained by experienced SAR specialists, many of whom are alumni. They can accommodate up to three simultaneous classes of students learning planning techniques and practicing real-life SAR scenarios. The main program objectives of the school are to:


  • Minimize the duration of the search
  • Limit the loss of life and property
  • Minimize injury and damage to the environment
  • Maintain position as the number one worldwide SAR training facility

[source: Training Center Yorktown]

The SAR school's program goals include a realistic benchmark of saving 93 percent of people in danger and 85 percent of property at risk. Coast Guard SAR teams are expected to be ready for action within 30 minutes of notification by the National Distress and Response System (NRDS), with a two-hour total response time from the time they're notified to their arrival on the scene [source: Training Center Yorktown].


The test for a SAR team's performance is the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures evaluation (NATOPS). After a thorough examination of record keeping and paperwork maintained by the teams, SAR team members take a detailed written test that covers everything from equipment operations to virtually every SAR technique. One example question might be: "What pitch and roll limits should be maintained during emergency lubrication system operations?"

Next up is the grueling physical test. After a round of 25 pull-ups, SAR team members run a timed 100-yard obstacle course while carrying two 50-pound dumbbells. Then they're timed while they march one mile carrying a 40-pound rescue litter -- the caged metal stretcher used in air and sea rescues. Team members then get in their rescue harness, swim fins and snorkel for a one-third of a mile solo swim, followed by another third pulling along a volunteer "victim" -- to be completed in 27 minutes.

The inland training features rock climbing, rappelling and rescuing 180-pound dummies entangled in trees 60 feet off the ground. There are also combination scenarios -- a helicopter crew has ejected leaving two men in the water, one in the trees and one stranded cliffside. Rescuers are rated on their planning and execution as well as how they work as a team.

Civilian SAR training isn't standardized, and there are dozens of private SAR schools open for business. Sheriff departments might send deputies to a private SAR school, but most participants are average citizens who have a desire to help those in need. They often spend their own money on training and equipment.

In the next section, we'll look at how important urban search and rescue is in helping victims of natural and man-made disasters.


Urban SAR (USAR)

Ground zero.
People contemplate Ground Zero from World Trade Center Path Station, New York City -- site of the largest USAR mission in U.S. History.
Corey Wise/Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the National Response Plan for disasters in 1991 and sponsors 25 national USAR task forces. In the event of a homeland disaster, FEMA sends the three closest USAR teams within six hours of being notified -- more teams will follow if necessary. The following are considered urban disasters:

  • Floods
  • Earthquakes
  • Hurricanes
  • Plane crashes
  • Hazardous material spills
  • Catastrophic structural collapses

USAR teams perform a supporting role to the local and state emergency systems, who act as lead. Each USAR task force is made up of two 31-person teams and four SAR dogs.


The USAR teams are trained in four specialized fields:

  • Search - finding disaster victims
  • Rescue - extracting the victims from the area
  • Technical - ensuring the safety of the rescuers with the help of structural specialists
  • Medical - providing medical assistance to injured victims and rescuers

The most massive USAR mission in U.S. history followed the events of Sept. 11. On that day, terrorists collapsed the Twin Towers in New York City with commercial jet liners, leaving behind injured survivors buried under millions of pounds of rubble. Twenty FEMA USAR teams were dispatched to New York to rescue and recover the survivors. Trained SAR dogs were a key component to the rescue operations at ground zero and made up the largest deployment of rescue dogs in U.S. history with more than 80 on duty. Dogs worked in 12-hour shifts with equal amounts of rest and search time. (You can read more about SAR dogs in How Search-and-Rescue Dogs Work.) Rescue workers also used electronic listening devices and search cameras to help locate survivors.

Many other specialists were deployed for the Sept. 11 SAR effort. Heavy-rigging experts headed up the operation of cranes and bulldozers necessary to move heavy chunks of concrete and steel. Hazardous materials authorities were on hand to ensure the safety of the rescue workers and dogs. With thousands of volunteers on hand, logistics specialists coordinated the rescue effort so everything ran smoothly.

In the next section, we'll look at the equipment used in urban search and rescue.


USAR Equipment

A firefighter in New York City clears debris from ground zero.
© iStockphoto/Tim McCaig

Search-and-rescue operations in an urban environment present a unique challenge. It's not a single survivor floating in the ocean or a lost hiker in the wilderness. Disasters like Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina involve a variety of obstacles, which require a lot of equipment and specialists who know how to use it. To call the equipment cache for an urban search-and-rescue operation vast is quite an understatement. FEMA's USAR task force equipment list is more than 60 pages long and contains over 2,000 items [source: FEMA]. The list covers everything from structural shoring equipment to dog food and port-o-potties.

The days of using jacks to lift vehicles and chunks of concrete off an injured person are long gone. These days, USAR teams use airbag lifting systems to do the job. The flat Kevlar bags are inserted under the heavy object and inflated with an air pump. The largest deluxe bag systems are capable of lifting as much as 70 tons 20 inches off the ground at full inflation [source: Simplex]. In addition to the lifters, shoring equipment is necessary to make sure the passageways the teams create are stable and safe to travel into.


Traditional heavy demolition and construction equipment is key to any USAR operation. Concrete saws, jackhammers, chainsaws and hand tools like pry bars, axes and bolt cutters are just a few implements used on site. USAR teams use heavy-rigging gear like chains, cables, anchors and rope-hauling systems to remove larger pieces of collapsed building. By tying them to bulldozers and cranes, the large debris is moved slowly and safely. Laser range finders and wind detectors are on hand to judge distances and measure conditions on site. Heavy winds can delay a search because they can compromise the integrity of the structure and the safety of the search team.

Hazardous material equipment is also necessary to ensure the safety of the USAR workers. Teams use everything from special suits, gloves, masks and boot covers to oxygen and carbon monitoring systems that check the air quality to make sure no invisible dangers exist. Whenever any suspicious leaks or odors are detected, workers use radiation and chemical test kits to check the levels in the air.

USAR teams are recommended to have at least three different visual search devices in their cache. Teams use snake-eye and fiber optic camera systems to get into places that the human eye can't reach. These cameras are attached to video relay monitors and sent into small crevices to search out survivors. If survivors are found, USAR workers insert breathing tubes to allow the trapped person a breath of air. They send backboards and rescue litters attached to rope hauling systems to stabilize the survivor.

Medical supplies are plentiful on USAR trucks. The teams are outfitted with the necessary medical equipment to deal with just about any scenario. Cervical collars, eye flushes, immunizations, pain medication, wound care kits and splints are only the tip of the iceberg for these mobile hospitals. USAR teams even pack defibrillators and endotracheal tubes in order to shock someone back to life or perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary.

In addition to all the life-saving and construction equipment, there are all manner of communication systems as well as the ordinary everyday items used to keep the team going. Food, water, toilet paper, blankets, clipboards, paper, camera film, batteries and power generators are all necessary in order to keep the operation going full-time. Even crayons find their way onto the FEMA list -- they're used to mark concrete and stone.

In the next section, we'll dive into air and sea rescue.


Air/Sea Rescue (ASR)

SAR helicopter lift.
A survivor is lifted from the sea in a rescue litter.
© iStockphoto/Destonian

The Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force carry out search-and-rescue missions in U.S. waters. This applies to individuals lost at sea as well as downed airmen. The Coast Guard reports that 95 percent of all sea rescue missions occur less than 20 miles from the shoreline. Additionally, 90 percent of these incidents involve only rescue, without a search. This is largely due to distress beacons found on boats and planes, giving the Coast Guard a high probability of finding the person in distress in short time. A limited or nonexistent search is ideal because the less time they spend looking, the more people they can save. It's also less risky for the SAR teams and doesn't cost as much money. The 10 percent of missions that involve a search cost the Coast Guard more than $50 million each year [source: U.S. Coast Guard].

The mission of any Air/Sea Rescue (ASR) team is simple: get people out of the water before they succumb to the unforgiving sea. Helicopters fly in to drop rescue swimmers into the ocean from heights up to 60 feet, sometimes into 10-20 foot waves and shark-infested waters. The downed airman is often tangled in parachute lines or still attached to his ejection seat, struggling to stay afloat. While getting pelted with 100-knot wind from the helicopter's rotors, it's the job of the rescue swimmer not only to save the live of the survivor, but keep from being pulled under himself.


Navy and Coast Guard rescue swim training is among the most difficult in the military -- the school has a 50 percent dropout rate [source:]. Potential SAR swimmers must come from the aviation side of the military and go through training specific to the helicopter they're assigned to. In addition to physical endurance training and a medical training course, students learn:

  • Water deployment procedures
  • Techniques for approaching, carrying and releasing a survivor
  • Ways to release a survivor's equipment
  • Detangling methods
  • Pre-hospital life-support skills

In the next section, we'll look at the important role that combat SAR plays in modern warfare.


Combat SAR (CSAR)

Scott O'Grady and Bill Clinton
U.S. President Bill Clinton applauds as U.S. Air Force pilot Captain Scott O'Grady raises his fists during ceremonies at the Pentagon to welcome O'Grady home.
David Ake/Getty Images

The life of each U.S. soldier is important, and combat search and rescue has become one of the most vital operations in modern warfare. In fact, CSAR units are among the first to arrive behind enemy lines after combat operations. The Department of Defense has appointed the U.S. Air Force as the lead in CSAR operations. Whenever an aircraft goes down or a soldier is isolated away from his unit, the Air Force CSAR comes in to locate, establish contact and attempt to recover him.

Other operational tasks of the CSAR units include:


  • Medical evacuations
  • Rescue intelligence support
  • Configuration of rescue equipment
  • Self-protection during rescue
  • Airdrop equipment and personnel
  • Rescue training

Currently, the Air Force has two operational systems that use two different aircraft. The HC-130 plane is for long-range search operations in low-to-no threat scenarios. It also provides in-flight refueling for the search helicopters to extend the mission's range. The HH-60 helicopter is for search and recovery in a medium-threat environment. Each operation can perform in both day and nighttime scenarios. In the event of an emergency medical situation, the helicopters drop paramedic rescuers if the enemy threat is low enough. In order to minimize the threat, support aircraft launch air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and gunfire to keep the enemy away.

­Authenticating the source of a distress call is the most important step in a CSAR mission. With the enemy's ability to monitor and jam radio frequencies, discreet ground-to-air signals are vital to the successful extraction of a soldier in need. After communication is established, the CSAR unit needs to get information on the physical well-being of the soldier first. After that, the authentication process is initiated. This typically entails relaying the soldier's name and rank, as well as unit numbers, colors and letters. Isolated personnel won't receive assistance until authentication is complete. Authentication details are never given in full over the radio as they can be stolen by the enemy. The CSAR team will ask the soldier to add, subtract or multiply specific digits in the authentication code and relay that information back. This allows the soldier to reuse the codes later without being compromised.

In the next section, we'll examine some of the techniques used by civilian SAR teams in missing persons searches.


Search Techniques

A search and rescue team on duty in the Rocky Mountains.
A search and rescue team on duty in the Rocky Mountains.

In missing persons cases, there are many civilian volunteers that assist local and state SAR teams. Many times, it's initially unclear whether the missing person is a victim of foul play, injured and unable to signal for help, or simply lost. It's the job of law enforcement officials, working with volunteers, to collect clues and determine exactly what the mission will entail.

SAR teams' first priority is to establish a search area. This is typically a circle based on the last place the missing person was seen. As the search progresses, that point will change -- for example, if an article of clothing is found along a trail. This point then becomes the last known position, or LKP. If you have a last point seen and a last known position, then you have a reasonable approximation on which direction and how fast the person was traveling. For instance, if a woman was spotted at a trailhead at noon, and her water bottle was found on the trail an hour later four miles north of the trailhead, then you can hazard a guess that she's traveling north at about four miles an hour. This helps to establish the search area.


­When it comes to techniques, each type has its own probability of success. A slow and thorough search may produce more clues, but if time is of the essence, it may not be the best way to go. It's generally thought that multiple fast searches are more productive than a slower and more thorough approach. A hasty search team is typically the first to be deployed. Team members either work for the sheriff's department or are citizens who have undergone a great deal of SAR training. Their job is to pair up and move quickly -- the goal is to scan high-probability areas and end the search as soon as possible.

A grid search team moves slower and more methodically, combing the area with a long line of volunteers. Grid searchers typically find clues that help more experienced SAR teams find the missing person. A choke point is a man-made or geological characteristic that allows the SAR team to narrow the search. For instance, if there's a wide river that's only able to be crossed by bridge, the SAR team will station a lookout person at that bridge and the team can focus elsewhere. Sometimes SAR teams will use track traps to see if a person has passed through a particular area. One trap technique is to bring sand in along a wooded trail and periodically check it for footprints.

For more information on SAR and related subjects, please search the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links


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