How to Volunteer for Search and Rescue

Search and resuse guiding stretcher down a hill.
Volunteer search-and-rescue teams can be integral to the survival of stranded victims and locating missing persons.
Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images

It started as an innocent hike, but it quickly turned life threatening. Three miles out, part of the trail gave way beneath your friend's feet. Now she's on the forest floor with a broken leg, and the mountains seem to be blocking your cell-phone signal. If you go to get help, you're going to have to leave her here -- unable to walk and shivering with shock in the chilly autumn air. It's going to take you at least an hour to get back to the base camp. How can you get your friend to medical help -- or medical help to her?

You're in luck. The area has a volunteer search and rescue (SAR) team. They can get to the trail sooner than the emergency personnel of the nearest town can. Within two hours, your friend is under a blanket, woozy with painkillers and strapped to a stretcher on the back of an all-terrain vehicle.


Your friend is safe, but the experience makes you think. Who are these people who give their time to rescue others? And, what would it be like to do something like that?

Many communities across North America have volunteer SAR teams. These teams help in times of need. They might help police comb the area for a missing child. They might help Red Cross teams assist flood victims. They might help authorities recover victims from a major accident and administer triage.

Most SAR teams are NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. They have come together as groups of concerned citizens, and they rely on their communities for support. Many teams have federal 501(c)(3) status -- meaning they operate as nonprofits and may accept charitable donations [source: NAVSAR].

In this article, we'll take a look at how to volunteer for your local SAR team, including the gear you might need and the training you'll have to get. We'll also explore the all-important role of dogs in search and rescue. First up: the search-and-rescue jobs you might find yourself doing.


Search and Rescue Jobs

To get an idea of search-and-rescue jobs, just imagine all the different ways people can get lost. A search and rescue team might be called in to help in the following instances:

  • An Amber Alert is issued for a missing child.
  • A camper wanders off into the woods and gets lost.
  • A driver abandons his stalled truck in a blizzard.
  • A person leaps into a river in a suspected suicide attempt.
  • A hurricane or tornado causes widespread destruction.
  • A family doesn't return from its boating excursion.
  • A dangerous criminal is at large.

As these examples show, not all SAR jobs are rural, and not all of them demand rugged mountaineering skills. Many SAR jobs take place in cities. Familiarity with the environment -- whether it's a national forest or an urban jungle -- is an immense advantage. Where you live will define the types of SAR jobs you encounter.


Searching may be as simple as walking up and down city blocks and alleys [source: FEMA]. It could also involve knowing how to keep your bearings in a snowstorm, knowing how to rappel down a cliff, paddling a kayak or spotting signs of life from a helicopter. Some SAR jobs involve navigation skills, such as using GPS. The "rescue" part of the operation often demands first-aid skills, if not EMT training.

Although many SAR personnel are directly engaged in these efforts, some volunteers work in other capacities. An organizational whiz might volunteer to coordinate the efforts of others. Someone with technological abilities might create the systems that hold the team together and help it coordinate resources. Others might simply offer moral support -- bringing hot food and beverages to the teams, or offering food or comfort to the friends and family of the missing persons. These efforts may be classified as "critical incident stress management," or CISM.

Finally, some SAR personnel work to improve all SAR efforts. For example, the U.S. SAR Task Force maintains a database of "lost person behaviors" -- typical things that people do when they know they're lost or in trouble [source: U.S. SAR Task Force]. These patterns can help rescue personnel predict where a missing person might go. They can also help SAR teams have the right supplies to help that person.

On the next page, we'll look at the training required for these tasks.


Search and Rescue Training

Being prepared for any emergency demands knowing what to do in a variety of difficult situations. Specific SAR teams have different training requirements, but here are some skills and training you will likely need:

  • First aid and CPR training. You may already have this; many people (such as teachers) are required to have it for their jobs. The Red Cross, among other organizations, offers brief training courses and certification in these skills.
  • Basic search and response training
  • SAR TECH training (This comes in three different levels of certification.)
  • Land navigation skills, such as using different types of maps, a compass and GPS
  • Hazardous materials (HazMat) training. You'll need this to deal with oil spills, chemical leaks, certain biohazards and more.
  • Emergency Response to Terrorism (or some other form of terrorism response training). This training was developed by the National Fire Academy for local law enforcement and fire response teams. You may earn certification in these skills.
  • Federal Community Emergency Response Team training. CERT training provides certification from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and helps local personnel respond to crises before federal personnel arrive.
  • Tracking skills
  • National Incident Management System training for First Responders¬†

[sources: Red Cross, NASAR, NFA]


Certain environments -- water, air, mountains, extreme cold and heat -- demand additional training. You'll have to be a good swimmer to participate in water SAR efforts, and you might want to have lifeguard training. You'll need to know how to work safely on a boat for SAR efforts that involve boating. Mountaineering and wilderness safety training are also important. And searching through the rubble of a collapsed building involves an entirely separate set of skills.

Finally, some SAR personnel seek training in counseling and stress management so that they can deal better with the families of missing persons and emergency victims. You might also want training in educational techniques if you will be assisting in your SAR team's outreach and preparation efforts.

Can all this training get expensive? In a word, yes. However, the National Association of Volunteer Search and Rescue Teams offers its members financial aid for training. It also offers grants to qualified member SAR teams so that the teams may bring training to their members [source: NAVSAR]. Some teams charge membership fees, which help the team defray the costs of providing training.

If you're getting into dangerous situations, you'd better have the equipment to deal with them. On the next page, we'll look at SAR gear.


Search and Rescue Gear

What gear you'll need for a search and rescue mission depends on the emergency at hand. For example, a collapsed building doesn't demand the exact equipment setup you'd use to rescue a lost hiker. Your gear will also depend on your training. And you'll need to know your environment and its typical extremes.

Your team will require that you carry a certain minimum of standardized equipment. What you carry beyond that is up to you. Following your training, you'll likely have a good idea of all the different things that can go wrong, and the ways you can prepare for those problems. On an actual SAR effort, you'll have to balance preparation against practicality and endurance -- what you can realistically carry for what may be a very long day of work. Some items to consider are:


  • Comfortable, appropriate shoes, and multiple pairs of socks
  • Protective headgear, such as a helmet or hardhat
  • Heavy-duty gloves
  • Pocket multi-purpose tool or Swiss Army knife
  • Large tarp (useful not just for keeping things dry but also for constructing a makeshift stretcher)
  • Signal flares
  • Reflective tape
  • Life vest
  • Dust mask
  • Safety goggles
  • Wading boots
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Trail mix or snack bars
  • Protection against heat and cold -- such as extra water, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, gloves, thermal underwear, ear and face protection, pocket hand warmers and an insulated jacket or jumpsuit
  • Backpack with padded straps for toting your supplies around

Additionally, specialized efforts, such as HazMat work, require specialized gear. The gear depends on what sort of hazardous material you're dealing with [source: IAFF].

Some SAR teams require members to wear uniforms. This may cost several hundred dollars [source: U.S. SAR Task Force]. That might seem steep, but think about the intangible benefits of a uniform in an emergency. Uniforms make it easy to identify SAR members, which can help maintain organization and help crowds stay calm during a widespread disaster. Someone in shock might calm down -- actually becoming easier to treat -- knowing that he or she is in the presence of a trained emergency responder. A uniform also helps the SAR team know that everyone on the team has certain standardized gear, which makes it easier for the team to streamline its response.

On the next page, an answer to the burning question, "Can I bring my dog?"


Do I Need a Dog to Work for Search and Rescue?

By now, it should be clear that SAR efforts involve far more than the standard image of the intrepid mountaineer with a trusty bloodhound. People can get into trouble in just about any environment, and a dog won't always be able to help.

That said, the National Association for Search & Rescue (NASAR) estimates that a single trained dog can be as effective as 20 or 30 human SAR personnel can. A dog's extraordinary sense of smell can locate a person's characteristic scent, and dogs are often at their best where human senses are most limited [source: NASAR].


Again, the key here is training. SAR dogs and their handlers must go through training for at least a year -- and sometimes 18 to 24 months -- to obtain certification. Some dogs learn trailing, which involves following a specific scent across the ground [source: U.S. SAR Task Force]. Other dogs learn a method known as air scenting, or finding an airborne scent. If authorities fear the worst, they'll bring in a dog trained in finding human remains [source: Western New York Search Dogs]. Additionally, dogs must learn scent discrimination -- the ability to distinguish one person's scent from among hundreds or thousands of others.

Aspects of SAR dog training are similar (in some cases, identical) to the training required for the K9 units of police and fire departments. In other words, it's a major commitment. As the saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, so many trainers prefer to start with puppies -- essentially creating career SAR dogs [source: NASAR].

If you haven't put your dog through SAR training, it's a bad idea to bring your pooch along on SAR efforts. Not every dog is disciplined enough to stay calm in a group full of panicky people. A nervous dog can be a safety hazard for volunteers and victims alike. If the SAR team has a trained dog, the untrained dog could create problems of discipline and aggression. And if your dog bolts from the scene, what do you do -- continue with SAR work, or search for your beloved best friend?

Being an SAR volunteer -- with or without your dog -- provides you with an opportunity to help people and learn many new skills.

To learn more about volunteering, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Equine Detection Services. "Air Scenting Horses." EDS. 2008. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • Federal Emergency Management Association. "About Urban Search & Rescue." FEMA. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • International Association of Fire Fighters. "HazMat/WMD Education and Training." IAFF. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • National Association for Search & Rescue. "SAR Dogs," "SAR Dog Fact Sheet," "Mounted SAR," "Education," "SAR Trackers." NASAR. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • The National Association for Volunteer Search and Rescue Teams. "So That Others May Live," "FAQs," 2007-2008. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • National Fire Academy. "Browse Online Courses." NFA Online. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • Red Cross. "CPR, First Aid and AED." Red Cross. 2009. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force. "FAQ," "Requirements to Join the Task Force," "Why Search and Rescue?" USSARTF. (Accessed 4/30/09)
  • Western New York Search Dogs. "Glossary." WNYSD. (Accessed 4/30/09)