What is Search and Rescue?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Search and rescue is an aspect of emergency services which is designed to assist people in need. By extension, missions may include disabled vessels such as ships and aircraft, with the goal of helping the people inside. Many nations have search and rescue services as part of their overall emergency services, and a number of volunteer and professional organizations assist government agencies to ensure that complete coverage is provided. For example, pilots of small aircraft may agree to work in their regions when immediate search and rescue services are required.

Civilian volunteers, including hikers, can help search and rescue operations cover more territory.
Civilian volunteers, including hikers, can help search and rescue operations cover more territory.

There are a number of situations in which these services are needed. As the term “search and rescue” implies, teams first need to locate the people in need of assistance, and then determine a plan of action which will help them. Typically this plan includes medical stabilization on site, and evacuation to safety. A number of tools can be used in the process, including dogs, horses, aircraft, and vehicles which have been customized for search operations as well as evacuations.

Search and rescue operations may look for survivors in debris following a natural disaster.
Search and rescue operations may look for survivors in debris following a natural disaster.

Mountain search and rescue usually focuses on lost hikers, using teams of trained mountaineers who can safely locate and extract people when they get lost or trapped in bad weather. Air-sea rescue uses aircraft and boats to provide support, usually in the case of lost aircraft and boats or emergencies such as accidents or loss of power. Urban search and rescue is utilized in the wake of building collapses, explosions, and similar incidents to locate people who need assistance in urban environments.

Several nations have very specialized teams which can provide international support for unique situations or very large emergencies. For example, submarine rescue teams can be dispatched from the United States and Great Britain to assist disabled or distressed submarines and their crews. International responders can also be on scene to assist with operations in the wake of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, and other natural disasters which can overwhelm even the most well-funded and trained emergency response agencies.

This work requires special training, so that people can learn how to handle a variety of situations safely and effectively. Rescuers are not terribly helpful if they end up in distress, which means that training focuses heavily on being safe, smart, and innovative. Search and rescue teams also rely on a great deal of specialized equipment, from the jacks used to support unstable buildings to backboards used in the evacuation of injured hikers. This equipment can be quite costly, making financial support critical for law enforcement agencies and independent groups which handle search and rescue operations.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@boathugger- I’m not trained in any kind of search and rescue but I have seen them hard at work. My husband and I planned a weekend ski trip in Colorado. The snow was perfect and the weather was great.

However, there was a small avalanche while we were there. No one was seriously injured but there were two skiers that were trapped under the mounds of snow. The search and rescue team was called out and the people were found within the hour. It was quite scary.


I have worked as a paramedic for ten years. The particular company that I work for required that we take a search and rescue class. I really didn’t want to take it but I’m glad that I did. Where I live, there are lots of mountains and trails. We were called out to assist the search and rescue team in finding a seven-year-old boy that was lost from his family.

The family had been camping for three days. On the second day, their son was missing when they woke up. The forest rangers called out search and rescue teams. They had been searching for 17 hours when we were called out. However, it wasn’t us that found him. It was the trained search and rescue dog. The dog picked up on the scent and found the little boy. It was a very humbling experienced.

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