No products in the cart.


CODE 3 Introduction to a SAR team – Search and Rescue

As long as people have been venturing out into the wilderness and getting lost, there have been those that have felt compelled to go save them. Usually these are individuals that have specialized training, skills, equipment, and the courage to venture into the worst possible terrain, at the worst possible times, in the worst possible weather. As with a lot of our first responder organizations, the systematic approach we have here in the US was born out of war. Early in the 20th century, several nations needed to develop an approach to find and recover downed aircraft, ships, and missing soldiers. According to NASAR; “Contemporary SAR systems provide response for overdue, lost, injured, or stranded people in many environments.” My experience has all been in rural “wilderness” which is generally considered to be a region that is generally uninhabited and devoid of any manmade amenities. However, this can also describe other locations (even urban) that have suffered a disaster either manmade or natural, or a terrorist attack.

Search and Rescue was my first foray into my life as a first responder and it remains one of my favorites. There are SAR Teams (Search and Rescue) throughout the world, most of them run by the national military or government agencies. Here, in the US, we have a combination of local county, state, and federal agencies that work in a mutual support model for search and rescue responsibilities. According to Wikipedia; “In January 2008, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the National Response Framework (NRF) which serves as the guiding document for a federal response during a national emergency. In addition to the NRF there are 15 annexes relating to Emergency Support Functions (ESF) which includes other federal agencies that contain resources or expertise to support an emergency. Search and Rescue is included as ESF-9 and divides SAR into 4 primary elements while assigning a federal agency with the lead role for each of the 4 elements.

  • Structural Collapse-USAR: Department of Homeland Security, FEMA
  • Waterborne: US Coast Guard, USCG Auxiliary
  • Inland-wilderness: United States Department of Interior, National Park Service
  • Aeronautical: United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, Civil Air Patrol, United States Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service, US Navy (secondary missions for helicopter squadrons.)

In the US SAR standards are developed primarily by ASTM International and the US NFPA which are then used by organizations such as NASAR (National Association of Search and Rescue) to develop training that will meet or exceed those standards.”

In all reality, it would take a HUGE event for the federal agencies to step in and take over the incident command of a local SAR operation, possibly a Yellowstone caldera eruption or 9-11 type event. Usually, it is the local SAR teams in conjunction with other local first responder agencies that will be involved in a mutual aid scenario . In my neck of the woods, that can include local EMS, city PD, county sheriff deputies, border patrol, US Forest Service, and maybe the state patrol. We also have access to a couple of helicopter units, one that is a part of a life flight type service and one that specializes in SAR operations.

CODE 3  Introduction to a SAR team – Search and Rescue

OK OK OK…. I know that was very dry, but we had to get that out of the way. Because in all reality being part of a local volunteer SAR team can be one of the most exciting parts of your life! Seriously, where else are you going to get to train and work with 4×4’s, quads, horses, K9’s, jet boats, snow mobiles, snow cats, rappelling, land navigation, austere emergency medicine, tracking, and maybe get to possibly save lives? You get this training from some of the best sources out there. I myself, have trained with county sheriff, local PD, EMS (to be fair I am on both teams), US Border Patrol, US Forest Service, and the Joel Hardin Visual Tracking System. These activities/trainings are things that many adrenaline-fueled personalities (like myself) would actually pay money for and yet they are almost always paid for by the team!

So, each SAR team in each local area is going to be organized differently as far as equipment and skill sets depending on their unique needs for their local area. I can only speak upon my experience on my own SAR team. Generally, a local volunteer SAR team is going to be a non-profit that falls under the jurisdiction of the local Sherriff as a volunteer organization. Being a non-profit it will have a board of directors, a training officer, and a safety officer. It will then be broken down into teams. For our team this consists of:

  • 4×4 team
  • boat team
  • dive team
  • swift water rescue team
  • snowmobile team
  • tracking team
  • avalanche rescue
  • rope team (rappelling)
  • communications
  • Incident Command

In order to become involved in my local SAR team, I first talked with a friend of mine that was already on the team. From him, I learned when the monthly membership meeting was and also found their web site. On the website, I down loaded and filled out a membership application.  I would suggest going to any of the meetings or trainings that they may have, that are open to the public. As part of my application process I had to go through a background check. Generally, if you have no felonies or recent lesser convictions you should be ok, but check with your local SAR team for their local protocols. I then went through an interview process talking about what sort of relevant experience I already had. For me most of that experience came from my involvement and training with the local CPT team in our area where we had covered land navigation, wilderness first aid, etc. They also asked if I would commit to getting my first aid/CPR certification and also study and test for my SAR Tech III certification and go through a year long probationary period before I would become a full voting member of the team. The SAR Tech certification system was first developed in 1991 by NASAR to evaluate three levels of search responders to that a measureable, consistent set of standards, and skills for both individual responders and teams could be had by incident commanders. The three levels are SAR Tech III, SAR Tech II and SAR Tech I / Crew-leader 3.

Again, the decision to join my local SAR team has been one of the most rewarding life choices I have made. It has lead me to a career as first responder among several teams. If you are already a member of your local CPT team I would strongly encourage you to look into plugging in and volunteering with one of your own local volunteer first responder teams.

I will be discussing in further articles the fundamentals that actually go into a Search and Rescue call out.

Spyder Thompson


Spyder S. Thompson

Spyder is currently a 1st responder the Rocky Mountain regions. He is currently the training officer and on the board of directors for his local Search and Rescue Team. Spyder has his NREMT and volunteers for his local EMS Service and He also is a type 2 wild-land Firefighter and spends his summers working across the country as a fire line qualified EMT battling some of this nation’s largest forest fires. Spyder has a weekly column “Code 3” where he writes about issues related to the 1st responder community and also does a gear review article every week. Feel free to email him about any articles or to request a review of a product .