How Search and Rescue Works
By: Charles W. Bryant

imageEvery 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 are 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 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, or a trapped disaster survivor. Each area of SAR employs techniques specific to the circumstance. From FEMA to county sheriff departments, expert technicians to local volunteers -- SAR teams do important work all over the world every day.


Did you know? The technology used in search-and-rescue at sea was developed by NASA.

ECSARMore and more often, mountainous regions are making use of horses in their SAR missions. Horses can provide transport of foot searchers to locations not accessible by automobiles -- like the side of a mountain. The horses can assist in extraction of injured and dead or haul supplies on long SAR operations. They can also help establish radio relay positions over long distances by setting up in between search points.

ECSARSearch Techniques

In missing person's 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.

imageSAR teams' first priority is to establish a search area. This is typically a circle based on the last place the missing person was seen. 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.

Training a Search and Rescue Dog
By: Kim Downing

A well trained SAR dog is a sight to behold. The dog can evenly maneuver the most difficult of terrain with the grace of a mountain goat all the while looking for a trapped or hidden human being. This type of work is often done on the fly, at the drop of the hat, with little advanced warning. It requires a talented dog and a special handler willing to invest the time and effort.

In the Beginning: Selecting a Dog

imageIt is a finely refined dog that is capable of working as a SAR dog. Search and Rescue work requires an immense amount from the dog: intelligence, agility, stamina, drive, work ethic, confidence, and the ability to listen and respond to the handler. Not every dog is well suited to this task. Many SAR trainers prefer to work with puppies because this way you can select what you are looking for and put in the socialization and work to make a well rounded puppy. Older dogs can be used, but you will need to evaluate carefully to make sure that the dog doesn’t have any fears or problems related to lack of early socialization and exposure.

When selecting a dog of any age, selecting one with a HIGH level of ball/play drive is necessary. You want a dog that is focused and intense about playing. The best way I’ve ever heard this described is that you want a dog that will play ball or toys with anyone, anywhere, for any length of time without becoming distracted. This demonstrates a dog that has such a high level of focus and desire for his toy that he will eagerly work in difficult conditions for hours on end simply for his toy.

There are many breeds of dogs that can do the work, but often the German Shepherd Dog, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retriever are three of the primary breeds. Individuals of other breeds or mixed breeds can have the ability so long as they fit the requirements of stable temperament, trainability, high drive, and high focus. I can’t stress enough that the best dogs have a high drive, are well focused, and have no temperamental flaws. SAR work can be stressful work, and not every dog is up to it.

How Does SAR Work: Beginning Training

imageDogs can be trained for a variety of situations (live person, cadaver, water, wilderness, urban, disaster). There are a lot of facets that complicate the training depending on what you would like to do. Full search and rescue training can be anywhere from 6 months to a year or two depending on how many hours you invest in the training process. SAR training is a time consuming process!

One of the best things to do is to make SAR work all about play. The dogs that have that intense play drive will begin to think of SAR work as just a game with their toy at the end of it. This is important both for the training and the dog’s work. The initial training can be started quite early with a puppy and can really be a Hide N’ Seek type of game. We want the dog to be excited about finding someone, so often the owner or person closest to the dog is the first person to start the game with the dog.

How to Get Involved in SAR Training

imageYou can lay the groundwork for SAR training yourself early on by playing games of Hide N’ Seek and working on obedience commands and control. But, to get really closer to creating a SAR dog, you will need to do a lot of advanced training and work. It is best to look for local SAR training clubs. They can easily evaluate your dog to ensure it is good candidate for work. Additionally, they will be set up to assist with training for all kinds of SAR work plus be able to help you through the certification process for whichever training you do. 

SARTo begin the process of locating SAR groups near you and learning about requirements, check out these links:

Elmore County Sheriff
Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue Unit
Idaho State Search and Rescue Association
Canine & Handler Certification National
SAR Organizations
National Search & Rescue Association
National Association for Search And Rescue