Search and Rescue (acronym SAR) is an operation mounted by emergency services, often well-trained volunteers, to find someone believed to be in distress, lost, sick or injured either in a remote or difficult to access area, such as mountains, desert or forest ("Wilderness search and rescue"), or at sea, whether close to shore or not. The term can also be applied in urban situations when young children or senile people wander away from their homes and cannot be found.
Urban Search and Rescue operations are Search and Rescue operations conducted in a city. One of the most common is searching for people buried as a result of a building collapse, as might happen after an earthquake. Sometimes, urban searches are performed for missing persons with certain criteria (example, a missing Alzheimer's patient with a history of wandering away from their home). Also, a wilderness search may transition into an urban search. This is common when lost children are involved.
Search and Rescue operations have several distinct phases or parts.
In the initial phase of the operation, steps are taken to ascertain a likely location of the person being searched for, so that a search area can be established if they are in fact in need of rescue. Essential information is gathered so that leaders can determine not only who is missing, but how they are equipped, how experienced, how familiar with the area, etc. This information is then factored with other considerations to determine the initial urgency and scale of the mission.
In the Search phase, a search is mounted by personnel on foot, horse or using vehicles, often aided by K-9 teams, and when available, air support. Specific procedures are followed during a Search, including an initial hasty team sent to the most likely locations, containment teams which are posted or patrol likely routes of a lost subject that may be moving, and the assignment of search personnel to specific areas which are mapped out using a combination of theory, prior experience and local knowledge of the terrain. A substantial body of mathematical theory called search theory , some initially developed for anti-submarine warefare, has been developed and can be used to help choose the search patterns for maritime search operations. Search is usually an iterative process over many hours or even days, with returning personnel interviewed or debriefed to glean information to be incorporated into plans for the next personnel deployment.
In the Rescue phase, aid is rendered to the person where they are found, sufficient to allow them to be safely transported to a place where more intensive aid can be provided. This extrication of the patient often includes some aspects of technical rescue. In certain situations, the subject(s) are in a known position and the operation goes directly to the Rescue phase. The wide availability of cellular phones and increasing coverage areas has increased the number of such calls for rescue without requiring a lengthy Search phase.
The recovery of the body of a deceased person in similar situations is also considered an aspect of Search and Rescue, though the actual Rescue phase of the operation is often known as recovery rather than rescue.
Once the subject has been found, rescued or recovered, then the operation is recalled and with large operations, this phase is sometimes called demobilization.
Afterwards, there is often a critique phase where each phase of the operation is analysed to determine what could have been done better, or why things worked as well as they did.
The jurisdiction for SAR operations varies from state to state in the United States, and depends upon the nature of the operation. Urban operations are often but not always under the jurisdiction of the fire department especially when a rescue is involved. If there is a criminal element, such as abduction, then a law enforcement agency will usually have jurisdictional authority.
Authority for Wilderness SAR and Mountain Rescue varies, with some states supervising operations from a state-wide office such as state police or office of emergency management. With other states authority remains with the sheriff of the county in which the incident took place, or the local fish and game officials (e.g., New Hampshire). Within U.S. national parks and monuments, the park service maintains authority regardless of state law.
SAR on water is usually the jurisdiction of the United States Coast Guard, but inland waters may also fall under the authority of state or local government agencies.
In some situations, body recovery may fall under a separate command, such as the state medical investigator or county medical examiner, depending upon the local laws.
Where downed aircraft are involved, the state aeronautics commission (or their delegates) is responsible for the recovery and subsequent investigation. Most states have designated Civil Air Patrol (CAP) through the United States Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to conduct searches for missing aircraft. CAP conducts over 85% of all federal search and rescue missions directed by the Center.
Urban operations are generally staffed with paid personnel from fire, EMS, and law enforcement agencies.
Wilderness operations are usually staffed with a combination of paid and volunteer personnel. Volunteers may be members of a public safety agency such as a fire department or county sheriff but are also likely to be members of an independent non-profit group with specialized skills such as ground search and rescue, airborne search, wilderness navigation, cave rescue, mountain rescue, ski patrol and wilderness first aid. Large operations can bring a dozen or more separate groups and government agencies to a single operation, which is usually managed using the Incident Command System (ICS) originally developed for management of diverse resources to combat large wildfires.
Marine operations in the U.S. are generally staffed by the United States Coast Guard including its Auxillary, and on inland waters county and state public safety agencies will also participate.
Aviation search operations in the U.S. are staffed by Civil Air Patrol volunteers, which include both aircrews and ground teams trained for wilderness search in coordination with aircraft.