Safety in SAR Environments

Awareness of the hazards faced during search and rescue opperations will improve personal safety and survivability. This lesson will familiarize the reader with the most common hazards.

*The following information relies heavily on personal experience and the National Association for Search and Rescue's (NASAR) Fundamentals of Search and Rescue 2nd Edition handbook.*

Safety Wear

Hazard Mitigation

A hazard, in relation to occupational safety, is a potential source of harm or adverse health effect on a person or persons. SAR operations, by their nature, bring many forms of hazards that must be mitigated through rigorous risk management. Leaders in SAR organizations implement risk assessment and risk management in everything from training to real-world events. NASAR outlines a set of hazard controls in a hierarchy, listing the control that works best, down to the least effective control:

  1. Elimination: Design it out (best option)

  2. Substitution: Use something else

  3. Engineering Controls: Isolation and guarding

  4. Administrative Controls: Training and work schedule

  5. Last Resort: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)


Elimination is the best because if plans are made that exclude the hazard altogether, then the potential for experiencing the negative effects of the hazard does not exist. If eliminating the hazard is unavoidable, then changing the approach by substitution is the next best step. An example of substitution is using specialty gear instead of improvising. Engineering a control does not eliminate a hazard, but it helps mitigate the risk. Bringing clean drinking water to a remote location is an example of an engineered control. Administrative controls, such as training or implementing policy, are the fourth most effective. PPE is the hazard control of last resort because, although it is extremely important, it is the last line of defense between you and the hazard. Learn more about hazard controls by watching the following video:




Personnel in an organization that is effective at controlling hazards, adopts a safety culture mindset. A safety culture may exist if everyone is mindful of potential hazards and actively seeks ways to preemptively eliminate them. This means taking personal responsibility for safety, being prepared (through operations training, physical fitness, and practicing good dietary and hydration habits), and being situationally aware.




Health Care Hazards

When SAR technicians are in the field, it is likely that they may have to deal with a variety of emergency health care scenarios. These scenarios can arise from the missing person being recovered, or potentially from an injured teammate. In health care, a variety of standard precautions exist to mitigate the risk of coming into contact with bloodborne pathogens and other bodily fluids. NASAR lists several standard precautions when a health care situations arise:

  • Hand Hygiene: includes washing hands for 40-60 seconds with soap and water, drying thoroughly, and using the towel to turn off the flow of water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers require less time (20-30 seconds), but all dirt and debris should be rinsed off first. 

  • Gloves: this includes the use of latex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves (which can be worn under work gloves) when coming into contact with blood, body fluids, secretions, mucus membranes, and nonintact skin.

  • Facial Protection: used when health care activities may generate splashes or sprays of blood or other bodily fluids.

  • Clothing Cover (gown): protects skin and clothing when health care activities may generate splashes or sprays of blood or other bodily fluids.

  • Respiratory Hygiene and Cough Etiquette: includes the use of mouthpieces or resuscitation devices that can prevent the spread of bloodborne pathogens. Also includes covering the patient's face with a tissue or mask when coughing or sneezing. It is important to dispose of any tissues or masks properly afterward.

  • Environmental Cleaning: implementing procedures for routine cleaning and disinfection of environmental and other frequently touched surfaces.

  • Clothing: handle and process clothing in a way that prevents exposure and contamination to other patients, personnel, or the environment.

  • Waste Disposal: waste contaminated with blood, body fluids must be treated and disposed of as hazardous waste.

  • Patient Care Equipment: equipment that was used to transport or care for a patient and exposed to blood or other body fluids must be properly sanitized before being used on another patient.

Learn more about health care precautions by watching the video below:




NASAR recommends the following additional guidelines rules regardless of the type of rescue or environment:

  • Technical personnel should be used for technical rescue (in other words, personnel trained in technical rock rescue should be used if mountainous terrain is involved).

  • If the subject is deceased, evacuate only if and when there is no risk to fellow team members, or at least when the hazards have been assessed and justified.

  • Stabilize the subject before evacuating, if possible; continue stabilization procedures during transport.

  • Decide on the easiest route before traveling.

  • Appoint someone to serve as a route-finder, who with radio and markers can report potential hazards, problems, etc.

  • Litter teams of at least six to eight personnel (three teams preferred) should be used in no more than 20-minute shifts. Others may also be required to carry equipment.

  • Use accepted procedures to care for and protect the subject.

  • A radio operator should follow the litter team.

  • If using a helicopter for evacuation, make sure that: the subject is informed and briefed about what he or she may experience; the subject is protected from wind and noise; someone goes with the subject who knows what has been done medically for the patient.

  • Sworn law enforcement and fire service personnel should be easily identified as such in the field. SAR personnel should be identifiable as such but must not be dressed so as to be mistaken as sworn public safety personnel.

Environmental Hazards

There are numerous biomes across the globe and each bears a unique set of environmental hazards. Some are in the form of vegetation and wildlife, others are in the form of the terrain and climate. In this section, we are going to focus on the environmental hazards present in the Warm Continental Ecoregion of North America. What follows are only descriptions of the hazards. We will cover treatments in later lessons.

Lightning is the discharge of electricity that may occur within clouds, between clouds, or from clouds to the ground. Lightning does kill or injure a small number of people each year, the majority of whom were enjoying the outdoors. The distance of a lightning strike can be estimated by counting the seconds between when the lighting was observed and the subsequent clap of thunder is heard, then dividing that number by 5 to calculate the distance away in miles. For example, if 10 seconds pass between when the lighting is seen and the thunder is heard, then it was 2 miles away. The U.S. National Weather Service suggests that if you see lightning or hear thunder, you should immediately seek safe shelter. A building with electricity and/or plumbing, or a metal-topped vehicle with closed windows are considered safe shelters. Tents, picnic shelters, dugouts, or small buildings without plumbing or electricity are not considered safe shelters. Watch the video below to learn more about lightning safety:

Hypothermia is a medical condition that occurs when your core body temperature falls below normal. Exposure is one of the main methods hypothermia occurs, and being hypothermic is a major cause of death among outdoor travelers. Factors that can lead to hypothermia include falling into cold water, alcoholic beverage consumption, drug use, improper dress, or even inability to pay utility bills (urban hypothermia). SAR personnel should consider hypothermia to be the most potentially important outdoor danger likely to be encountered. A core temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees celsius) can lead to hypothermia. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • Complaining of feeling cold with extremities showing "goosebumps."

  • Frequently wet from rain, snow, or other sources.

  • Usually shivering to some extent, which may become intense (may not be apparent while walking).

  • More progressed hypothermia may result in problems with muscular coordination, most often beginning with clumsiness in detailed hand movements.

  • An inability to keep up with others in a group, later followed by stumbling and clumsiness.

  • A core temperature approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees celsius) may result in difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking, amnesia, or signs of depression.

There are many factors that affect how quickly the onset of hypothermia sets in, and extreme hypothermia can cause brain damage and even stop the heart from beating. Watch the video below to learn more:

Cold injuries can occur when bare skin is exposed to cold and/or wet conditions. The main cold injuries are:

  • Frostbite: a general term to describe frozen tissue.

  • Frostnip: a superficial skin injury.

  • Trench Foot (immersion foot): foot injury caused by exposure of tissue to prolonged wet, cold conditions.

  • Chilblains (pernio, kibe, chimetlon): caused by the exposure of dry skin to cool or cold temperatures in a damp environment.

Learn more about these injuries by watching the video below:

Heat injures can occur when the body is exposed to hot conditions. The main heat injuries are:

  • Heat Cramps: muscle pains that may occur when an individual exercises vigorously to the point of profuse sweating and electrolyte depletion. A normally healthy person may complain of sudden cramping in their lower extremities, abdomen, or both.

  • Heat Exhaustion (heat prostration): typically characterized by a high core body temperature, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, malaise, low blood pressure, fast heart rate, and the potential for collapse. It can occur with or without exertion and is also related to water and electrolyte loss.

  • Heat Stroke: is caused by a severe disturbance in the body's heat-regulating mechanism and is considered a life-threatening emergency. Usually, the body's sweating system fails. The temperature of the body can reach 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41.1 degrees celsius) and increase quickly without treatment.

  • Solar Injuries: a heat-related injury known as sunburn is solar radiation causes a first-degree burn of the skin. Snow blindness is when solar radiation is brightly reflected off of the snow and damages the retinas of the eyes.

Learn more about heat injuries by watching the video below: