Planning Ahead

Search and rescue operations can take place at any time of day, in any season, under any weather condition. With that in mind, it is of vital importance to prepare for a multitude of scenarios and adjust equipment to meet the needs of the operating environment.

*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.*

Reading Map

Preparing for SAR Operations

Having the right equipment at the right time is necessary for operational success. Making sure that there is a 24-hour Ready Pack with the appropriate gear ready to go is the recommended minimum gear a SAR Technician should bring to any incident. This allows for each Technician to be self-reliant, and if necessary, packing the right contents will aid in rescue and recovery until more help arrives. Depending on circumstances, the 24-hour pack can be added to for longer durations and become a 48 or 72-hour pack. Something to consider is using gear that has multiple functions. For example, hand sanitizer can be used to sterilize your hands and can be used as a fire starter.

24-Hour Ready Pack contents do not have to be overly expensive, and all items do not have to be acquired at once. There are many packs out there, but not all are created equal. A good Ready Pack should be an appropriate size for the wearer, capable of bearing heavier loads, and come with a comfortable waist strap. After the pack itself is acquired, NASAR has some recommended items to consider placing inside:

  • Survival/First Aid/Signaling: a personal first aid kit with small bandages, dressings, antihistamines, and wound sanitation items, should be a part of any Ready Pack. Some light-weight improvisational survival equipment such as leaf bags, safety pins, wire, cordage, space blankets, water purification tablets, fire starters, or duct tape should also be considered. Signaling equipment such as whistles, mirrors, or smoke signals are useful items to have available. SAR teams looking for uniformity might want to consider using the same type of whistle so the sounds are recognized as coming from a team member. Similarly using the same color LED or chem-light for night recognition could be used to quickly identify a team member in the dark.

  • Self-Rescue: carabiners and rated for heavy loads could be used in self-rescue, or if a victim requires emergency recovery.

  • Hygiene/Personal Items: includes goggles, tissues or toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, moist towelettes, sunglasses, prescription glasses (or an extra pair), sunscreen, insect repellent, hand trowel/shovel, lip balm, and personal medications.

  • Navigation: compass, map, pacing beads, grid reader, protractor, map ruler, GPS, or altimeter (for mountains regions).

  • Communications: cell phone, radio, spare batteries and charger, battery bank, handwritten list of important phone numbers or special frequencies.

  • Light Sources: headlamp, handheld light, chem-lights, spare batteries, or charging cords as appropriate for the light.

  • Clothing and PPE: cap/hat, helmet, clothing appropriate for the environment, extra clothing, appropriate footwear, various types of gloves (i.e., surgical, leather, insulated, etc.), eye protection (safety or sunglasses), high visibility vest, extra socks, rain gear, tracking poles, gaiters, bandana, dry bags for clothing storage.

  • Shelter: ground insulation pad, shelter material such as tarps or bivy. Lightweight tents may be available, but anything that will protect personnel effectively from the elements will work.

  • Food: should be non-perishable and nutritionally sound. There is a multitude of trail mixes and energy bars that will work, but care must be taken to ensure they are capable of sustaining elevated energy levels.

  • Hydration: water bottle/canteen, hydration bladder, sports drink mix.

  • Search Equipment: photo identification, waterproof writing pad, pens, pencils, markers, binocular/monocular, tracking stick, flagging tape, and measuring device.

Watch the video below to get a better idea of what the basic contents of a Ready Pack are and why they are important:

Getting the Call

When SAR technicians are activated by the Incident Commander, before leaving the house or current location, they should take a moment to take observe several things. Some questions to consider include:

  • Time of Day: how much sunlight is available has a profound impact on SAR operations. The darkness of night will restrict visibility to the ranch of flashlights, or night vision optics. If the sun has set, or will set within a few hours, stop to consider whether or not your Ready Pack has enough spare batteries or if your lights have a full charge and prepare accordingly. Ensure extra batteries are packed and double check to make sure you have any necessary charging accessories. Its a good idea to do this regardless of the time of day, but especially important at night. Also consider your own level of fatigue. Maybe you were activated after falling asleep, or you normally go to sleep soon after. Your natural sleep cycle will play an important role on your effectiveness in the field. Be aware that your body may not be working at peak performance levels.

  • Weather Conditions: is winter weather creating white-out conditions? Is it hot and humid, or rainy? How will the weather change over the next 48 hours? Doing some quick research on what weather conditions will be like will help you adjust your Ready Pack to suit the needs of a dynamic environment. If it is going to be cold, bing extra layers of insulation. If it is going to be wet, pack items that will keep you dry. If it is going to be hot, bring extra water and electrolytes. It sounds like common sense, but the obvious things are often overlooked when you are in a hurry. Some sources to check the weather forecast are:

Forecast Advisor

National Weather Service Radar

  • Location of the Incident: take a few moment to type in the location into a mapping service such as Google Maps. Using map features can help you determine what type of terrain and topography you will be dealing with. Maybe you'll need sturdier boots for working in heavily wooded areas, hip waders for wetlands, or climbing gear for steep terrain. Looking up the location will also give you an idea about how far the location is and whether or not you need to fill up your gas tank or bring extra food, water or clothing.

  • Ready Pack Status: double checking your Ready Pack before you make your way to the incident is a crucial step to ensure you are properly prepared. The last situation you want to find yourself in is one where a critical item is missing or malfunctioning when you need it the most. Do not rush when your life or the life of another may depend on your level of preparedness.