*A Leaders Guide to Search and Rescue Operations*
Ten Initial Steps to a Successful Search
By: Centurion
16 June 2005

I originally wrote this article (entitled "A Lawmanís Guide to SAR"), with the goal of educating the police officers in our area on the proper initiation of a lost person search. Therefore, many of the terms and directions may be focused on the actions normally tasked to police. However, these same concepts can be applied to the church outing leader, scout leader or other responder when they realize they are dealing with a lost person incident.


To acquaint the average law officer (and/or EMS personnel, fireman, public servant, boy scout leader, etc.) with a few methods they can use to greatly assist Search and Rescue\Search and Recovery personnel in the event a lost person search is necessary.


Ten Initial Steps to a Successful Search:

1. Call for the Search and Rescue (S.A.R.) Unit immediately,

2. Protect the scene,

3. Protect the scent trail or scent articles,

4. Conduct initial witness interviews with a search in mind,

5. Assign someone to a quick preliminary "bastard" search,

6. Begin containing the search subject,

7. Family\witness isolation,

8. Be willing to relinquish control of the scene when S.A.R. units arrive,

9. Command post integrity,

10. Be willing and available to assist.



Most Search and Rescue units get between twenty-five and one hundred call outs a year. While it doesn't sound like much at first, it must be realized each of these calls is a race with the clock where one, two and sometimes more lives are at stake. It is then that these numbers take on even greater significance.

What most people, even police officers, do not realize is many times improper action on the part of those first people on the scene can cause lengthy delays in finding the victim. This article addresses the proper (and sometimes improper) actions of those first responders to the scene of a lost person incident.

Listed below are ten simple steps most anyone can perform with little or no special training.

Completion of these steps can greatly benefit the trained searchers who will later conduct the search. These steps will also provide the individual or officer some positive actions to take while waiting for the S.A.R. unit to arrive. The officerís actions will give the family and friends of the victim positive reinforcement that you, as the person in charge, are knowledgeable and confident of success in this type of situation.


1. Call for the Search and Rescue (S.A.R.) unit immediately

Everyone has been trained to call 911 whenever an emergency arises. Well, a search is an emergency!

When a person becomes lost, the clock immediately begins ticking on how long they can survive. There are many factors which impact a lost personís survival, but NONE of these factors improve by waiting to call for help. Most SAR teams around the country are volunteer units. They work SAR because they love helping people and donít mind giving up their personal time. And, every single SAR person I have ever met, would much rather work on a rescue (live person) than a recovery.

Most county SAR teams are either a part of the Sheriffís Department, or work closely with the department. So, calling 911 will almost always be the correct first action when you realize someone is lost.

At this point, the question often arisesÖ "How long should we look for someone before we realize we need to call 911?" The standard answer we usually gave in classes was "10 minutes". If you have a small group, you can check all the obvious places in 10 minutes. And, if you havenít found them by then, you need to get the professionals en route. If you then find the person before they arrive, simply call 911 back and give them the good news.

2. Protect the scene

Interestingly, when a person turns up lost, the first thing people want to do is rummage through their tent, their pack, their room, their car, etc. Unfortunately, this is often the worst thing which can be done. Not only does it disrupt potential clues, but it often contaminates some of the best dog scent clues, such as hats, pillows, sleeping bags, shoes, etc.

Of course, checking a personís tent or last known location is fine, but try not to have people spend a lot of time there unless absolutely necessary.

If possible, get some flagging tape, string or other "barrier" to erect around the personís personal items. Donít let anyone near those things until trained searchers have an opportunity to collect scent articles and search for any other clues. This is even more important if there is any possibility of foul play.

3. Protect the scent trail or scent articles

This task falls very closely in light with #2, protecting the scene. If you know without a shadow of a doubt that the person went down a certain trail, it is very important to do your best to protect that scent trail.

So, while it makes sense to send a pair of people down the trail to begin a rapid search, it is very important to minimize the foot traffic and scent traffic in that direction. Especially important is to restrict motor vehicles from destroying the scent clues. Exhausts from motorcycles and four-wheelers can do more to damage scent clues than ten people walking down that same trail. Not only that, people riding on vehicles rarely, if ever, watch the ground for footprints and other clues.

Scent articles are extremely important to protect for dog tracking teams. The best scent articles include hats, shoes, t-shirts and other clothing, bed linens or sleeping bags and pillows. The best method is to leave scent articles alone and keep others from touching them too. However, if you absolutely must retrieve a scent article, it is important to do it correctly.

First, take a large, unscented plastic bag and turn it inside-out. Next, put your hand inside the inverted bag and grasp the scent article through the plastic (using the bag as a sort of glove). Now, turn the bag right side out again so the scent article is now inside the bag and you still havenít touched it. Lastly, zip or tie the bag closed. Be sure to label the bag to note who collected the article, where it was collected and who it belongs to.

4. Conduct initial witness interviews with a search in mind

Police officers on a lost person scene often think "crime scene" and conduct their witness interviews accordingly. However, there are many questions related to searches which could aid the search team immediately (or even while they are en route) if the information could be extracted from the witnesses while the situation was still fresh in their minds.

For example, what type of clothing was the person wearing, what type of shoes and shoe prints, how did the person feel the last time to saw or spoke to them, were they sad or depressed, happy and carefree, etc. Did the person mention wanting to see any special sites or conquer any challenges, like climbing to the top of a nearby hill or mountain. What items might the person have carried with them, such as candy, drinks, keys, money or change, watch, backpack, fanny pack, etc.

5. Assign someone to a quick preliminary "bastard" search

In the search and rescue community, a "bastard" search refers to looking in all the obvious places and assuming the person wasnít really lost to begin with (or found his own way out and simply went home). The name originates from what the searchers typically call the person after theyíve spent hours and hours crawling through the woods, only to find the "victim" at home watching baseball and eating chips.

For example, a teenager goes out hunting for the day and doesnít return by dark. His family calls out search and rescue who spends the entire night searching the woods for him. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the boy shows up at home alive and well. In reality, the hunting story was fabricated so he could get out of doing chores and spend the day with his girlfriend.

So, by assigning someone to quickly search the likely places the person would go, you can often eliminate a search before it really begins. And, while the name might not be the most flattering, it is a search result that SAR teams donít mind, because it means the victim is safe and sound.

6. Begin containing the search subject

When a search team first arrives on the scene, they usually know the "point last seen" of the victim. It might be a trail head, a camp ground or someoneís front yard, but they do have a place to start. In theory, you can determine the maximum area you need to search by starting at that point, determining how fast the person is traveling (say 2 miles per hour), and how long itís been since you last saw him there. So, what you end up with is a circle with the point last seen in the center because you donít know for sure which direction the person went or if they continued moving in that direction or not.

So, you can easily see the potential search area can get incredibly huge in just an hour or two. So, the best search teams make containment of the victim the first, high priority, because it immediately limits how far the person can travel without being discovered.

Containment is a simple job that nearly anyone can do, regardless of physical conditioning. For example, you might have two or three people positioned along on a long straight road. If the search subject crosses the road, theyíll spot him. Bridges, wide creeks and open fields often offer the same confinement ability with a minimum of manpower.

By confining the search subject, even if you only have the manpower to confine them on one or two sides, you immediately limit the area which needs to be searched. Again, confinement is an area of search which is usually very well suited to people who want to help but otherwise cannot due to some physical disability or age.

7. Family\witness isolation

Lost person searches are very stressful events for everyone, but especially for the family and friends involved. Unfortunately, everyone who walks up to offer assistance wants to loiter around the family or the witnesses and ask questions. The family members then end up answering the same questions over and over and over.

So, it is important to isolate the family and witnesses as much as possible for a few reasons. First, to protect their privacy and give them some space. Secondly, it is important for their "story" to remain clear and not be contaminated by other people offering suggestions about what might have happened or theories about what might have occurred.

If you need an excuse, then pull the people aside in a tent or building and ask them to write down their version of events before they forget. If youíre dealing with children, assign a familiar adult such as a parent, teacher or older sibling to them to write their story down for them. This gives the family/witnesses something to do other than listen to theories which only increase their anxiety.

8. Be willing to relinquish control of the scene when S.A.R. units arrive

Once a search is underway, it is important for the Search Command Team to be in charge of the operation. And, while this probably isnít a big issue for a camp counselor or scout leader, it does become a major issue when the local police officer is the first on the scene. Many officers are reluctant to "give up command" of the situation when professionals arrive on the scene.

In our unit, we would often pull the officer-in-charge to the side and formally ask them to relinquish control of the situation to us. This showed the officer that we respected his authority, but allowed us to quickly and quietly explain why we need to be in command of the situation. It also gives the officer a definite point in time where the incident is no longer his responsibility.

There are many issues which arise during a search that require "command authority" in order to get something accomplished. For example, if you need to shut down a road intersection to land a helicopter, then you had better have the authority to do so. And, having or relinquishing control of the search scene is all about who has the authority to make those judgment calls.

9. Command post integrity

The command post is the heart of any search. It is where the decisions are made and where all the information should eventually end up which contribute to those decisions. Consequently, it is also where most people want to "hang out" when they are busy on another assignment. Unfortunately, it is also the worst place to have a crowd of people.

A tight knit command team will often speak frankly to each other during the stress of a search mission. They openly talk about probability of death statistics, about the abilities (or inabilities) of various teams and searchers in the field, the allocation of resources and whether itís "worth it" or not to send searchers to a given area. These are all things which need to be discussed openly and matter-of-factly among the command team.

Unfortunately, when there are dozens of "unknowns" hanging around the command post, team members donít feel free to talk openly and the effectiveness of the search effort suffers. Unknowns might include family members or friends of the victim, news media, untrained searchers who just showed up to help, etc. While these people might have the best of intentions, they are also the quickest way to start rumors among the others involved in the search.

So, as much as possible, it is important to keep people away from the command post whenever their presence is not needed there.

10. Be willing and available to assist

In the early hours of a search, things happen very quickly. Often, in their haste to get people briefed and into the field, trained searchers might not immediately acknowledge your contribution or efforts. To some, especially professional police officers, this is a "slap in the face" and they get mad and refuse any further assistance to the teams. However, this treatment is usually unintentional. The search teams are focused on finding the victims and often donít realize how much effort someone has put in before they arrived.

So, please, if you find yourself in this situation, continue to be willing and available to assist in any way. Keep the focus on the search victim and bringing them back to their loved ones safely. Then, once all is finished and things have settled down at the mission debrief, bring up your concerns and comments about the mission. SAR teams treat searches as an emergency, so often times, the formalities are brushed aside in favor of rapid action and decisions.

In Conclusion

The first leader on a search scene has a significant impact on the success or failure of the entire search effort. It is at this point in the search where the victim may still be close by and in relatively good health. So, the actions you take as the first leader or officer on the scene may mean the difference between finding the person alive, and having the search turn into a recovery.

So, keep in mind the ten initial steps to a successful search and you can know you did your part in finding a lost person and bringing them home safely.

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