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Ground search and rescue in the USA 

Martin Boyle speaks to Chris Boyer, Chief Operations Officer for the US-based National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) about the challenges of working across multiple states with different legislation and certification standards.

Boyer, who manages the day-to-day operations of NASAR and is based in Houston, Texas, starts by saying: “Wilderness Ground SAR in the United States is all over the map!"

Night search using cross-count

Night search using cross-country skis (photo: NASAR)

“We have some federal co-ordination through the National SAR Committee (NSARC)  and the National SAR Plan. This is mostly for offshore SAR and how the military would be integrated into a large national or regional event.” The NSARC publishes interesting and helpful guidance documents like the Land Search And Rescue Addendum and the Catastrophic Incident Search And Rescue Addendum. 

“But every state, all 50 of them, and the five inhabited territories decide how wilderness ground SAR is run in their jurisdiction. If that isn’t complex enough, some National Parks, such as Yosemite, have exclusive SAR jurisdiction within their park boundaries,” he explains. This makes life very challenging, given the extreme ends of the SAR response spectrum that NASAR supports in the US.

California – The Golden State

With more than 39 million residents, California is the US’s largest state by population and third largest by area. This land is divided into 58 counties, the largest by population being Los Angeles with almost 10 million residents. California has several pieces of legislation regarding SAR and the protection of disaster volunteers. “Essentially, the legislation places the responsibility for SAR with the 58 elected County Sheriffs,” Boyer says. Each of them has a uniformed volunteer SAR team that they use at their discretion. Some sheriffs have more than one team owing to the size of their county; for example, San Bernardino County has more than 20 teams, representing more than 1,500 volunteers. In common with other organisations, many of the sheriffs SAR teams have a non-profit entity that accepts donations to help fund items like training and equipment that the sheriffs can’t afford.

In California, the sheriff is the law enforcement official responsible for all unincorporated areas. “This means they get the call for missing persons in rural and wilderness areas. A police chief in a municipality who receives a missing person report typically contacts the sheriff and receives SAR resources through the Sheriff’s Office. Convergent volunteers or volunteers that are not affiliated with a local sheriff are not typically used for SAR missions,” Boyer tells me.

California has a State SAR Co-ordinator who works in the Law Branch of the California Office of Emergency Services (CA OES). This position provides guidance to the sheriffs and their county SAR co-ordinators regarding training, standards, equipment, and policies. The State SAR Co-ordinator also acts as a liaison between CA OES and the State Sheriffs Association and manages the SAR mutual aid process.


Tracking practise (photo: NASAR)

For mutual aid to work effectively the requesting county must ask for the right resources. In order to co-ordinate this effectively, CA OES works with the county sheriffs to develop mutual aid guidelines for SAR resources. “A Sheriff can train to whatever standard they want for their own county, but if they are going to participate in the mutual aid system, they need to guarantee their SAR resources meet the CA OES guidelines.” This mutual aid system is used more than 150 times each year in California.

The state has its share of disasters, and has provided protection for responding volunteers for decades through a programme called the Disaster Service Worker Program (DSWP). The programme provides SAR volunteers with workers’ compensation, short and long-term disability, and death benefits in case of an injury or death during SAR training or missions. “This is a great programme for protecting volunteers, and NASAR advocates for it as a model for other states to follow,” emphasises Boyer.

California has a legislated and highly structured SAR response from state to local government levels. It has training guidelines and provides protection for volunteers. Texas, however, is another story.

Texas – The Lone Star State

“Texas is our second largest state by population with more than 27 million residents, second largest by area, and is physically twice the size of California,” Boyer explains. Jurisdictional boundaries further complicate the issue. “It’s divided into 258 counties, which is almost five times the number in California. The largest county by population is Harris, with 4.6 million residents, and the smallest is Loving, with 113 residents,” he says.

Texas has no specific SAR response legislation, except for a prohibition for discrimination against SAR canines, according to Boyer. There is, however, legislation that prevents an agency from delegating responsibility for certain disaster and law enforcement actions. “The elected county sheriffs share some law enforcement investigation with the Texas Rangers, which have state-wide authority for missing persons.” The primary SAR responders in Texas are typically members of a community based non-profit organisation. Some teams partner with local law enforcement and have memorandum of understanding or agreement with agencies, but most do not. Boyer further explains: “These non-profit SAR teams typically self-dispatch and co-ordinate directly with the family of the missing person. Since the non-profit SAR teams don’t have a ‘jurisdiction’, there are sections of Texas where they overlap and are competitive when responding to a mission. In some cases, the teams that are geographically close to each other are the result of a team splitting up after a disagreement and going out on their own, resulting in the competitive situation.”


Checking out search equipment (photo: NASAR)

In general, large convergent volunteer searches that are not co-ordinated by law enforcement are commonplace in Texas. Texas does not have a state level SAR co-ordinator for wilderness SAR. This means that there is no state guideline or standard for SAR education or certification, and no state-wide mutual aid process or co-ordination for wilderness SAR.

The comparison between California and Texas shows that there are dramatically different levels of legislation, co-ordination, control, guidelines, and certification requirements in the United States. This is where NASAR steps up to assist the SAR community. “The good news is that we provide education and certification, but not SAR resources, which is where 80 per cent of the politics and issues are. We focus entirely on developing and providing standards, education, certification and advocacy,” Boyer tells me.

Many states develop their own standard of care and do not readily accept equivalencies from other state programs or NASAR. “We realise that this is an investment by states based on their analysis of their specific needs. We really try to focus on building robust education and certifications that are built on respected standards so that they can be easily adopted and recognised by any state wanting to use them.” NASAR uses standards written by organisations such as the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM), National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA).


Undertaking a ground search and rescue (photo: NASAR)

It is clearly important to Boyer that: “We spend a lot of time advocating for volunteer protection like the DWSP. Only a few states protect their volunteers, and regardless of their standards for certification, they should be protecting them.” NASAR works with government agencies and non-profit groups to help them implement programmes to develop professional volunteer SAR responders. “We provide them with sample legislation, mutual aid and volunteer protection policies to help them build a strong SAR response system. We also encourage them to partner with local government agencies, have the appropriate insurance to protect their members, and to work collaboratively with other local teams.”

The goal with any agency or non-profit is to help them build self-sustaining education and certification programmes that best serve their responders. NASAR also provides education, certification and advocacy for all SAR members internationally. 

Martin Boyle, 09/05/2017
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