When should you call Search and Rescue? What happens when you do? Let’s find out more about when you should call search and rescue (SAR), what information you will need to provide, how long a response usually takes and more.
Who should you call if you need search and rescue?
The only way to get in touch with search and rescue is to call 911 and you will get the sheriff’s office dispatch. You tell them the nature of your emergency and if you are in the backcountry they will connect you with someone from search and rescue.
What if you don’t have cell service?
If you don’t have voice service it’s important to know that you can text 911 now in many parts of the country. Sometimes if you only have one bar of service and you can’t make a voice call you may be able to make text contact. Texting 911 will probably be slower than a voice call but it’s a good contact.
If there is no cell service at all you have to take stock of the emergency and decide on a plan of action. If the individual that is injured can not move at all you’re going to have to send somebody for help. Depending upon your location you may be able to get cell service by moving up or down the trail or up or down one of the geographical features close to you or hiking out to a trail-head.
When is it appropriate to call search and rescue?
Search and rescue operates in a lot of different ways for people. They can help both lost and injured people. From a medical standpoint, anytime someone is having an airway or breathing problem or a circulatory problem such as uncontrolled bleeding it’s always appropriate to call search and rescue (911) immediately for those kinds of problems.
The other things you want to consider are if the patient is immobile, they can’t walk out and you are going to need someone to help you get out, that’s another time to call. Also, time of day does make a big difference as well. If you get injured early in the day and are trying to get yourself out but not making progress fast enough and evening is coming on, it is definitely time to call 911. SAR is typically limited in their response after dark. The use of helicopters after sunset so if you wait until it’s dark to call us it’s going to be a much longer response.
How long should I expect it to take for search and rescue to respond?
Once the call comes into dispatch, dispatch will page the SAR board, which is a group of 6-7 experienced SAR members, and we will call in and have a conference call. It’s usually pretty brief – it only takes a couple of minutes to gather the information we need. You may be re-contacted by a member of that SAR board for more information and then if it’s appropriate we will page the team.
The team will either respond to the search and rescue hangar in town to get whatever gear we need and then we will need to respond to wherever you are, which is the backcountry if we’re coming to help you. There are some instances where team members can respond directly to the incident.
It takes search and rescue usually a half hour to 45 minutest to have people at the hangar getting gear and be leaving the hangar in route to where ever they’re going. Then you have to figure it’s going to take several hours to hike anywhere with the heavy packs and gear that we need carry to help an individual get out. So you’re looking at definitely a several hour response time. And helicopter response is definitely not the norm for search and rescue. You’re much more likely to have a ground crew response.
How should a person or group prepare for search and rescue to arrive?
If you’re dealing with an injured individual you want to make sure they are comfortable, that they’re off the ground and insulated with a sleeping pad or mat under them. Make sure they stay warm. And then ‘BE SEARCHABLE’. Make yourselves visible. If you are off the trail try to move away from running water which can make it hard to hear if people are yelling from you. Try not to be hunched down near trees.
If you are expecting a helicopter to come, again move away from the trees so you are more visible from the air. At dawn and dusk lights are very helpful, so headlamps are helpful for us. Signal mirrors for air operations are also helpful. Another thing that is really simple is a whistle – it’s amazing how much better the sound of a whistle carries and you can sustain blowing on a whistle much longer than screaming.
You should try out the ones that are built into your pack because the mouthpiece on those are very small and when it’s cold it’s hard to use those effectively so you might want to purchase and carry an emergency whistle.
What happens once SAR arrives on the scene?
Once the team arrives we’re going to introduce ourselves and then it really depends on the nature of the emergency. We’re going to assess how everyone there is doing. If people are cold, tired, hungry we’re going to try and fix those problems. If it’s an injury we’ll address that with whatever medical support we were able to send in. And then we’re going to look at what we have to do to get you out of there.
Sometimes in the summer that’’s a wheeled litter where we load somebody up and are able to wheel them down the trail. Other times it will be a helicopter response. We do have the capability to respond with ATV’s in the appropriate locations and we do have some specialized rescue techniques we can use for very technical terrain, like short haul. But again those aren’t the norm. Typically we are going to try and walk somebody out or use the wheeled litter to get them down the trail.