Story: Search and rescue

Under clear skies, two trampers set off for a short walk in the hills. The weather turns stormy, and by evening they still haven’t returned. Who do you turn to? Search and rescue – teams of police and skilled volunteers who work to find the victims of treacherous weather, rugged terrain, and other dangers.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: A search and rescue team at work

Story summary

All images & media in this story

In New Zealand, thousands of people go boating, tramping, surfing, hunting and caving each year. Sometimes they get into trouble, and need to be rescued. In 2005–6, nearly 3,000 people were helped, but 66 of them died.

How do people get into trouble?

  • New Zealand has many remote places, with steep ground and thick bush, where you can easily get lost.
  • The weather can change quickly, and sudden storms are common.
  • In bad weather, people without the right gear can get hypothermia (they get too cold to function properly), and may die.

Someone can become ill or have an accident in the bush or at sea. Even experienced trampers and sailors sometimes need rescuing.

What is search and rescue?

Search and rescue involves teams of police, helped by volunteers with skills in bushcraft, mountaineering, boating, first aid, or radio communications. They look for missing or injured people, and take them to safety. Sometimes they bring out the body of a person who has died.

Where do they search?

On land, search and rescue teams look for people in the forests, mountains, caves, rivers and lakes. Volunteers take their own food and gear, and look for signs such as footprints and clothing. Sometimes dogs are used, because they are good hunters and can pick up scents. If they find a person, they bark to alert the searchers.

In the ocean the teams search for missing boats or planes, using coastguard launches, jet boats, helicopters and planes. If those in trouble have radios and emergency beacons, they are usually found more quickly.

In the city, teams look for people trapped in buildings after an earthquake, flood or landslide.

Safety rules

You can usually avoid getting into trouble if you follow some simple rules, including:

  • Take enough food, drink, clothing and equipment.
  • Take maps and know how to use them.
  • Don’t travel alone.
  • Respect the weather and listen to the forecast.
  • Tell others about your plans.
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Search and rescue', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 March 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007