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 professionals and highly skilled volunteers who work to find the and recover those who are in distress anywhere in New Zealand.

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

Story summary

All images & media in this story

In New Zealand, hundreds of thousands of people enjoy boating, tramping, surfing, hunting and caving each year. Sometimes they get into trouble and need to be rescued. In 2021–22, search and rescue responded to 2,871 incidents, resulting in 150 lives saved, with 715 people rescued and 799 assisted.

How do people get into trouble?

  • New Zealand has many remote places, with steep ground where people can fall, and thick bush in which 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?

In New Zealand, search and rescue comprises more than 11,000 people, from a variety of organisations, who work together to find anyone who is missing or in distress and bring them to safety. The skills required of search and rescue personnel reflect the environments they operate in, such as proficiency in bushcraft, mountaineering, boating, or in surf. In addition, each also has specific skills such as first aid, radio communications and search techniques. Sometimes they help the police recover the body of a person who has died.

Where do they search?

On land, search and rescue teams look for people in forests, mountains, caves, canyons, rivers and lakes. Trained volunteers organised in teams are sent out to 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.

On the ocean the teams search for missing boats or planes, using other 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 with a cognitive disability who have become lost and children who have run away. Other city teams look for people trapped in buildings after an earthquake, flood or landslide.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, 'Search and rescue', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, published 24 September 2007, reviewed & revised 27 July 2023 with assistance from Dan Clearwater