Around the world, search and rescue operations (often known as SAR) aim to find missing people in dangerous situations and to rescue them, or, in the worst case, recover bodies.
Rescues are common in New Zealand, where outdoor recreation is popular. Every year, many people get into trouble in the bush, mountains, rivers, lakes or coastal waters. A search and rescue operation is organised if, for example, a person is reported overdue from a tramping, hunting or boating expedition. Searches often extend to the wide seas surrounding the country. They may also be needed if a natural disaster affects a town or city, trapping people in buildings.
New Zealand’s search and rescue arrangements vary according to the scale of the emergency. As in Canada, the United States and other countries, they involve both paid professionals and volunteers.
Class I and II searches
For many years, the police carried out some searches without help – these were known as Class I searches. However, they no longer do this.
Class II searches are co-ordinated by the police, with the help of civilian organisations. The special skills and knowledge of mountaineers, cavers and amateur radio operators are often essential to find and rescue missing or injured people. Volunteer groups that work with the police include the New Zealand Coastguard, the Amateur Radio Emergency Corps (AREC) and New Zealand Land Search and Rescue Inc (NZLSAR). NZLSAR co-ordinates volunteers from organisations such as the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council, the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand and the New Zealand Speleological Society.
Class III searches
Class III searches look for aircraft missing over land or sea, or for boats lost in or beyond coastal waters. Activated emergency locator beacons, including those carried on aircraft and vessels, also prompt a Class III search.
These searches are controlled by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), under the management of Maritime New Zealand. The RCCNZ can call on the police, the Royal New Zealand Coastguard, the defence force and NZLSAR for help.
Wide area searches take place anywhere within the New Zealand SAR region. This covers a large part of the Pacific Ocean from the equator to the Antarctic, and the seas halfway to Australia and halfway to Chile. Totalling around 30 million square kilometres, it is one of the largest search and rescue areas in the world.
Lost at sea
The trimaran Rose Noelle capsized off the East Coast of the North Island in 1989. The crew of four spent four months adrift on the upturned vessel before being washed up on Great Barrier Island. Signals from the boat’s electronic beacon were not picked up by aircraft because the search zone was so wide. As a result, in 1991 a station was opened at Lower Hutt to pick up emergency beacon signals via satellite.
Urban search and rescue
Urban search and rescue involves finding and rescuing people trapped after a building has collapsed. This may be due to structural defects, or a landslide or earthquake. New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue (NZUSAR), set up in 2000, consists of three task-force teams and regional response teams. They are administered jointly by the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, and the New Zealand Fire Service.
So far, NZUSAR has not faced a major emergency, but is aware of the risks. Recent major earthquakes and landslides in Mexico, the United States, Australia and Taiwan show what could happen in New Zealand.