Story: Search and rescue

Page 1. New Zealand search and rescue organisations

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Around the world, search and rescue operations (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 on a tramping, hunting or boating expedition. Searches may also extend to the wide seas surrounding the country. Searches are also 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 nature and scale of the emergency. They involve both paid professionals and volunteers – although over 90% are volunteers.

For many years searches were divided into three classes, but there are now two categories: the first coordinated by police and the second coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).

Category I incidents

Category I incidents are coordinated by the police, with the help of other organisations. The special skills and knowledge of volunteer mountaineers, canyoners, cavers, surf lifeguards, coastguard skippers and amateur radio operators are often essential to find and rescue missing or injured people. Non-government organisations that work with the police include the New Zealand Coastguard, Surf Life Saving New Zealand, Amateur Radio Emergency Communications (AREC) and New Zealand Land Search and Rescue.

Each of these organisations has a small, professional staff, who assist the coordination and training of the volunteers.

Category II incidents

Category II incidents are coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), which is part of Maritime New Zealand. The RCCNZ can call on any search and rescue assets in New Zealand, including the police, the Defence Force, civilian helicopter operators and non-government organisations.

Category II incidents are any operations initiated by the activation of a distress beacon. and any operations that look for aircraft missing over land or sea, or for boats lost in or beyond coastal waters.

Wide area searches can take place anywhere within the New Zealand search and rescue region. This covers a large part of the Pacific Ocean from the equator to the Antarctic, and the seas between halfway to Australia and halfway to Chile. At around 30 million square kilometres, more than 100 times New Zealand’s land area, this 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 (Aotea). Signals from the boat’s electronic locator 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 locator beacon signals via satellite.

Urban search and rescue

Urban search and rescue involves finding and rescuing people trapped after a building has collapsed. The collapse may be due to a landslide or earthquake, or to a vehicle hitting a building. New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue (NZUSAR), set up in 2000, consists of three task-force teams. Urban Search and Rescue is a main function of Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).

NZUSAR faced its first major emergency when it responded to the disastrous Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011. The 150 NZUSAR staff worked tirelessly to cut through rubble, rescue people and recover the bodies of those killed.

The New Zealand teams were assisted by urban rescue teams from seven countries, who brought their own rescue equipment to assist. Among these teams were 66 personnel from Japan. A New Zealand USAR team was able to repay them after a huge earthquake and tsunami hit north-east Japan just three weeks later. All the New Zealand personnel who made the journey to Japan had been involved in the Christchurch earthquake response. This was their first international deployment. New Zealand USAR personnel subsequently provided assistance in the Pacific after cyclones.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, 'Search and rescue - New Zealand search and rescue organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 March 2024)

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