Story: Search and rescue

Page 3. History

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Early searches

In the nineteenth century, searches were carried out when ships were wrecked, but people who got lost in the backcountry were often never rescued, or were found only by chance.

From the 1890s, volunteer coastguard organisations in Canterbury and Auckland helped people in trouble at sea. In the 1920s, local search parties of police and volunteers from tramping, hunting and climbing clubs were formed if people went missing in the mountains or bush.

Police and trampers join forces

After a major incident in 1933, the organisation of searches changed. At Easter, four young people – Eric Hill, Bert O’Keefe, Bill Sutch and Morva Williams – set out to cross the Tararua Range from Levin to Masterton. The weather worsened and they could not follow their planned route. Twenty search teams combed the area, but the trampers were not found for two weeks. Miraculously, they had survived in the wintry conditions.

The episode highlighted the need for a coordinated approach to searches by police and tramping clubs. The Tararua Tramping Club proposed a joint scheme the following year. The first rules for mountain searches were adopted by the police and Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) in 1935. It was agreed that the police would organise searches, liaising with an FMC contact in each police district. The nationwide presence of the police, and their communications network, made it logical for them to oversee search and rescue operations.

National organisation

In 1944, New Zealand signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which required signatories to have a system for searching for missing aircraft. A national Search and Rescue Committee, convened by the Civil Aviation Division of the Ministry of Transport, first met in February 1949. Its members included representatives of the Federated Mountain Clubs, police, Amateur Radio Emergency Corps and government departments. The committee took responsibility for all search and rescue operations. The Federated Mountain Clubs were given an annual grant in recognition of their role in land searches.

By 1961, subcommittees in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin coordinated searches in those regions. Three classes of rescue were defined. The police managed the first two, the second with assistance from other government and volunteer organisations. Class III searches were controlled by the Civil Aviation Division through rescue coordination centres in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and a sub-centre in Dunedin.

Increasing demand for search and rescue

In the 1960s more people were taking part in outdoor activities, and in places like Auckland, pleasure boating became more popular. The number of search and rescue incidents increased by 140% between 1963/64 and 1965/66. Although the police theoretically controlled operations, in practice they were often run by volunteers with experience of local conditions. From 1964, the police set up special search and rescue squads.

Police and volunteers

Police and volunteers continued to work closely together. In 1971 the police decided that separate volunteer groups were needed to help with marine rescues. They encouraged the formation of more coastguard organisations. The New Zealand Coastguard Federation was formed in 1976.

The Federated Mountain Clubs set up a search and rescue committee in 1966 to make policy and arrange training. The committee became a separate organisation, New Zealand Land Search and Rescue Inc (NZLSAR), in 1994. NZLSAR has an agreement with the police on the management of land searches.


The crash of a DC10 aircraft on Mt Erebus in Antarctica on 28 November 1979 killed 257 people. The experience of volunteers was needed to help recover their bodies. As well as 11 police and support personnel, there were eight Federated Mountain Club members on the team. Their skills in mountain search and rescue were vital because of the many crevasses which made the crash site hazardous.

Coordinating rescues

The quest for efficiency led to administrative change. In 1989 the rescue coordination centres in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin were replaced by a National Rescue Co-ordination Centre (NRCC) in Lower Hutt, run by the Civil Aviation Authority. The NRCC was in charge of wide area Class III searches. However, a fatal boating accident off Ōamaru in May 2003 exposed problems with communications. Later that year the government provided funding for a 24-hour, seven-day service, to be provided by a new body, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), also based in Lower Hutt. This began operations in 2004 as part of Maritime New Zealand.

The New Zealand Search and Rescue Council was established by cabinet in 2003 to give strategic guidance and leadership for all search and rescue functions in New Zealand. It is supported by a secretariat, which advises on policy, and a consultative committee, which links the council with providers of search and rescue services and safety-focused agencies.

As the scope, complexity and frequency of SAR operations grew, the non-government organisations which provided the SAR volunteers developed their systems and employed paid staff members to support the volunteers.

Government investment in the SAR sector also grew, with funding provided for upgraded equipment for the volunteers, as well as regular training programmes and SAR exercises.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, 'Search and rescue - History', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2023)

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