Story: Search and rescue

Page 4. Volunteers

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Volunteers are critical to the success of search and rescue operations. Over 90% of the 11,000 people involved in the search and rescue sector are volunteers.

Search and rescue volunteers come from different walks of life, but all have experience of New Zealand’s terrain and coastline, and many have detailed local knowledge. Some are trained in mountain, cliff face, canyon or cave rescue techniques. Other volunteers have skills in radio communication. As well as those who head out looking for people, there are volunteers who assist with search planning and coordination. Others help with fundraising or undertake administrative roles which are essential to the organisation’s success.  

Although some volunteers are compensated for leave taken from work, most sacrifice their time, energy and money to help others. In the words of one, ‘We do it because it’s just the Kiwi way, to do something to  help.’ 1


Search and rescue volunteers undergo a wide range of training. The non-government organisations provide focused training courses for its volunteers, and multi-agency training programmes are also provided by a variety of non-government and government organisations.

Organisation of searches

Although Category I incidents are coordinated by the police, they call on a variety of volunteers and other SAR assets (such as commercial helicopters).

Similarly, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand can call on any SAR assets or agencies for Category II incidents.

Land Search and Rescue is organised into seven regions. Each has a committee with representatives of local search and rescue organisations. When a search is required, the police liaise with regional advisers to call on suitable volunteers for search teams. Volunteers are often crucial members of the Incident Management Team, which gathers intelligence and manages operations during an SAR response  

Volunteer radio experts from Amatuer Radio Emergency Communications will often be asked to participate in SAR operations, to ensure good communications during complicated or extended searches.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand has a number of Emergency Call-Out Squads which can respond to coastal, surf, river or flood incidents.

In Auckland and Wellington, there are Police Maritime Units, with a range of small, medium and large vessels which can respond to incidents on the water. In other areas around the country, the police must call on volunteers from Coastguard New Zealand / Tautiaki Moana to assist with marine search and rescue. Coastguard New Zealand units are organised in four regions for search and rescue purposes.

Land searches

Volunteers for a land search need to be self-sufficient for at least two days, carrying their own survival gear, food and medical supplies. When searching for a lost person they know to look for signs such as footprints, broken twigs, discarded clothing and food, and to listen for unusual noises. The search area is defined on a map and each section is covered methodically, with special attention given to ‘decision points’ such as track junctions and likely exit points from the bush. A search is only scaled back or called off after the area has been painstakingly covered and the lost person’s chances of survival have dwindled.

The Wellington coastguard

On the morning of 10 April 1968, the inter-island ferry Wahine foundered in Wellington Harbour in a severe storm. Passengers and crew abandoned the vessel, and 51 people died. The disaster spurred the formation of the Wellington Sea Rescue Service (now the Wellington Volunteer Coastguard). The organisation’s first lifeboat was purchased with funds raised through a public Wahine memorial appeal.

Using dogs

Dogs (with police or Land Search and Rescue volunteer handlers) are often used to help find lost people. Some dogs are trained to find people buried in avalanches, and others are used specifically for tracking. Their hunting instincts and ability to pick up scents mean they can find and reach a missing person more quickly than human searchers. Once with the person, they bark to alert other searchers.

Marine searches

Vessels crewed by coastguard volunteers take part in a search or are sent to the scene of an emergency, following radio directions from the operations control room. When they find the boat, they may take injured people on board and provide medical aid. Crew may be transferred to the stricken boat to help it reach port, or it may be towed to safety. Aircraft are also used to find missing boats, and to rescue their crew.

  1. Quoted in Lester Thorley, ‘The searchers.’ Waikato Times, 15 April 2006, p. D2. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, 'Search and rescue - Volunteers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 October 2023)

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