Story: Search and rescue

Page 4. Volunteers

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Volunteers are critical to the success of search and rescue operations. Searchers usually belong to tramping, climbing, outdoor pursuit and hunting clubs, or Coastguard units. They come from different walks of life, but all have experience of New Zealand’s terrain and coastline, and often detailed local knowledge. Some are trained in mountain, cliff face and cave rescue techniques. Other volunteers have skills in radio communications, first aid, or even catering – in lengthy operations, the searchers must be fed.

Although most volunteers are compensated for leave from work, they sacrifice 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


Volunteer searchers are trained in search and rescue techniques. New Zealand Land Search and Rescue (NZLSAR) and the New Zealand Coastguard train their volunteers. The Search and Rescue Institute New Zealand also provides training and support for organisations involved in searches, and polytechnics offer courses. Search and rescue exercises (known as SAREX) are held at intervals, for volunteers to test and extend their skills.

Organisation of searches

Although the police control Class II (land and coastal) searches, they work closely with NZLSAR and the New Zealand Coastguard.

NZLSAR is organised into seven regions. Each has a committee with representatives of local search and rescue organisations. When a search is required, the police contact a regional adviser, who recommends suitable volunteers to manage planning and operations. There is also often a volunteer communications manager. They follow the Coordinated Incident Management System, used around the world.

Except in Auckland and Wellington, where there are police motor launches, the police must always call on Coastguard volunteers to assist with marine search and rescue. The New Zealand Coastguard units are organised in four regions for search and rescue.

Land searches

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

The Wellington Coastguard

On the morning of 10 April 1968 the inter-island ferry Wahine foundered inside 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 volunteer handlers) are now used to help find lost people. Some dogs are trained to cope with avalanches or wilderness, 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 on board injured people and give 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, 'Search and rescue - Volunteers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 November 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007