Story: Search and rescue

Page 5. Rescue equipment and techniques

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Traditional methods of rescue were slow. Bush rescuers often carried people out on stretchers, through rugged country. Boats were the main way to reach people in trouble at sea. Another early rescue device was the rocket lifeline. A rocket trailing hundreds of metres of rope and a buoy was fired at the ship in distress. Once the rope linked the ship to the shore, people could be winched to safety. In 1922, the crew of the steamer Wiltshire, wrecked on Aotea/Great Barrier Island, were rescued by this method. As late as the 1950s, rocket lifesaving devices were supplied to harbour boards.

Newer techniques and equipment have made search and rescue operations easier and quicker, improving a missing or injured person’s chance of survival.

Marine rescue craft

From the 1970s, inflatable life-rafts were lowered from small aircraft during marine rescues. This started after a failed attempt to rescue two surfers off the Taranaki coast in March 1972 – both young men drowned before boats could reach them in rough seas and fading light. Air-dropped life rafts were soon adopted around the country.

Jet rescue boats, and later inflatable jet boats, assisted in close-to-shore rescues from the 1970s. Their advantage was that they could be launched anywhere.

Purpose-built coastguard rescue vessels became common from the 1990s, with many coastguard units raising funds for them to be built. Modern coastguard rescue vessels are usually rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs). These have inflatable pontoons which make them extremely stable in rough seas, and they do not sink if the vessel is swamped. They also act as shock absorbers, enabling them to come alongside other boats in rough conditions. These vessels usually have state-of-the-art communication equipment, and often search equipment such as radar and infra-red cameras. 

Planes and helicopters

Aircraft have helped spot missing people in land searches since the 1930s. Light planes were later used in coastal searches, and proved better than seaborne craft at finding lost boats.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Royal New Zealand Air Force Iroquois helicopters were used in some searches. However, there was often a critical delay in getting their services. Later, local helicopter services were set up, providing a quicker response for search and rescue, and for body recovery. Helicopters revolutionised both land and marine search and rescue missions, as they could reach people in remote places rapidly and take them quickly to safety.

A wide range of modern, capable helicopters are now available for search and rescue operations in New Zealand. Many larger towns and cities have dedicated helicopters, which are funded through grants and donations, and perform medical transfers as well as assisting in search and rescue operations. In addition, commercial helicopter operators can be called on for search and rescue operations by police or RCCNZ. Usually, these operators have relationships with local police and Land Search and Rescue groups and conduct joint training exercises. The Royal New Zealand Air Force operates the NH90 helicopter, which superseded the Iroquois in 2014. The NH90 is a large, twin-engine helicopter capable of long-range rescues in most weather conditions.


Communications equipment relays information to and from searchers. Radio was not used much until after the Second World War. In the 1950s, radio communication was still primitive, and sets were too heavy to carry far. From the 1960s, ground-to-air, marine, citizens’ band and amateur radio were all used in search and rescue operations.

Keeping the lines open

The 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake destroyed the local Post and Telegraph Department’s communications system. For three days, local amateur radio operators kept the region in touch with the rest of New Zealand. Following this experience, a national voluntary group known as AREC (Amateur Radio Emergency Communications) was formed. AREC supports search and rescue operations with communications equipment and operators.

Today, high-frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) radios are used, and where appropriate, satellite phones and cellphones. Satellite tracking devices allow search managers to see where search and rescue assets are during an operation. In cave rescues, Michie phones are used. An insulated wire is attached to a receiver at the cave entrance and strung into the cave. Underground search teams can puncture the wire to use a handset to talk to those above ground.

Contact with people in trouble also improved from the 1960s. Increasingly, distress beacons were carried by passenger aircraft and boats, and marine radio became more sophisticated. The introduction of 24-hour radio coverage allowed rescuers to respond quickly to emergencies. Wider use of VHF radio in the 1980s benefited marine search and rescue communications. Distress beacons equipped with GPS (global positioning systems) have made rescues much quicker. In 2007, analogue beacons were replaced by digital beacons linked to a satellite system, making for faster and more efficient rescues.

Managing searches

Computers set up in operations rooms have replaced the mobile police command vehicles used until the 1980s. Digital mapping and management systems make planning and recording a search much easier.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, 'Search and rescue - Rescue equipment and techniques', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

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