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 of reaching people in trouble at sea. Another early rescue device was a 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 Great Barrier Island, were rescued by this method. As late as the 1950s, rocket lifesaving devices were supplied to harbour boards.

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

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 failing light. Air-drop 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.

Planes and helicopters

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

Before the 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 and take them quickly to safety.


Communications equipment relays information to and from searchers. Radio was not used much until after the Second World War. Throughout the 1950s, radio communications were primitive, and equipment was too heavy to carry far. From the 1960s, ground-to-air, marine, citizen’s 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, amateur radio operators in Hawke’s Bay kept the region in touch with the rest of New Zealand. After this, a national voluntary group known as AREC (Amateur Radio Emergency Communications) was formed. It supports search and rescue with communications equipment and operators.

Today, HF and VHF radio are used, and where appropriate, satellite phones and cellphones. 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 and talk to those above ground.

Contact with people in trouble also improved from the 1960s. Increasingly, emergency 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. Emergency beacons equipped with GPS (global positioning systems) have made rescue times much faster. In 2007, analogue beacons were replaced by digital beacons linked to a satellite system, making for quicker and more efficient rescues.

Managing searches

Computers have replaced the mobile police command vehicles used until the 1980s. Electronic maps and GIS (geographic information systems, displayed on computers) make planning and recording a search easier.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Search and rescue - Rescue equipment and techniques', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 November 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007