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Search and rescue

by  Nancy Swarbrick

Under clear skies, two trampers set off for a short walk in the hills. The weather turns stormy, and by evening they still haven’t returned. Who do you turn to? Search and rescue – teams of police and skilled volunteers who work to find the victims of treacherous weather, rugged terrain, and other dangers.

New Zealand search and rescue organisations

Around the world, search and rescue operations (often known as SAR) aim to find missing people in dangerous situations and to rescue them, or, in the worst case, recover bodies.

Rescues are common in New Zealand, where outdoor recreation is popular. Every year, many people get into trouble in the bush, mountains, rivers, lakes or coastal waters. A search and rescue operation is organised if, for example, a person is reported overdue from a tramping, hunting or boating expedition. Searches often extend to the wide seas surrounding the country. They may also be needed if a natural disaster affects a town or city, trapping people in buildings.

New Zealand’s search and rescue arrangements vary according to the scale of the emergency. As in Canada, the United States and other countries, they involve both paid professionals and volunteers.

Class I and II searches

For many years, the police carried out some searches without help – these were known as Class I searches. However, they no longer do this.

Class II searches are co-ordinated by the police, with the help of civilian organisations. The special skills and knowledge of mountaineers, cavers and amateur radio operators are often essential to find and rescue missing or injured people. Volunteer groups that work with the police include the New Zealand Coastguard, the Amateur Radio Emergency Corps (AREC) and New Zealand Land Search and Rescue Inc (NZLSAR). NZLSAR co-ordinates volunteers from organisations such as the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council, the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand and the New Zealand Speleological Society.

Class III searches

Class III searches look for aircraft missing over land or sea, or for boats lost in or beyond coastal waters. Activated emergency locator beacons, including those carried on aircraft and vessels, also prompt a Class III search.

These searches are controlled by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), under the management of Maritime New Zealand. The RCCNZ can call on the police, the Royal New Zealand Coastguard, the defence force and NZLSAR for help.

Wide area searches take place anywhere within the New Zealand SAR region. This covers a large part of the Pacific Ocean from the equator to the Antarctic, and the seas halfway to Australia and halfway to Chile. Totalling around 30 million square kilometres, it is one of the largest search and rescue areas in the world.

Lost at sea

The trimaran Rose Noelle capsized off the East Coast of the North Island in 1989. The crew of four spent four months adrift on the upturned vessel before being washed up on Great Barrier Island. Signals from the boat’s electronic beacon were not picked up by aircraft because the search zone was so wide. As a result, in 1991 a station was opened at Lower Hutt to pick up emergency beacon signals via satellite.

Urban search and rescue

Urban search and rescue involves finding and rescuing people trapped after a building has collapsed. This may be due to structural defects, or a landslide or earthquake. New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue (NZUSAR), set up in 2000, consists of three task-force teams and regional response teams. They are administered jointly by the National Emergency Management Agency and the New Zealand Fire Service.

NZUSAR first faced a major emergency when it responded to the disastrous Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011.

Who needs search and rescue?

Most people who are rescued in New Zealand are taking part in outdoor sports and recreation, usually in summer. Boating and tramping account for a large number of search and rescue operations. Mishaps during other risky pursuits such as hunting, mountaineering, surfing, caving and rafting also result in many callouts.

Some groups of people are more likely to get into trouble. International tourists who are not used to such rugged conditions can get caught out when a seemingly easy walk turns into a demanding climb. Mentally ill people or small children can wander into unfamiliar territory and become lost.

How do people get into trouble?

Even experienced trampers and boaties can strike problems, especially if the weather quickly changes for the worse. Accidents and medical emergencies can also happen.

Many people, however, are simply ill-prepared when they head for the outdoors. Factors leading to trouble include inexperience, alcohol, equipment failure, and not enough food or clothing.

People often ignore the basic safety rules for outdoor activities:

  • Ensure your experience matches your planned activity
  • Take enough food, drink and clothing
  • Know how to use maps, navigation aids and equipment
  • Don’t travel alone
  • Respect the weather and listen to the forecast
  • Tell others of your intentions.

Learning bushcraft or boating skills can help people survive in an emergency. Carrying safety equipment and first aid supplies is also vital. A cell phone, mountain radio, personal locator beacon, or boat or aircraft emergency beacon can also be used to summon help, cutting lengthy searches short.

Number of rescues

In 2005/6, according to police statistics, there were 1,351 Class II and 59 Class III search and rescue operations. Of the total (1,410), about half were on land and half at sea. Close to 3,000 people were assisted. However, 66 of them died before rescue, or in spite of it.

Radio rescue

New Zealand’s Mountain Radio Service hires out lightweight radios for use in the outdoors. Four trampers were saved by a mountain radio in 2004 when they became stranded in a wild West Coast storm. Two were seriously ill with hypothermia, and would probably not have survived the night. They called for help on the radio, and after a dramatic helicopter rescue were taken to Hokitika for treatment.

There were slightly fewer rescues than the previous year, but this may not represent a trend. The unusually severe winter in 2005 may have stopped many people from venturing outdoors. In future however, the length and cost of search and rescue operations are predicted to decline as technological changes make searching easier.


The cost of Class II and III search and rescue operations in 2005–6 was $1,551,757. This does not take into account many unpaid hours worked by volunteers.


Early searches

Before the 1900s, searches were carried out when ships were wrecked, but people who got lost in the back country 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 or 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 search highlighted the need for a coordinated approach by police and tramping clubs. The Tararua Tramping Club proposed a joint scheme the following year. The first rules for mountain searches were drawn up, and adopted by the police and Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) in 1935. It was agreed that the police should 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.

National organisation

In 1944, New Zealand signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. This required New Zealand to have a system of 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’s responsibility extended to all search and rescue operations. The Federated Mountain Clubs were given an annual grant to recognise their role in land searches.

By 1961, sub-committees in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin coordinated searches within those regions. Three classes of rescue were defined, and police managed the first two, the second with help from the 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. Search and rescue incidents grew by 140% from 1963/64 to 1965/66. Although the police theoretically controlled operations, in practice these were often run by volunteers with experience of local conditions. This changed from 1964 when 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 on Mt Erebus in Antarctica on 28 November 1979 killed 257 people. The experience of volunteers was needed to help recover the 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 has led to administrative change. In 1989 the rescue coordination centres in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch were replaced by the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre, run by the Civil Aviation Authority. This was in charge of wide area Class III searches. However, a fatal boating accident off Ōamaru in May 2003 exposed problems with communications. In 2003 government provided funding for a 24-hour, seven-day service, to be provided by a new body, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) in Lower Hutt. It began operations in 2004.

The New Zealand Search and Rescue Council was established by Cabinet in 2003 to give strategic guidance for all of search and rescue 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.


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.

    • Quoted in Lester Thorley, ‘The searchers.’ Waikato Times, 15 April 2006, p. D2. › Back

Rescue equipment and techniques

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Search and rescue', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2020)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Sep 2007