Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Search and rescue

by  Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater

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 professionals and highly skilled volunteers who work to find the and recover those who are in distress anywhere in New Zealand.

New Zealand search and rescue organisations

Around the world, search and rescue operations (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 on a tramping, hunting or boating expedition. Searches may also extend to the wide seas surrounding the country. Searches are also 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 nature and scale of the emergency. They involve both paid professionals and volunteers – although over 90% are volunteers.

For many years searches were divided into three classes, but there are now two categories: the first coordinated by police and the second coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).

Category I incidents

Category I incidents are coordinated by the police, with the help of other organisations. The special skills and knowledge of volunteer mountaineers, canyoners, cavers, surf lifeguards, coastguard skippers and amateur radio operators are often essential to find and rescue missing or injured people. Non-government organisations that work with the police include the New Zealand Coastguard, Surf Life Saving New Zealand, Amateur Radio Emergency Communications (AREC) and New Zealand Land Search and Rescue.

Each of these organisations has a small, professional staff, who assist the coordination and training of the volunteers.

Category II incidents

Category II incidents are coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), which is part of Maritime New Zealand. The RCCNZ can call on any search and rescue assets in New Zealand, including the police, the Defence Force, civilian helicopter operators and non-government organisations.

Category II incidents are any operations initiated by the activation of a distress beacon. and any operations that look for aircraft missing over land or sea, or for boats lost in or beyond coastal waters.

Wide area searches can take place anywhere within the New Zealand search and rescue region. This covers a large part of the Pacific Ocean from the equator to the Antarctic, and the seas between halfway to Australia and halfway to Chile. At around 30 million square kilometres, more than 100 times New Zealand’s land area, this 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 (Aotea). Signals from the boat’s electronic locator 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 locator beacon signals via satellite.

Urban search and rescue

Urban search and rescue involves finding and rescuing people trapped after a building has collapsed. The collapse may be due to a landslide or earthquake, or to a vehicle hitting a building. New Zealand Urban Search and Rescue (NZUSAR), set up in 2000, consists of three task-force teams. Urban Search and Rescue is a main function of Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).

NZUSAR faced its first major emergency when it responded to the disastrous Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011. The 150 NZUSAR staff worked tirelessly to cut through rubble, rescue people and recover the bodies of those killed.

The New Zealand teams were assisted by urban rescue teams from seven countries, who brought their own rescue equipment to assist. Among these teams were 66 personnel from Japan. A New Zealand USAR team was able to repay them after a huge earthquake and tsunami hit north-east Japan just three weeks later. All the New Zealand personnel who made the journey to Japan had been involved in the Christchurch earthquake response. This was their first international deployment. New Zealand USAR personnel subsequently provided assistance in the Pacific after cyclones.

Who needs search and rescue?

In New Zealand, as well as all those who fly, travel by sea or need to be in remote areas for their employment, many people enjoy recreational activities in the mountains, rivers, along the coast and at sea. Occasionally, things don’t go to plan and people become lost, are injured or unable to get back to safety.

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

People with cognitive impairments and small children may wander into unfamiliar territory, become lost and need assistance to return to safety.

Calling for help

For many years, if you got into trouble in the bush or at sea, you were on your own until someone could get back to civilisation to call for help. From the 1960s, volunteer groups hired out portable radios, installed radios in mountain huts and monitored receivers for calls from anyone in trouble.

Today, technology has moved on. While many people assume they can rely on their cellphones, reception remains patchy in many parts of New Zealand. Personal locator beacons (PLBs), which can be hired or bought from many trusts and shops, provide coverage even where there is no cell signal. They broadcast to a satellite or aircraft, which alerts the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre. PLBs can be used only for emergencies.

Marine radios and satellite messenger devices offer two-way communication. Each technology has pros and cons, so you should research the options before choosing which one is best for you.

How do people get into trouble?

There are many ways that people can get into trouble, including changing weather conditions, failed, insufficient or inadequate equipment, inexperience or poor decision-making. Accidents and medical events may be beyond the control of the people affected.

Preparation is the best defence against getting into trouble. The organisations involved in search and rescue have developed land, water and boating safety codes, which are available on the website. These codes give simple advice for how to prepare as well as what to do to keep safe.

Learning the appropriate skills for the environments they visit can help people survive in an emergency. Carrying safety equipment and first aid supplies is also vital. A cellphone, personal locator beacon, marine radio and flares can be used to summon help quickly.

Number of rescues

In 2021–22, according to New Zealand Search and Rescue figures, there were 1,747 Category I and 1,124 Category II incidents. Altogether, search and rescue responded to 2,871 incidents, resulting in 150 lives being saved, 715 people rescued and 799 people assisted.


In 2021–22, the government spent $42.1 million on Search and Rescue, including the cost of operations, training, preparation and upgrading equipment. This sum did not take account of the many unpaid hours worked by volunteers.


Early searches

In the nineteenth century, searches were carried out when ships were wrecked, but people who got lost in the backcountry 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 and 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 episode highlighted the need for a coordinated approach to searches by police and tramping clubs. The Tararua Tramping Club proposed a joint scheme the following year. The first rules for mountain searches were adopted by the police and Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) in 1935. It was agreed that the police would 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 operations.

National organisation

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

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

The New Zealand Search and Rescue Council was established by cabinet in 2003 to give strategic guidance and leadership for all search and rescue functions 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 and safety-focused agencies.

As the scope, complexity and frequency of SAR operations grew, the non-government organisations which provided the SAR volunteers developed their systems and employed paid staff members to support the volunteers.

Government investment in the SAR sector also grew, with funding provided for upgraded equipment for the volunteers, as well as regular training programmes and SAR exercises.


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.

    • 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 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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, 'Search and rescue', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick and Dan Clearwater, published 24 September 2007, reviewed & revised 27 July 2023