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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Search and Rescue Overview

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This is another post derived from a presentation given at the 2011 Annual Summer Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society. Aaron Billin delivered an excellent lecture on search and rescue.

Search and rescue has been defined a few different ways. Two definitions are: “the use of available resources to assist persons or property in potential or actual distress” and “an operation to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety.” Search and rescue types are mountain rescue, combat search and rescue, air-sea rescue, urban search and rescue, and ground search and rescue.

Organized search and rescue is the responsibility of national parks, state parks, county sheriffs, state conservation officers, or state police. Most search and rescue missions are carried out by volunteer groups. Ninety percent of all rescues involve evacuation on foot. Ninety-five percent of all rescues have no physician in attendance. 

National and state parks are not mandated with a “duty to rescue” but many provide these services. The sequence of events in a typical search and rescue are:

  1. The critical event occurs.
  2. The decision is made to “get help.”
  3. The local emergency dispatch system is notified.
  4. Search and rescue and emergency medicine services (EMS) are activated and assemble at the trailhead or other appropriate location from which to initiate the search.
  5. The search and rescue team has the responsibility to locate the victim, while EMS generally remains at the trailhead.
  6. The search and rescue team provides initial emergency care and extended care during the evacuation.
  7. EMS transports the victim to a medical facility.
  8. There is a debriefing and preparation for the next response.

Medical direction for EMS is important, and can be provided by a physician, paramedic, emergency medicine technician, or other qualified professional.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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