Civilian volunteers who participate in search and rescue missions are extremely valuable assets to the community. In addition to reducing the demands on state and local police departments to man such operations, these individuals generously volunteer their time and efforts to help fellow citizens in need.
However, search and rescue missions are not without their risks. Volunteers often face harsh terrain, late-night hours, and inclement weather, but they may not have the appropriate training to deal with such conditions. Tragically, search and rescue volunteers have passed away after overexerting themselves during missions or through unfortunate accidents such as falls and equipment malfunctions.
There is an important distinction between trained and untrained civilian volunteers. Trained volunteers are typically part of an organization that is repeatedly brought in to help with search and rescue missions, and they thus possess experience with these situations. Untrained civilian volunteers are often friends and family of the lost individual who have no experience doing search and rescue. They are usually unfamiliar with the proper procedures for searching for lost individuals, and must therefore be monitored to ensure that they do not put themselves at risk while trying to help.
Never fear! There are several precautions that local and state agencies can take to ensure volunteer safety during search and rescue incidents.
Tips to Promote Volunteer Safety
Here are a few tips from our experts for promoting civilian volunteer safety in search and rescue.
Tip 1: Offer training opportunities for search and rescue volunteers
Volunteers with some basic training in search and rescue are better able to deal with the stress and labor associated with these missions. They are less likely to become a liability during hazardous operations, which can divert effort and attention away from the subject of the mission. Encouraging interested people to participate in basic training before joining a search and rescue mission increases the number of prepared, trained volunteers available to mobilize in an emergency.
Some states, including Massachusetts, have a civilian search and rescue coordinator who is a member of the state police department emergency response team. This coordinator is responsible for keeping track of trained search and rescue volunteers, coordinating volunteer efforts with police operations, and organizing training opportunities for new volunteers. The coordinator is also the final decision-maker when it comes to approving civilian volunteers for missions.
Having a single, qualified individual in charge of volunteer search and rescue operations streamlines the process of finding trained volunteers for missions and establishes responsibility for their welfare while on missions. If there is no state equivalent for this position, local departments should consider appointing a staff member to perform similar duties for their local search and rescue operations.
Tip 3: Establish an untrained volunteer staging area and requirements for participation
Untrained civilian volunteers become a liability most often for one of two reasons: (a) they are not adequately supervised, or (b) they are incapable of handling the conditions of a search and rescue operation. These scenarios can be mitigated by:
- Establishing a staging area for untrained volunteers. This ensures that each individual is screened in person and given specific instructions that they can execute safely.
- Developing a specific set of requirements, which are on hand to screen untrained volunteers before they participate in a search and rescue mission. These requirements may vary with the specific mission. For example, state departments often require volunteers to supply their personal information and submit to a variety of checks, including a physical, skills and equipment check, and sometimes even a criminal record check.
Tip 4: Keep updated lists of local trained volunteer search and rescue groups
There are many well-trained volunteer search and rescue teams that are willing to participate in local search and rescue missions. The members of these teams often have extremely valuable skillsets and may include medical professionals, canine scent units, and even dive teams. These groups also undergo training exercises within their teams, so they are already experienced at search and rescue operations. Be sure to keep contact information for these groups updated and readily accessible for when emergencies arise.
Tip 5: Supervise untrained civilian volunteers at ALL times
Well-meaning volunteers may become impatient waiting for an assignment during a mission, but it is essential that they do not take off on their own within the search perimeter. They must always be under the supervision of a state or local official to ensure everyone’s safety, especially while participating in search and rescue activities.
It’s easy to put off these tasks until you need the assistance, but by then you’ll be scrambling to get enough volunteers for whatever unforeseen emergency arises. That’s why there’s no time like the present to start implementing these tips and set up your agency for a smooth and effective civilian volunteer search and rescue program.