Search & Rescue

The Search & Rescue toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. Toolboxes are comprehensively reviewed and updated approximately every three years, with intermittent small updates and additions in the interim. To suggest new materials for inclusion, email Lisa Ronald at lisa@wilderness.net. Date of last update: 01/12/2019.

 

Introduction

Stewardship of wilderness includes management of emergencies related to injured or lost visitors. These situations almost always arise without warning and must be addressed quickly and efficiently to prevent further injury or death.

In most cases on the national forests, the local Sheriff’s Office (or other state or local entity) will have responsibility for search and rescue operations and likely is the organization best equipped to handle it. However, the Forest Service retains the authority to approve the use of aircraft, motorized equipment, and mechanical transportation devices, including wheeled carts. (This authority is typical for wildernesses except in Alaska where special provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act apply.) This authority is delegated to the Forest Supervisor (FSM 2326).

Section 4c of The Wilderness Act of 1964 provides an exception for the use of normally ’prohibited uses’ such as aircraft, motorized equipment, and mechanical transport when it is determined to be the minimum necessary. For non-emergency situations a Minimum Requirements Analysis is typically prepared to assess first the need for action in wilderness and second to select the method or tool which has the least impact on the wilderness resource. In emergency situations a detailed analysis is inappropriate and the decision on authorization of the normally prohibited uses should always err on the side of protecting human life.

For most units a Search and Rescue Plan is useful to establish and document emergency procedures between the responsible authority and the Forest Service. Preparation of this agreement can help both parties foster a better understanding of the mission, responsibility, and authority of both organizations. Use of the ’minimum requirements’ concept is appropriate during preparation of the Search and Rescue Plan so that all parties involved are following established procedures during the emergency, and applying the minimum requirements concept, without unnecessary delays or risks to victims or rescuers.

Wilderness Act

Section 4(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

The language in the Wilderness Act of 1964 identifies measures necessary for addressing human health and safety emergencies as one of the special provisions for which otherwise prohibited activities can be authorized. The prohibited uses that apply to search and rescue operations typically include landing of aircraft, use of motor vehicles (including snowmobiles, and possibly use of motorized equipment such as chainsaws.

Minimum Requirements for Search and Rescue Operations

The language in the Wilderness Act of 1964 identifies measures necessary for addressing human health and safety emergencies as one of the special provisions for which otherwise prohibited activities can be authorized. The prohibited uses that apply to search and rescue operations typically include landing of aircraft, use of motor vehicles (including snowmobiles, and possibly use of motorized equipment such as chainsaws.

Once an emergency situation involving the health and safety of people in the wilderness is reported it is too late to prepare a detailed analysis to determine if helicopters, snowmobiles, motorboats, or other motorized equipment should be authorized. The Minimum Requirements Decision Guide (MRDG) is not suitable for use in an emergency situation. Instead, utilize the Minimum Requirements concept (as required by Section 4 c of The Wilderness Act of 1964) and the MRDG to help plan strategies and tactics for the Wilderness Search and Rescue Plan and/or agreements with state, county and other responsible organizations. The goal is to achieve a level of understanding and compliance with the Section 4c provisions that gets everyone involved with the emergency focused on doing what’s needed for the victims, providing safe conditions for rescuers, and minimizing impacts on the wilderness resource.

 

(from Wilderness Management, Hendee 1990)
The bolded principles are particularly relevant to Search and Rescue operations in wilderness.
  • Manage wilderness as one extreme on the environmental modification spectrum
  • Manage wilderness as a composite resource, not as separate parts
  • Manage wilderness, and sites within, under a non-degradation concept
  • Manage human influences, a key to wilderness protection
  • Manage wilderness to produce human values and benefits
  • Favor wilderness-dependent activities
  • Guide management with written plans that state objectives for specific areas
  • Set carrying capacities as necessary
  • Focus on threatened sites and damaging activities
  • Apply only minimum regulations and tools necessary to achieve objectives
  • Involve the public as a key to acceptance and success of wilderness management
  • Monitor conditions and experience opportunities for the long-term
  • Manage in conjunction with adjacent lands

(from Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, 2003)

The Fourth Cornerstone of Wilderness Stewardship is particularly relevant for planning and management of Search and Rescue operations in wilderness.

  1. Manage wilderness as a whole.
  2. Preserve wildness and natural conditions.
  3. Protect wilderness benefits.
  4. Provide and use the minimum necessary.

Existing Agency Guides, Processes, and Templates, Handbooks

FS

Memos

Templates