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Search & Rescue: Basic Concepts

We are going to make the case as to why a guerrilla fighter in a WROL situation should be proficient in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, and hence, why you should add some level of SAR training to your team.

First, let's reiterate that you will be responsible for saving yourself and your community, no one is coming to help you. Despite the great training and equipment government SAR teams have access to, it is not uncommon for them to be stretched so thin that they call in local police, civilian, and firefighter assets to assist. Even when these additional assets and manpower are provided, missing persons have still fallen through the cracks. This is not an attack on SAR teams, they do a brilliant job with the resources they are given, but by their own admittance, they are too understaffed and underfunded to deal with the current number of individuals going missing, let alone a natural disaster or domestic conflict.

Put simply, people will go missing, typically by injuries or poor orientation during hunting or via the confusion and structural collapse caused by an urban conflict. Whether you have a moral obligation to your community or you want to secure a strategic ‘hearts and minds’ victory, you must understand the fundamentals of how SAR operations function. If you are fortunate enough to have an SAR specialist on your team, you are already winning; otherwise, many police, firefighters, and escape/evasion instructors (even though they don’t realize it) will have valuable experience that can lend to training SAR.


There is a lot that goes into Search and Rescue and discussing every aspect in this essay wouldn’t benefit you or us. We will focus on planning considerations and tactical ‘tricks of the trade’ specifically relating to ground rescues of missing persons in wild and urban settings. We will not cover ocean rescues or predicting plane trajectories and crashes.


SAR - Search and Rescue

MP - Missing Person

LKP - Last Known Position

WROL - Without Rule of Law

Preparation of SAR Missions

Much like any tactical objective, a plan can’t be made without information gathering. SAR teams will generally employ the acronym SCENARIO:

S - Specify the item or person being sought

In this stage we will create a missing person profile:

This specific profile can be downloaded from our Data Dump (JPG, PDF). The footprint component is not always able to be filled out, however, it has proven to be a very important piece of intelligence in historical SAR operations. At a bare minimum, the length of the individual's shoe (based on shoe size) should be noted by the SAR team.

C - Confirm LKP and movements

The MPs LKP is anywhere they had been sighted most recently or evidence of their presence has been found. If available, the direction they were traveling in will significantly aid the search. The LKP will become a ‘hasty search’ location while you continue your planning.

E - Establish circumstances of disappearance

This section is used to establish the chance of the person being injured, AWOL, or just lost. If the individual is competent, was separated during a patrol, and didn’t make it to a rally point, then they may be injured. Alternatively, a poorly trained individual going into the mountains to hunt is more likely to just be lost.

N - Note factors influencing discovery

This section is your opportunity to catalog the environmental factors as well as your own assets. Terrain, weather, vehicles, manpower, drones, thermal, nightvision, etc. Listing these assets will aid in the planning phase.

A - Analyze MP movements

Your goal is to create a map overlay of the most likely routes and areas the MP is using. If possible, this should be done by multiple people to establish all possibilities. A good guideline to find these areas is to answer the following questions from the perspective of the MP:

What happened for me to become missing?

Where was I trying to go?

Where is a water source?

Where do I think is safe?

What environmental/situational hazards do I have knowledge of?

R - Raise search strategies

Choose what assets you can employ and locations you can employ them. Are there firewatch towers or other high field of view OP locations? What areas of your search are feasible for drone reconnaissance? And how fast can your SAR teams insert themselves? You should also consider if you want to contain the search area; for instance, if you know the MP could not have crossed a boundary road yet, you may want to place personnel on the road to ensure the MP does not cross it and move out of the confined search area.

It is also vital to consider a medical and rescue plan. Use the situational and environmental hazards in the search area to estimate what equipment should be carried by SAR teams to aid the MP and themselves.

I - Identify priority search

Choose the most likely routes and destinations to become the priority search and begin spooling up assets to move. It is at this stage that you will outline a brief search strategy. This will include areas you want surveyed by drones, listening post locations (if the individual has a radio), what equipment should be carried, what routes should be scanned by SAR teams, and the order you want those routes scanned in.

O - ongoing reassessment

In the early stages of the planning process it is almost guaranteed that some assumptions will be made about the nature, time, and place of the incident, as time progresses and more intel is found, it is vital to reassess the priority search area and techniques being used. Keep track of what decisions were informed by assumptions, failure to replace all assumptions with facts will jeopardize the MP and waste resources.

Behavior Considerations

It is important that SAR members understand how an MP may behave on the ground in order to guide what ‘clues’ they are looking for. The MPs behavior is heavily influenced by the environment and their level of experience (noted under ‘capability/health’ on the missing person profile). We have used arid to refer to high temperature/low rainfall areas, alpine to refer to areas where hypothermia is likely to occur, and rainforest to describe areas with thick brush and tree coverage (any forest with <20ft visibility).


  1. May take shelter in or under vehicles.

  2. May discard their equipment.

  3. May become disoriented and travel in any direction.

  4. May seek out river beds for water or shelter from wind.

  5. May sleep by day and move by night (if experienced).

  6. May partially bury themselves in sand (if experienced).


  1. May disrobe clothing (a known reaction to hypothermia).

  2. May discard equipment.

  3. May fail to make shelter.

  4. May fail to respond to searchers.

  5. May be unable to judge distances (results: moving in directions confusing to searchers).


  1. May become disoriented and travel in any direction.

  2. Inexperienced persons may have difficulty moving in a straight line over long distances.

  3. Inexperienced persons will typically move downhill.

  4. Experienced persons may move uphill (for better observation or radio reception).

  5. May take shelter in buttress roots.

Conducting the Search

Searching is obviously the most time consuming and resource intense part of this process, it is also completely dependent on good communications. A forward communication post should be established that can receive and coordinate all the search teams. Conventional SAR doctrine is to use ground teams of 3 in order to maximize maneuverability and security. Some SAR specialists will increase the team size to 4 where communication is poor, in the event that the team finds the MP, one pair can remain with the MP while the others move to high ground to relay communications.

As these teams conduct their search, there are a handful of formations that a team leader can effectively employ to cover the most ground. Track sweep, point and flank, and purposeful meandering are the most commonly used.

Track sweep is to be used on tracks and is effective with 3+ searchers, spacing should be no more than 6 feet apart.

Point and flank is best employed in thicker density foliage and allows the flanks to follow the center lead. This formation is intended to reduce the chance of a searcher being separated from the group while maintaining a wider frontage.

Purposeful meandering is an extended line formation used in open terrain with good visibility. It allows individual searchers the freedom to move between points of interest where signs of the MP may be. If trees, depressions, or other items of interest are within the search path, they should be able to search those areas more thoroughly and move most naturally. Even in completely open terrain a spacing of no more than 20 feet should be maintained to avoid passing by potential sign.

If possible, searchers should consider leaving a sign of their presence. Tree carvings, overturned rocks, and track marks may give a mobile MP hope or an idea of where the search team is.

Urban Rescue

You should already have an understanding of what an urban center may look like in a WROL situation or post a natural disaster. Injured individuals trapped inside partially collapsed structures, loss of orientation as rubble disguises streets and landmarks, and mass casualties that will overwhelm medical assets.

The first step in these situations is to establish a casualty collection point where medical assets can begin to triage and provide basic care to casualties. Once this location is established, we can begin to move to the surrounding buildings to begin our search.

Our next goal is to conduct some hasty information gathering, asking the survivors from a building the following questions will give yourself and your team a better understanding of where to apply your effort.

How many people live (or work) in the building?

Has anyone come out?

Where would they be at this time?

What is the building layout?

What have you seen or heard?

What are the normal exit routes from the building?

Now that you have a more complete understanding of the situation, it may be time to enter. For the sake of safety you should understand voids. A void is an area within a collapsed building where a pocket has been encased by rubble. Voids are categorized as lean-to, V, pancake, or individual voids.

Lean to voids are caused by a collapsing wall or roof where a section of the voids ceiling is still supported by the wall. Trapped individuals have the greatest chance of being uninjured in a lean-to void.

V voids are formed when a floor collapses in the center, creating two split lean-to voids nearest the walls. This type of void is more unstable due to the damage caused to the voids ceiling.

Pancake voids caused by multiple floors collapsing onto each other. These voids are most common in pre WW2 buildings.

Individual voids are spaces where a victim has sheltered in for protection and can include bathtubs, under desks or tables, and in cabinets or closets.

Official SAR doctrine is for searchers to never enter voids unless accompanied by engineers and survey equipment to test the integrity of the area. While most lean-to voids have proven to be stable enough for SAR teams to enter, the real situation is complex and difficult to guarantee safety without engineer support.

Assuming you understand the risks or are searching a building without major structural collapse, you should establish some form of written communication standard within your team. Most urban SAR teams will carry spray-paint or chalk to make the following markings:

In this marking style, one slash (with initials) indicates that a searcher is currently occupying the room/building. This method has seen widespread adoption due to the amount of information it communicates in such a simple form.

Finally, we can look into removing the casualty from the situation. Stretchers will likely be infeasible for most urban rescues as their length and rigidity will be a hindrance when navigating through doorways and rubble. For casualties with suspected spinal injuries you may have no other option than to use a conventional stretcher. Otherwise, teams can use chair carries, shoulder carries or blanket drags to retrieve the casualties.

These are just the fundamentals. Many communities have a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) that can be joined to bolster the ranks of local SAR organizations. If you have the time you should consider joining these groups, your effort will be rewarded with more advanced training on these topics. Alternatively, find members of these organizations to assist in your team's training as Search and Rescue will be a vital component of any future civil unrest.


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