Many travel/adventure bloggers write gear reviews about various location devices, but information on the general topic of search and rescue seems to be sparse. This is the first part of a series in which I explore this important topic. I will cover the various sub topics, services available, location device types and insurance.
What Is Search & Rescue
Search and Rescue in its broadest sense just means the search for and provision of aid to people in distress or imminent danger. SAR as I will call it from now on, has many sub services. These may vary from country to country, and even by state, but broadly you will find:
Police - They are typically the first point of contact with any rescue, especially if you only have a mobile on you or it is your relatives who have reported you missing.
Ground SAR - Typically volunteers and organisations searching for people in lowlands. Although primarily the police are the initial main contact regarding a missing person on land, the police will typically engage with organisations and bodies dedicated and skilled in the search and rescue of people in these situations.
Mountain Rescue - Highly specialised teams of people and dogs, trained to search for missing people in the most challenging weather and mountainous terrains.
Urban SAR - These are not organisations looking for missing people in urban areas as you may think but are specialised in locating and rescuing people trapped in collapsed buildings and general industrial entrapments.
Maritime SAR - The most commonly know SAR organisation are the coast guard and other bodies typically rescuing people from vessels and the sea. Although we commonly see them rescuing people from coastal situations too.
In some countries many of these organisations may be merged together, and depending upon the terrain, you may find additional organisations exist, e.g. Cave Rescue. The organisations tend to be a mixture of government run, private company and charities at various levels, national and by state. The level and quality of service will vary greatly depending upon the country, organisation and the resources available to them. Also the terrain and population of a territory will give you an idea of how thinly stretched some of these services maybe.
So What Do These Services Cost
To many of us who live in countries where we take this apparent free service for granted, this heading may be a surprise to you. But yes in many countries SAR is not free, and in a lot more countries/states SAR is free only in specific circumstances. I am reminded of a story I heard in Sweden on the Kungsleden Trail from a hut staff member. A hiker thought he would use the Swedish Air Rescue as a taxi to get off the trail because they were tired. He thought he had done the smart thing, only to receive a bill for the evacuation shortly after.
Many SAR services have negligence/stupidity clauses in which allow the services to charge you for the rescue. The rules and costs can also vary state by state within the USA and larger countries. The rules can even vary depending upon if you are using a national SAR or a local/regional one. In the UK we are very lucky, our SAR services are free no matter how negligent or down right stupid your activities are.
Even a simple rescue could be 2000 GBP, but more complex ones involving more staff and helicopters can run up to tens of thousands.
Always do your homework when going on an adventure, do not assume SAR is free. Some of the negligence clauses are somewhat grey for a reason and may allow the SAR organisation to decide themselves what is negligent. When you plan your route, understand the organisations you have available to you and their costs.
How To Contact SAR
Typically either an emergency contact or yourself will be getting in touch with a SAR team. Hopefully, before you have set off on your adventure, you have left route details and some emergency contact numbers for local services with a friend/relative. You will have given them clear instructions and guidelines on when to contact the SAR teams to report you as missing.
If you are on the trail and need to contact a SAR team, then you will need to have a method of communication with you. There are many different devices that you can use to communicate with SAR teams, from regular mobile phones to satellite phones to more specialised satellite devices. I will discuss those in detail in Part 2 of this Search and Rescue series.
Insurance for SAR
I am sure it is no surprise to you, that most regular travel insurance policies do not cover search and rescue costs. In fact some policies may not even cover the activity you are performing and hence any medical care due to an accident is not covered either.
When travelling on an adventure always check your travel insurance to ensure the activity is covered, SAR is covered and the policy has the desired medical cover, including repatriation costs. Depending upon what is missing you may need to top up on SAR, or medical. Sometimes it is cheaper to just buy a tailored "adventure" policy than try and add in the missing parts. Some states in the USA even have Hiker safe card schemes.
Check your policy documents thoroughly, do not just look at the highlights and exclusions for the policy, get hold of the detailed policy documents. You will be amazed what is excluded. Here are some examples of what you may or may not see:
Search and Rescue fees are not mentioned. Chances are, you are not covered. If you are going to be using a Geos device (Spot, Garmin Inreach etc) to contact SAR then the same company operating this offer insurance packages to cover SAR costs. https://www.geostravelsafety.com/sar-memberships.html
A list of excluded countries.
You may not be covered if you visit a place deemed as unsafe by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) or your local country equivalent.
Restrictions may be placed on the activity "hiking" or the activity you are doing. Skiing will have lots of restrictions/exclusions.
The definition of "expedition" is restricted in terms of place, time limits, activities etc.
If your adventure is for business purposes e.g. filming a documentary, take extra time to scrutinise your policies, there are normally additional exclusion clauses.
Not all adventures require this level of preparation, but if your adventure is more remote or unusual and you are not familiar with the area or services then following these 4 basic rules will help you stay safe:
Identify the SAR services available on your planned route, take note of their contact details and any costs.
Pass on the SAR contact details along with your itinerary to your emergency contacts. Give them clear guidelines on when to report you as missing.
Communication device. Make sure you take a suitable device with you so that you can communicate with SAR services in the event of an accident. Most importantly, make sure the contact details in the device are correct, synchronised and you have TESTED your device before you leave home.
Check your insurance policies. Make sure you have insurance for SAR services if you need them and that your activity is covered by your policy. Make sure it includes enough medical coverage and repatriation and load up on the right insurance if not covered.
You and only you are ultimately in charge of your own safety. Do not rely on others to check, do not assume help is available. Take it seriously, your life could depend on it.