Search techniques

No two searches are ever the same, but the following notes give a general outline of some of the search techniques that have proved effective in the past. Because lost people will eventually succumb to exposure unless they are unusually well equipped, search plans will be a balance between thoroughness and speed. This balance will be different in winter, when the survival time is much shorter than in summer

But one thing is certain: neither thoroughness nor speed will be enhanced by charging into the field without a proper plan. Time spent in initial planning is time when no searching takes place, but it is essential that systematic plans are made. Subsequent planning sessions seldom delay the search because they can take place while the search is in progress or at night.

Search coordination

Search coordination

When making the initial search plans, certain assumptions are often made:

  • The lost person is alive and able to reply to shouts or other sound signals. Working on this assumption allows a much greater coverage, with individual searchers and search groups spaced much further apart than if all the intervening country had to be coveted by eye. This assumption may have to be modified later if the passage of time and the weather suggests that exposure may be reducing the mobility of the lost person.
  • Lost people will seldom cross a road or defined track. This means that roads and tracks are often used to set bounds to a search area. It is essential that they be patrolled and, because there is no telling when a person might stumble on a road, the patrol must be maintained throughout the search.
  • Lost people eventually need water and they also usually take lines of least effort. Both these factors often mean that they eventually make their way down to creeks. It is thus very important to thoroughly search the creeks.
  • Lost people often wander, seldom selecting a single direction and walking in a purposeful way. This means that one cannot assume that, because an area has been searched, there is no need to cover it again. It also means that it is better to commence searching at the last known location of the lost person.

The above assumptions are very general, and will not always be correct, especially when dealing with children or people with a medical condition. They can, however, often help to guide a search, particularly in its early stages and in the absence of clues.

There are no absolutes in search situations and a vivid imagination can conjure up unlimited possibilities, many of them improbable. Search strategy is a matter of assessing probabilities based on the information available and previous experience.

One should not infer from these notes that searches grind inexorably along, slavishly following some master plan. In fact search planners need to remain very flexible, appraising information as it becomes available and responding appropriately. One way of building flexibility into the plan is the use of reserve groups, as noted in the previous chaptet These groups can often be used to quickly back up other groups, investigate reported clues or follow up new information.

Early Stages of a search showing road patrols, search of main features and a line search in the area of highest probability

Early Stages of a search showing road patrols, search of main features and a line search in the area of highest probability

Reconnaissance Search

This is usually the first search technique to be initiated and it is often maintained throughout the duration of the search. Reconnaissance searching can be done by vehicle (four-wheel-drive or motorcycle), by aircraft (usually helicopter), on foot or on skis. Its main aims are to:

  • find the lost person quickly and easily by searching the areas of highest probability.
  • familiarise search planners with the terrain to help their plans for more intensive searching.
  • attempt to establish the boundary of the search area, for example searching the perimeter of a ski resort to check for tracks leaving the resort.

Reconnaissance searching covers roads, tracks and clear areas and needs to be maintained because vehicle noise often attracts the lost person, who is then found on a later pass. Later in a search, reconnaissance searching is often combined with putting out and picking up search groups.

Feature Search

Feature or general searching aims to cover lines and areas of high probability. It is usually performed by groups of four moving along well-defined terrain features such as ridges and creeks or resort boundaries.

The members of the group are usually spread across the feature to maximise coverage. The distance between group members is detennined by the density of vegetation and the characteristics of the terrain. Group mem¬bers must maintain visual contact with each other and ensure reasonable coverage of the ground in between.

At regular intervals the group should stop, call and listen. There are two reasons for calling: to help maintain contact between team members and to attract the attention of the lost person. For the latter reason, it is vital that searchers stop frequently and listen for a reply.


2003 Edition

Last Updated on February 17, 2021