Search & Rescue Glossary of Terms

Incident Facilities

Staging Area:  This is where resources go to await their assignment.  If they’re in the Staging Area, they should already be assembled and equipped to leave from there to travel to their work assignment.  A Staging Area may be as unremarkable as a parking space where Sam and his crew are waiting to put out barricades along the parade route.  Or as involved as the one we used during our response to Hurricane Ike.  Staging Areas and managed by the Operations Section.

Incident Check-in:  This is very similar to a Staging Area.  When lots of resources are arriving at the same time, it's advisable to separate where they check-in and where they stage.  This procedure allows whoever is checking them in to communicate to the Staging Manager where inside the Staging Area they should go to optimize their departure when receiving their assignment.

Perimeter:  This refers to the imaginary line that separates where the work is taking place and where the general public is.  In the parade example, a perimeter may be designated by traffic cones.  In a tournament, it may be the cyclone fencing that already surrounds the fields.  For a cyber-attack, a perimeter may be the door of conference room #3 where the cyber sleuths have gathered to investigate the breach.  The sooner you can post these perimeters for all to see, the sooner they can be obeyed!

Camp:  Often referred to as a Base Camp, but not the same as an Incident Base.  A geographical site within the general incident area (separate from the Incident Base) that is equipped and staffed to provide sleeping, food, water, and sanitary services to incident personnel.

  • Resources in a Base Camp belong to the incident but are not available until they arrive at the Staging Area.

Medical Aid / Responder Rehab:  These refer to facilities where responders, not the general public, go to receive medical care, rehabilitate with shade, food, water, etc.  In large events, there may be more than one.  In small events, this function may co-locate at the Staging Area or even Base Camp.  These are typically for active resources that need attention, not those who are off-duty.

Incident Command Post (ICP):  This is where the event is managed and is near the event itself (for greater situational awareness!)

  • Access should be limited to command and general staff but can occasionally host other functional roles depending on the size of the facility.
  • Command Posts may be as large as a gym or auditorium or small as the bed of a pick-up truck.
  • The importance of a command post is in its ability to manage the event, regardless of how pretty it is.

Emergency Operations Center (EOC):  This facility exists solely to support and coordinate the needs of the Incident Command Post (ICP).  If the ICP needs people or things that are not readily available to them inside their perimeter, they contact the EOC.

  • Few facilities mean more to the success of an event than ICPs and, when needed, EOCs.  However, they’re often confused or unknowingly used in a manner that decreases efficiency.

Types of Search & Rescue

Combat SAR – refers to search and rescue in with an emphasis on combat forces operating in and around a war zone.  While many aspects are applicable, Combat SAR is outside the scope of what will be covered in this course.

Sea-Air SAR – the common dominion of the United States Coast Guard where people or vessels are lost at sea.  While many aspects are applicable, Sea-Air SAR is outside the scope of what will be covered in this course.

Wilderness SAR –also referred to as Ground SAR and includes searches in inland waterways.  Structures including suburban areas including residential homes and light industrial are sometimes included in references to Wilderness SAR.

Urban SAR – historically refers to a collapsed structure environment that requires a specialized response with enhanced training.

Mountain SAR – typically refers to a search and rescue operations in a mountainous terrain and involving air support and high angle rope rescues.  Since the majority of Mountain SAR concepts are applicable, Mountain SAR will be addressed in this level of course under the guise of just “SAR”.


Types of Lost/Missing Person Searches

  • Wandering – Subject walks away, commonly a patient affected by Alzheimer’s or Dementia, from a nursing home, becomes disoriented and can not find their way back.
    • If the same subject drives away in a confused state, it is essentially a search for the vehicle first before any ground search strategy will be effective looking for the missing person.
    • Wandering subjects may drift in and out of lucidity (i.e. speaking clearly to a bus driver one minute but incoherently to a store clerk minutes later) making their behavior hard to predict.
  • Abduction – A subject, commonly a child, is abducted by a stranger and is believed to be a victim of child homicide.
    • These searchers are highly sensitive and involve a tremendous police presence due to the entire mission being a criminal investigation.
    • The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) maintains an exhaustive amount of research and statistics about abductions (custodial and non-custodial).
    • Because of the sensitivity of the subject, searchers should be prepared to address their mental health needs along with their fellow responders.  An expanded section on Critical Incident Stress is included later in this course.
  • Lost/Missing – Subject could be lost hiker, hunter, berry picker or adventurous child who is unaccounted for.
    • People become lost for a multitude of reasons, though searching for them typically involves a very similar strategy.
    • Some people are unaccounted for because they don’t want to be found so many cities have established criteria that throttles or escalates an official response based on things like age of the missing person, length of time missing, reported mental status, etc.  For example, a child under 12 may be searched for immediately after their reported status while a 17 year old child may not be considered missing until after 24 hours without some extenuating circumstances.
  • Suicide – Many suicidal subjects commit their act where they can be easily found but some subjects hide in hopes that they will not be located, therefore a search mission is appropriate.
    • Depending on when the SAR mission is initiated, a suicidal person may not have ended their life yet so searchers should be trained to deal with an armed and highly agitated individual if they find him or her still alive.
  • Homicide – Subject is dumped at an unknown location after being killed or disarticulated human remains are scattered due to scavenging and need to be recovered.
    • Searching for a homicide suspect AND the homicide victim is significantly different and should be exercised with extreme caution and only by appropriately trained resources.
  • Structural Collapse – Resulting from tornadoes, earthquake, explosions, fires or other structural compromise.  Subjects are trapped and require technical assistance to be removed.
    • As previously mentioned, this type of response is typically done by heavy rescue or Urban SAR teams that have the training, equipment and resources to work for a sustained period in this type of environment.
    • At the local level however, a single building that collapses or burns down may create the need for local SAR resources.
    • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves, steel-toed boots, eye protection and a helmet are basic safety measures required to respond to a structural collapse.
  • Flood, Swiftwater or Drowning – Resulting from hurricanes or floods.  Subjects are trapped in a compromised structure or vehicle; washed away by floodwaters or reported missing while swimming or boating.
    • Swiftwater response is very specialized and requires a great deal of training and experience.  The dynamic nature of moving water can be extremely dangerous for victims and responders.
    • Flatwater response is less dynamic and may involve rescue divers, pike poles and water recovery search dogs.
  • Terrorist Act – Dangerous to human life and intended to cause great destruction to key resources and our nation’s critical infrastructure.
    • Like the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 a terrorist incident is the mother of all crimes scenes and the careful vetting of search and rescue responders is paramount.
    • The responses to terrorist events will likely involve a vast amount of different responding agencies.
    • Increasingly, training in hazardous materials and chemical weapons is expected before responding as a SAR resource to a Terrorist incident.
  • Downed Aircraft – There are approximately 250,000 registered aircrafts in the United States and most are small and hard to find should they crash.
    • One third (1/3) of the United States is covered in trees (about 750 million acres) making it especially difficult to search for an aircraft, especially without an accurate starting point.
  • Wide Area Search – A search for an unknown number of people in a large area that is impacted, like after Hurricane Katrina.
    • These search responses typically last for many, many days or weeks in very austere conditions due to the extraordinary size and scope of the damage and the enormity of the search task.

Search & Rescue Strategy Terms

Point Last Seen (PLS) - the location where the missing subject was last scene in-person by a verifiable source, including video.

Point Last Known (PLK) - the location where the subject was last known to be based on physical evidence such as personal articles, footprints or digital trace (cell phone location).

Travel Aid - any path offering less resistance than the surrounding environment. Roads and sidewalks are obvious but for the lost and missing, any creek bed, culvert, critter-trail or path is a travel aid they may use.

Incident Command System (ICS)/Response Leadership Terms

Incident Commander (IC) – Responsible for the overall strategic direction of the incident response.  This person is responsible for all of the other positions until another person is assigned.

Safety Officer – Reports directly to the IC and is responsible for the overall health and safety of the responders.

Planning Section Chief – Responsible for the collection, evaluation and distribution of information gathered from the SAR incident.

Logistics Section Chief – Responsible for incident support of the SAR incident for items such as transportation, meals, lodging, etc. for the SAR responders.

Operations Section Chief – Responsible for all operational elements of the SAR incident.  Is accountable to the IC and is tasked with implementing the Operational Objectives established by the IC, such as “search the Smith farm for Little Timmy”.  Most SAR responders will report to this Section.

Finance Section Chief – Responsible for the purchase or reimbursement of incident expenses.

Single Resource – While a single person would not be sent into the field alone, an individual unit or single resource is a specialized resource that can be slotted into an ICS organizational chart to work within the larger organization.

Example:    doctor, structural specialist, bookkeeper, animal control officer, etc.

Strike Team – Resources of the same type and kind.  These teams are configured before arriving at the incident.

Example:  a water strike team with all water rescue technicians and their own boat.

Task Force – A combination of resources of different types and kinds; with common leadership and communications.

Example: an Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Team or Technical Rescue Team (TRT) made up of Rescue Specialists, Hazmat Specialists, Canine Search Specialists, etc.  The Task Force configuration can then be subdivided based on the incident’s needs.

Operational Objectives – These are the high-level goals to be accomplished during the first operational period (usually 12 hours in duration) of the incident and must be measurable and attainable.  The first objective is always a safety message so that responders are less likely to become lost or injured themselves and add to the incident’s challenges.  Operational Objectives are modified after each operational period based on new information.  These objectives may be on a napkin or a large dry erase board but they must be communicated to the rest of the response organization.

Master Map - This is a living document that should reflect what the view from the field looks like.  As reports come in of areas searched, clues found and hazards documented, the master map should give commanders a near real-time view in which to continually review and revise the Operational Objectives.  Data from a field responder's sketch map is often what fuels the creation of a master map.

Incident Action Plan (IAP) – This document provides the overall strategic direction of the SAR response.  Some of the key documents found in an Incident Action Plan are:

  • Incident Briefing - this form captures the overall status of an incident.  An executive summary of sorts.  ICS Form 201.
  • Operational Objectives - as discussed, these are the guiding light for responders to all focus on the same outcomes.  ICS Form 202.
  • Organizational Chart - lists the names and responsibilities of key personnel.  ICS Form 203.
  • Medical plan - lists emergency response procedures, the location of medical aid and information about local hospitals.  ICS Form 206.
  • Resource Sign-In - this is the master document that every responder that arrives on-scene signs when they check in and signs when they depart.  If someone is not on this list, then they are not considered part of the official incident response. ICS Form 211.
  • Communication plan - lists what radio channels everyone should be operating on and other communication protocols.  ICS Form 205.

ICS Forms - A complete list of ICS forms available for an incident and a subsequent Incident Action Plan are listed below by Form Number, Title, and Who Typically Prepares the Form:

ICS 201 - Incident Briefing (Initial Incident Commander)

ICS 202 - Incident Objectives (Planning Section Chief)

ICS 203 - Organization Assignment List (Resources Unit Leader)

ICS 204 - Assignment List (Resources Unit Leader and Operations Section Chief)

ICS 205 - Incident Radio Communications Plan (Communications Unit Leader)

ICS 205A - Communications List (Communications Unit Leader)

ICS 206 - Medical Plan (Medical Unit Leader -reviewed by Safety Officer)

ICS 207 - Incident Organization Chart (wall-mount size, optional 8½″ x 14″ - Resources Unit Leader)

ICS 208 - Safety Message/Plan (Safety Officer)

ICS 209 - Incident Status Summary (Situation Unit Leader)

ICS 210 - Resource Status Change (Communications Unit Leader)

ICS 211 - Incident Check-In List (Resources Unit/Check-In Recorder)

ICS 213 - General Message (Any Message Originator)

ICS 214 - Activity Log (All Sections and Units)

ICS 215 - Operational Planning Worksheet (Operations Section Chief)

ICS 215A - Incident Action Plan Safety Analysis (Safety Officer)

ICS 218 - Support Vehicle/Equipment Inventory (Ground Support Unit)

ICS 219-1 --> 10 - Resource Status Card (T-Card)(Resources Unit)

ICS 220 - Air Operations Summary Worksheet (Operations Section Chief or Air Branch Director)

ICS 221 - Demobilization Check-Out (Demobilization Unit Leader)

ICS 225 - Incident Personnel Performance Rating Supervisor at the incident

 Debriefing – findings from all field teams is collected and documented.  Debriefing is conducted after each field assignment, after each shift change and this data is all deconflicted at the end of the entire operation.

Rehabilitation – SAR responders and their equipment must be properly taken care of and rested so that they are prepared and equipped for the next SAR incident.

'Hot Wash' – This refers to a quick overview amongst the management team on key areas in the operation that went well and those that didn't go well.  If there is heartburn over a decision or other hot topic, the 'hot wash' is where it should be vented before people leave.

After Action Report (AAR) – The AAR can take many forms, but it is the document that summarizes to the AHJ what the SAR Operation consisted of, what the findings were and what recommendations, if any the Incident Commander has. The AAR is typically the recitation and the culmination of everything that occurred at the SAR incident starting from the initial call out and becomes part of the agency's official record of the incident.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD) – In many cases, the stress and trauma associated with a SAR incident can take a heavy toll on the emotional well-being of the SAR responder.  This is common and often expected.  CISD is a process in which a trained facilitator works with the affected responders to better manage the emotional impact of what they saw, did or what they were unable to do.  Accordingly, most SAR operations accommodate a formal or informal CISD for an extended period after a SAR incident.

Typing - Resource typing is defining and categorizing, by capability, the resources requested, deployed and used in incidents. Resource typing definitions establish a common language and defines a resource’s (for equipment, teams, and units) minimum capabilities. NIMS resource typing definitions serve as the common language for the mobilization of resources. 

Credentialing - Qualifying and credentialing personnel ensures that the identity and attributes of individuals or members of teams are validated against an established set of minimum criteria and qualifications for specific job titles. The NIMS Guideline for the Credentialing of Personnel can be found here.

Emergency Support Functions (ESFs)

ESF #1 – Transportation
ESF Coordinator: Department of Transportation

  • Aviation/airspace management and control
  • Transportation safety
  • Restoration and recovery of transportation infrastructure
  • Movement restrictions
  • Damage and impact assessment

ESF #2 – Communications
ESF Coordinator: Department of Homeland Security (National Communications System)

  • Coordination with telecommunications and information technology industries
  • Restoration and repair of telecommunications infrastructure
  • Protection, restoration, and sustainment of national cyber and information technology resources
  • Oversight of communications within the Federal incident management and response structures

ESF #3 – Public Works and Engineering
ESF Coordinator: Department of Defense (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

  • Infrastructure protection and emergency repair
  • Infrastructure restoration
  • Engineering services and construction management
  • Emergency contracting support for life-saving and life-sustaining services

ESF #4 – Firefighting
ESF Coordinator: Department of Agriculture (U.S. Forest Service)

  • Coordination of Federal firefighting activities
  • Support to wildland, rural, and urban firefighting operations

ESF #5: Information and Planning
ESF Coordinator: DHS (FEMA)

  • Collects, analyzes, processes, and disseminates information about a potential or actual incident
  • Conducts planning activities

ESF #6: Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Temporary Housing and Human Services
ESF Coordinator: Department of Homeland Security (Federal Emergency Management Agency)

  • Mass care
  • Emergency assistance
  • Disaster housing
  • Human services

ESF #7 – Logistics Management and Resource Support
ESF Coordinators: General Services Administration and Department of Homeland Security (Federal Emergency Management Agency)

  • Comprehensive, national incident logistics planning, management, and sustainment capability
  • Resource support (facility space, office equipment and supplies, contracting services, etc.)

ESF #8 – Public Health and Medical Services
ESF Coordinator: Department of Health and Human Services

  • Public health
  • Medical
  • Mental health services
  • Mass fatality management

ESF #9 – Search and Rescue
ESF Coordinator: Department of Homeland Security (Federal Emergency Management Agency)

  • Life-saving assistance
  • Search and rescue operations

ESF #10 – Oil and Hazardous Materials Response
ESF Coordinator: Environmental Protection Agency

  • Oil and hazardous materials (chemical, biological, radiological, etc.) response
  • Environmental short- and long-term cleanup

ESF #11 – Agriculture and Natural Resources
ESF Coordinator: Department of Agriculture

  • Nutrition assistance
  • Animal and plant disease and pest response
  • Food safety and security
  • Natural and cultural resources and historic properties protection
  • Safety and well-being of household pets

ESF #12 – Energy
ESF Coordinator: Department of Energy

  • Energy infrastructure assessment, repair, and restoration
  • Energy industry utilities coordination
  • Energy forecast

ESF #13 – Public Safety and Security
ESF Coordinator: Department of Justice

  • Facility and resource security
  • Security planning and technical resource assistance
  • Public safety and security support
  • Support to access, traffic, and crowd control

ESF #14: Long-Term Community Recovery
Superseded by the National Disaster Recovery Framework

Long-Term Community Recovery was superseded by the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF). For guidance on long-term community recovery, please refer to the NDRF

Refer to this link for more information on ESF #14.

ESF #15 – External Affairs
ESF Coordinator: Department of Homeland Security

  • Emergency public information and protective action guidance
  • Media and community relations
  • Congressional and international affairs
  • Tribal and insular affairs

Training Levels

Awareness LevelLiteracy of a topic consisting typically of a couple of hours of online or classroom training.

Operations Level- Competency of a topic requiring hands-on involvement.  Level required for most support personnel.

Technician LevelExpertise in a topic.  Technician level is usually the standard for operational readiness for each responder’s area of specialty.

Specialist LevelProficiency in a topic.  Not all positions have curriculum that support a Specialist Level.

Training Topics for Search & Rescue (SAR)

  •  Medical:  depending on the type of responder, may include Basic 1st Aid up to Paramedic.
  • Navigation:  Map and compass as well as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and sketch mapping.
  • Communication:  Radio protocol and procedure, including emergency traffic.
  • Incident Command System:  There is an exhaustive amount of advanced training related to Incident Command; the higher in the organization one goes, the more advanced level training is usually required.  Search for “ICS” at TEAM Solutions.US for additional information.
  • Ground Search:  SAR techniques such as man tracking, map sketching, clue consciousness, basic crime scene preservation and others.
  • Rope Rescue:  Basic rescue knots up to life safety rigging systems.
  • Structural Collapse: building types, breaching, lifting, moving and shoring of a compromised structure in order for SAR operations to proceed safely.
  • Blood Borne Pathogens:  Safety measures concerning body fluids, etc.
  • Crime Scene:  Securing and documenting the scene of a deceased victim or other critical clues.
  • Search Strategy:  Use of K9’s, attraction, containment, search probabilities and statistics and other considerations needed to be effective in a SAR operation.
  • Hazardous Materials: Also called Hazmat.  This training consists of what to look for, how to prevent it and how to treat any exposure.
  • Swiftwater/Flood:  Hydrology, water rescue techniques, and boat operations.
  • Documentation:  Structure markings for search, for victim locations and for structural assessment, ICS forms, sketch mapping, etc.
  • Briefing and Debriefing:  Effectively and quickly communicating mission-critical information through the organization.

Miscellaneous Definitions

Event = a Planned ActivityI.e., street festival, scheduled training, parade, etc.

Incident = an UN-Planned ActivityI.e., a tornado, a missing hiker, a structure fire, etc.



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