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  • CASE STUDY: How Much Does It Cost To Be A Search & Rescue Volunteer?


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CASE STUDY: How Much Does It Cost To Be A Search & Rescue Volunteer?

Ever wonder how much it costs to be a Search & Rescue Volunteer?  Your answer is below.


Search & Rescue Team

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"Pat" manages an all-volunteer, Search & Rescue team.  The team relies on members that are spread out across four counties.  As a new member, "Sam" must meet minimum requirements for 1) training 2) attendance and 3) performance before he can respond on a real search.

That process required before Sam can be deemed 'operational' can take up to a year or more is one of several reasons that many new members like him quit.  This poses a challenge for Pat since not having enough qualified members to deploy on real searches can result in serious consequences for the mission to find the lost or missing person.

Many new members like Sam also come from the private sector, where the expectation to be productive is common.  They expect that the training they attend is:

  • Well organized? 
  • Time efficient?
  • Cost effective?
  • Valuable for their personal development?

Besides the extensive delay in training, frequent drop outs are the result of these failed expectations:

  • Too many hours spent driving to and from training, meetings and seminars
  • Too many hours spent attending training, meetings and seminars
  • Too much money spent going to training, conferences, seminars, buying books, etc.

It can be argued of course that the mission is better off without people like that, but the fact remains that quality SAR responders are hard to come by.  Identifying why some leave helps fuel a solution.

Let's expand some detail for Sam's journey:

  • Like most teams, Sam's team trains once per week and schedules a business meeting each month that often includes a training element.  Sam's team also hosts or attends pricey seminars, external training classes, certification courses, buys books, pays for testing fees, etc.  
  • In Sam's case, he also is training a dog for search & rescue.  The optional weekly training he attends to work with the team's experienced handlers and the related education is yet another commitment of time and expense.
  • Not including equipment costs, Sam's annual costs associated with earning an operational status can be gigantic.  Remember too, that other volunteer members are also contributing their time to help Sam receive the training he requires.
  • And that doesn't include the yearly 'maintenance' costs to keep Sam trained and his knowledge refreshed.

So, what's all of that time worth?  The non-profit trade group Independent Sector tracks and publishes this data every year:

"The value of a volunteer hour is $24.14 and the value of a volunteer mile is .14 cents."


Using those figures, here's a conservative breakdown of Sam's volunteer time and expense to participate in his SAR team on a monthly basis:

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Activity per MONTH


MONTHLY Costs @ $24.14/hour

Time driving to and from training

8 hours


Time attending training & meetings

20 hours


Time attending misc training, seminars, etc.

8 hours


Fees, mileage costs, etc.



Optional K9 Training

20 hours


Team member support

20 hours


MINIMUM Costs Before Equipment

76 hours MINIMUM

$1834.64 MINIMUM

In just Sam's first year - before he even goes on his first search - he spends nearly 1000 hours of time worth over $22,000.  And has a 50/50 chance he'll quit before he even gets that far.

It should be noted that these are very conservative estimates.  In my first year in SAR, I spent nearly TWICE as much time training than the above example.

For instance, here are my actual training hours for just my first ten years in search & rescue (yes, I tracked my training activity using THIS).  

First 10 Years of SAR

Training HOURS Spent

MILES Driven for Training

Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Year 6
Year 7
Year 8
Year 9
Year 10
AVERAGE      =  
 872 hours PER YEAR
 6370 miles PER YEAR

Sam and other new members like him may spend more or less time on their SAR training compared to the data above.  However, anyway you slice it, the costs to train a new member are enormous and vastly under recognized.

If these teams were businesses, they'd be broke and still short of employees.

So it's easy to see why the burden of time and money breaks the will of many eager SAR prospects, doesn't it?

Therefore, if there's a way to trim 10%, 15% or even 20% percent off of that huge time and expense burden, it should be worth considering.

  • The team's training manager selects their online foundation courses for new and prospective members.
  • Instead of spending nights and weekends travelling and attending foundation training and reading through a required reading list, team members progress through the same material on their own time, using any web-enabled device (phone, tablet, computer).  No software to download.
  • The training manager requires the member to hand in a copy of their Certificate of Completion or they log in to monitor the member's progress, see their quiz scores, etc.  The member's transcript is available at any time.
  • The team recoups the enrollment fees by passing some or all of the costs to the new member as part of their application process.  As the above data reveals, the money is already being spent, just less efficiently.
  • Because the online courses deliver the required foundation knowledge, in-person team training is better spent developing the tactical skills the team requires.
  • Parts of the foundation training are automatically repeated and verified each year for existing members to maintain their proficiency and to keep them engaged.
  • The team and its members spend less time building proficiency, spend less money doing so and are more eager to engage, participate and advance.

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Now it's your turn.   Scroll down to the bottom and leave a comment with your experience with what it costs to be a volunteer in SAR.

Mike McKenna

About the author

Mike McKenna is the founder and president of TEAM Solutions. He helps public and private sector leaders improve their outcomes before, during and after a planned event or unplanned crisis.

Please contact Mike via the Contact page.

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  • I have just started with the online training. Learning what it takes and to see if I have the time and dedication to do it. My goal was to do it in my retirement years as long as I keep myself in good health.

  • Welcome and good luck on your journey, tkShier. You’ve chosen a very important and rewarding activity.

  • I have just started with the online training.

  • Lots of factors go into how much or how little one invests in their SAR activities. The commitment of our TIME is one of the more consequential decisions we make so bravo to you for exploring the efficiency of online training to guide you on your journey!

  • pamela k.bell says:

    I am just now working on the free online orientation. So, so far, I have no expenses. But I see this will change! 🙂

  • Thank you for adding your experience and insight, RAJohnson.

  • rajohnson says:

    SAR ,is very challenging. I have personal experience about conducting SAR Missions. Training and understanding your role is key. A lot of organizations lack proper guidelines about SAR ,hence most missions turn out unsuccessful.

  • Thank you for sharing your experiences with the other readers, Marius.

  • I am located in South africa and is staying in a place where mountains is close to my work. Working as a medic we go on a regarly basis to the mountains. This will help me to focus on my search and rescue

  • Excellent, Stephen. SAR is a big commitment but is always in need of self-less and dedicated people ready to serve others.

  • I really want to do this I want to help people I think in these times the more humanity that people give the more circumstances that people will help each other and we don’t get enough of that but this is what I want to do

  • Thanks for sharing your experience, Eric. Sounds like your situation worked out well for you financially. Each person’s mileage – literally and figuratively – will differ depending on the area they’re in, the team’s expectations, the member’s commitment and of course the distance between training locations.

  • Eric Mackenzie says:

    in 2006 i joined rhe cert team through the fire dept. it didnt really cost me anything except a few dollars for gas to get there. my gear was free too. i didnt have to pay anything for training

  • det finns mĂ„nga sök- och rĂ€ddningsresurser pĂ„ denna webbplats för att hjĂ€lpa dig. Kontakta mig direkt om du inte ser vad du letar efter. Tack för besöket.

  • Jag letade upp sökning och rĂ€ddning efter vĂ„rt omrĂ„de eftersom vi har en hel del mĂ€nniskor som försvinner i vĂ„rt lĂ€n varje Ă„r. De har ett volontĂ€rprogram med hundar. Ganska intressant!

  • Great advice and insight, Kimberly. Your experience is a lesson for us all.

  • Keep all records, all receipts. The tax laws and deductions have changed drastically this year, so all the old rules we’re familiar are different, or just gone. Sometimes being audited is because something is so radically different than a previous year; for me, after 25+ years, that’s the way my SAR expenses ALWAYS are (but that was a watermark year, for sure).

    One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is that most SAR teams fail to get or maintain their 501c3 status, fail to file 990s, and give incorrect tax law advice.

    Instead of saying “your donation is 100% deductible!” like many teams do, it is more legal and correct to say, “your donation may be deductible to the extent of the law; please consult your qualified tax adviser for advice.”

    Because if the TEAM isn’t doing things correctly, then whatever you do will also be suspect, and can trigger your audit.

    So… “please consult your qualified tax adviser for advice.”

  • Wow, that’s an expensive year. Thanks for sharing. Any tips on not getting audited?

  • It was 1993, so I’d need to go back and consider what that would be worth today. However, I was audited by the IRS in 1996, after having more than $11,000 in receipts alone. Since I’d held some back, every time the auditor would deny one receipt, I’d hand him a new, different one. In the end, he wiped out a $1,000, and I entered in a new $1,000, and it was a complete wash. So, for 1996, just in receipts, $12,000.00 cash.

  • How much time and money did YOU spend in your first year of training?

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