The stages of search and rescue in Australia

Respecting nature and the complexity of rescue

The exhilaration of hiking through rugged landscapes, breathing fresh air, and immersing yourself in the majesty of nature – these are the reasons we lace up our boots and venture into the Australian bush. Yet, beneath the thrill lies a sobering reality: the wilderness can be unforgiving, and in its embrace, even the most seasoned adventurer can become lost.

For hikers and bushwalkers, understanding the complexity of search and rescue operations isn’t meant to instill fear, but to inspire responsibility. When a loved one disappears in the bush, the agonising wait for news becomes a living nightmare. Knowing that your preparation and responsible choices could have mitigated the risk, minimised the search area, and potentially brought them home faster, adds a whole new dimension to your wilderness experience.

This complexity, however, is a testament to the incredible skill and dedication of our search and rescue professionals. Imagine the intricate coordination between police, SES volunteers, AMSA, ADF personnel, and even trained search dogs, all working with sophisticated technology to comb remote terrains and decipher clues left behind. It’s a symphony of expertise and unwavering resolve, played out with the missing person’s well-being as the only melody.

Weather patterns, for example, become more than just conversation starters. Understanding how sudden storms can alter water crossings or visibility in valleys informs route planning and packing decisions. Knowledge of terrain features, like the treacherous slopes of scree fields or the unpredictable flash floods in dry creek beds, empowers you to choose safer paths and avoid unnecessary risks. Communication protocols, like knowing which radio frequencies to use in emergencies, can be the lifeline that connects you to help in areas with limited phone reception.

Essential gear isn’t an inconvenience; it’s a potential lifesaver. A map and compass become your guides when technology fails, a PLB can summon help from miles away, and a well-stocked first-aid kit can bridge the gap until professional assistance arrives. Each item you carry represents a conscious choice, a deliberate step towards minimising the burden on rescue teams and increasing your own chances of a successful outcome.

Bush search and rescue in Australia: A coordinated effort

When someone goes missing in the Australian bush, a complex and well-coordinated response is set in motion. This blog post will delve into the roles and responsibilities of different organisations involved in the coordination process, as well as the specific procedures that are followed during a search and rescue operation.

VICSES volunteers lead multi-agency rescue
Image: SES Victoria – VICSES volunteers lead multi-agency rescue

Key players in the coordination game:

State or Territory Police Force: The lead agency for land search and rescue in most Australian states and territories. They are responsible for assessing the situation, declaring a search and rescue operation, and coordinating the overall response.

State Emergency Service (SES): A volunteer-based organisation that provides vital support to the police force during search and rescue operations. They are skilled in first aid, remote area operations, and search techniques.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA): The lead agency for maritime search and rescue in Australia. They are responsible for coordinating search efforts at sea and along the coastline.

Australian Defence Force (ADF): May be called upon to assist in search and rescue operations, particularly in remote or challenging environments. They can provide aerial search capabilities, specialised personnel, and logistical support.

Volunteer Bushwalking Organisations: Groups like Bushwalking Victoria and the Australian Volunteer Search and Rescue Association (AVSAR) can provide valuable assistance with search efforts, drawing on their knowledge of the local terrain and experienced volunteers.

The coordination process
Image: SES Victoria – VICSES volunteers bush search and rescue

The coordination process

  1. Initial Notification: When a person is reported missing, the police are typically the first point of contact. They will gather information about the missing person, the circumstances of their disappearance, and the last known location.
  2. Assessment and Decision: Based on the available information, the police will decide whether to initiate a formal search and rescue operation. Factors such as the length of time the person has been missing, the terrain, and the weather conditions will be taken into consideration.
  3. Activation of Resources: If a search and rescue operation is declared, the relevant resources will be activated. This may include police search teams, SES volunteers, ADF personnel, and air assets. The specific resources deployed will depend on the nature of the search and the terrain.
  4. Search Planning and Execution: A search plan will be developed based on the available information and the expertise of the personnel involved. The plan will typically include details about the search area, the search methods to be used, and the communication protocols.
  5. Liaison and Communication: Regular communication and liaison are essential throughout the search and rescue operation. This will involve the police, SES, other participating agencies, and the family of the missing person.
  6. Outcome and Evaluation: The search and rescue operation will continue until the missing person is found, or until all reasonable avenues have been exhausted. After the operation is concluded, there will be an evaluation to identify any lessons learned that can improve future responses.
    Specific Procedures:

The National Search and Rescue Manual outlines the specific procedures that are to be followed during a search and rescue operation in Australia. These procedures cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Alerting procedures: How to raise the alarm when someone is missing.
  • Search planning and management: How to develop and execute a search plan.
  • Search techniques: Different methods for searching for missing persons in various terrain and conditions.
  • Communication protocols: How to ensure effective communication between all parties involved in the operation.
  • Safety procedures: How to keep search and rescue personnel safe during operations.
Keeping yourself safe
Image: SES Victoria – VICSES volunteers bush search and rescue

Keeping yourself safe

No one wants to become lost, injured or in need of rescue. Its important we all take responsibility for our own safety before heading out into the bush. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:


  • Plan your trip: Choose a route that matches your fitness level and experience. Let someone know your planned route and estimated return time.
  • Pack essential gear: This should include a map, compass, GPS device (with extra batteries), first-aid kit, appropriate clothing and footwear, food and water for longer walks, and a means of communication (e.g., mobile phone, satellite communicator).
  • Check the weather: Be aware of the forecast and potential hazards like storms, flooding, or extreme heat.
  • Tell someone your plans: Let a friend or family member know your route and expected return time. Check in with them regularly, especially if your plans change.


  • Stay on track: Don’t take shortcuts or venture off the marked trail.
  • Be aware of your surroundings: Watch for hazards like cliffs, drop-offs, and slippery surfaces.
  • Don’t walk alone: Hike with a buddy or group, especially in remote areas.
  • Carry a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon): This can be a lifesaver if you get lost or injured in a remote area.

If you get lost:

Final word

Bush search and rescue operations in Australia are a complex undertaking that requires the coordinated efforts of multiple organisations and individuals. By understanding the roles and responsibilities of the key players and the specific procedures that are followed, we can appreciate the dedication and skill that goes into bringing missing people home safely.

Ultimately, venturing into the wilderness is a celebration of freedom and connection with nature. But let it be a responsible celebration, one where respect for the environment is intertwined with an understanding of the potential challenges. Knowing the complexity of search and rescue isn’t meant to deter exploration, but to enhance it – to turn every hike into a conscious journey, where preparation meets respect, and every step resonates with the knowledge that a dedicated safety net stands vigilant, woven from the expertise of professionals, the spirit of volunteers, and the power of technology.

So, go forth, explore, and enjoy the untamed beauty of the Australian bush, but do so with the awareness that responsible choices can make all the difference, not just for your own experience, but for the heroes who might one day be searching for you.

I hope this blog post has been informative. If you have any further questions about bush search and rescue in Australia, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Please note: This blog post is intended for general information purposes only and should not be taken as professional advice. If you are ever in a situation where you need to report someone missing, please contact your local police force immediately.

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