How to Become a Search and Rescue EMT

Spotlight on the crucial role SAR EMTs play in emergency medical services.

Search and Rescue (SAR) Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) are essential in providing emergency medical care in remote and challenging environments where traditional medical responders cannot easily reach due to terrain or accessibility. These specialized EMTs blend advanced medical skills with navigation and survival expertise to offer critical care under extreme conditions. Their work is vital to search and rescue operations, ensuring that medical assistance is available in the most inaccessible areas.

SAR EMTs encounter unique responsibilities and challenges that set them apart from standard EMTs. They must quickly assess and stabilize patients in suboptimal conditions, often with limited resources and under time constraints. Their work settings can vary from dense forests and rugged mountains to disaster sites, demanding not only comprehensive medical knowledge but also significant physical endurance and adaptability to rapidly changing scenarios.

For those considering a career as a SAR EMT, understanding the foundational duties and training of a general EMT is crucial. Learn more on how to become an EMT and explore the top EMT specialties within the EMT field, including SAR, for a deeper insight into the unique opportunities and challenges of each specialty. This article aims to guide those interested in this challenging yet rewarding field, putting a spotlight on the crucial role SAR EMTs play in emergency medical services.

Search and Rescue EMT Definition

What is a Search and Rescue EMT?

Search and Rescue (SAR) Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) specialize in providing essential emergency medical care during search and rescue missions in remote or hazardous environments. These professionals are trained to navigate difficult terrains—such as mountains, forests, and disaster-stricken areas—to reach, assess, and treat individuals who are injured or ill, which conventional medical services might not easily access. Their role is not only to offer immediate medical interventions but also to ensure safe and effective evacuation strategies for patients under challenging conditions.

The significance of SAR EMTs lies in their ability to perform critical triage, stabilization, and evacuation tasks in environments that are often unpredictable and perilous. They are equipped with specialized medical and survival skills that allow them to make rapid decisions about the severity of injuries and the necessary medical response. This includes managing trauma, administering medications, and employing life-saving techniques in situ. The ability to provide such specialized care in extreme settings makes SAR EMTs invaluable in bridging the gap between remote locations and the definitive care available at medical facilities, thus often making the difference between life and death.

Search and Rescue EMT Job Description

What Does a Search and Rescue EMT Do?

Search and Rescue (SAR) EMTs undertake a variety of critical duties and responsibilities, key among them being the ability to conduct wilderness medical assessments, provide comprehensive trauma care, and facilitate extrication and evacuation procedures. In the field, these EMTs assess the medical condition of individuals found in remote areas, determining the urgency and type of care required. They manage trauma injuries, which could range from fractures and lacerations to more severe conditions such as head injuries or internal bleeding. Furthermore, SAR EMTs are responsible for safely extracting patients from difficult-to-reach locations and coordinating their evacuation, often involving complex logistics such as airlifts or long ground transports, to ensure they reach medical facilities for further treatment.

To effectively perform these roles, SAR EMTs must possess specialized knowledge and skills that extend beyond typical emergency medical services. They are trained in wilderness medicine, which includes adapting medical techniques to the outdoors and managing environmental exposures like hypothermia or heatstroke. Proficiency in navigation is essential, enabling them to quickly locate victims in vast, often poorly mapped regions. Additionally, they are skilled in technical rescue techniques, which may involve ropework, swiftwater crossing, and other specialized maneuvers necessary to access and retrieve patients from hazardous terrains. This unique blend of medical expertise, survival skills, and technical know-how is what enables SAR EMTs to respond efficiently and effectively in emergencies that occur in remote or challenging environments.

Search and rescue dog looking through the debris of a building

Search and Rescue EMT Duties

Here is a bulleted list of some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Search and Rescue (SAR) EMT:

  • Conducting Medical Assessments: Performing initial evaluations to determine the nature and extent of a patient’s injuries or medical conditions in remote settings.
  • Administering Emergency Medical Treatments: Providing immediate care such as CPR and wound care, as well as administering medications as required.
  • Assisting with Patient Extrication: Safely removing patients from challenging or inaccessible locations using specialized equipment and techniques.
  • Transporting Patients: Coordinating and assisting in the safe transport of patients from the incident site to medical facilities, which may involve ground or air transport.
  • Maintaining Medical Equipment: Ensuring all medical and rescue equipment is ready for use, which includes performing checks and managing inventory.
  • Documenting Incidents: Keeping accurate records of medical interventions and patient status throughout the rescue operation.
  • Collaborating with Other Emergency Services: Working closely with other professionals such as firefighters, police, and additional rescue personnel to execute complex rescue missions.
  • Participating in Training and Drills: Engaging in regular training sessions to maintain and upgrade their medical and rescue skills, as well as participating in simulation drills to prepare for actual SAR operations.

Search and Rescue EMT Skills

Success as a Search and Rescue (SAR) EMT depends on a specific set of skills and qualities that enable effective operation in challenging environments:

  • Wilderness Survival Skills: Mastery of survival techniques is crucial for ensuring personal safety and the safety of others in extreme outdoor conditions. This includes knowledge of shelter-building, fire-making, and managing food and water supplies.
  • Outdoor Navigation: SAR EMTs must be adept at using compasses, maps, and GPS devices to navigate through unfamiliar and often treacherous terrains, whether dense forests, mountains, or disaster zones.
  • Effective Communication: The ability to communicate clearly and efficiently in high-stress situations is essential, especially when coordinating with other rescue team members and ensuring that all parties are informed about the situation and actions required.
  • Medical Expertise: Beyond basic EMT training, SAR EMTs require advanced medical skills tailored to handle the types of injuries and health issues that occur in wilderness settings, such as trauma care, management of environmental exposures, and emergency pharmacology.

The physical and mental demands of SAR missions also highlight the importance of several key personal attributes. SAR EMTs must be physically capable of performing strenuous activities for extended periods. This includes hiking long distances, climbing, and sometimes swimming, often while carrying heavy equipment. Conditions during SAR operations can change rapidly. The ability to adapt to shifting circumstances and make quick decisions is vital for effective response and the safety of both rescuers and victims. In addition, SAR operations are complex and require seamless coordination among various emergency services. Being a team player who is able to trust and be trusted is essential in creating a cohesive and efficient rescue effort.

Together, these skills and qualities form the foundation of a competent SAR EMT, enabling them to save lives and provide critical care in some of the most challenging situations imaginable.

Where Do Search and Rescue EMTs Work?

Search and Rescue (SAR) EMTs operate in a diverse range of environments and settings, each presenting unique challenges and requiring specific skills. These locations often involve complex terrains such as mountains, forests, and deserts, which conventional medical response teams might not easily access. SAR EMTs here manage everything from hiking accidents to wildlife encounters. Following natural or human-made disasters like earthquakes, floods, or terrorist attacks, SAR EMTs work in collapsed buildings and other hazardous urban settings to locate and provide care to survivors. SAR operations over water include rescues from ships and boats and in cases of floods. These scenarios require EMTs to have skills in water rescue techniques and sometimes diving. Lastly, in colder climates, SAR EMTs must deal with snow and ice, requiring knowledge in managing hypothermia and frostbite as well as avalanche rescue techniques.

Search and rescue helicopter at sea

The career opportunities for SAR EMTs span various sectors, reflecting the broad need for their expertise:

  • Government Agencies: Many SAR EMTs find employment with federal or state agencies such as the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, or the Coast Guard. These positions often provide regular involvement in planned and emergency rescues, along with opportunities for advancement in emergency management.
  • Non-Profit Organizations: Various humanitarian and rescue organizations operate on local, national, and international levels, such as the Red Cross or international disaster response teams. These roles can involve both domestic and overseas travel during major crises.
  • Private Search and Rescue Companies: Some EMTs work for private firms that contract with governments, corporations, or individuals to provide specialized rescue services. These roles often require a high level of expertise and can be particularly demanding but also rewarding.
  • Volunteer Groups: Many SAR operations rely on volunteers, providing a path for EMTs to contribute to their communities. This can also be a way to gain experience and recognition in the field, potentially leading to full-time employment.

In each of these roles, SAR EMTs not only contribute critical medical assistance but also play a key part in planning and executing complex rescue operations, making them invaluable in emergency response teams across various settings and conditions.

Search and Rescue EMT Schooling & Certification

Becoming a Search and Rescue (SAR) EMT involves a combination of education, certification, and specialized training. Here’s a step-by-step overview of the typical schooling and certification process:

Basic EMT Certification: Most programs require a high school diploma or GED. Some understanding of biology and mathematics is often recommended. EMT Basic Training is typically a 120–150-hour course that covers basic emergency skills, including CPR, trauma care, and emergency response. Training is offered at community colleges, technical schools, and sometimes through hospitals or fire departments.

Certification: Upon completion of the training, candidates must pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) exam to become certified. This certification is required to work as an EMT in most states.

Advanced EMT and Paramedic Training: Advanced EMT Training requires an additional 300-400 hours that covers more advanced medical procedures and the use of complex equipment. The Paramedic Course can be between 1,200 and 1,800 hours and may culminate in an associate degree. Training is more in-depth and includes pharmacology, cardiology, and other advanced medical skills. Learn more on how to become a paramedic here.

Specialized SAR Training:

  • Wilderness EMT Certification: Additional courses that integrates traditional EMT skills with wilderness-specific protocols. Topics include long-term patient care, advanced wilderness and environmental topics, and survival skills.
  • Technical Rescue Training: There are a variety of technical courses to choose from, such as rope rescue from Code 3 Rescue, Swiftwater rescue from the Swiftwater Safety Institute, avalanche rescue from AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course, and other skills pertinent to specific environments.
  • Ongoing Education and Recertification: SAR EMTs must regularly update their certifications and stay informed of the latest practices in emergency medicine and rescue techniques.

Search and rescue firefighter holding a small dog

How Long Does It Take to Become a Search and Rescue EMT?

What Certification Do You Need to Be a Search and Rescue EMT?

The timeline to become a Search and Rescue (SAR) EMT can vary significantly based on several factors, including the level of EMT certification you pursue (Basic, Advanced, or Paramedic) and the specific SAR skills you need. At Unitek, for example, you can complete Basic EMT courses in as little as 14 days. Whereas Paramedic certification can take up to two years. Here’s a general breakdown of the certification pathway:

  • State EMT Certification: Initially, you must obtain EMT certification through recognized programs and pass the NREMT (National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians) exam. This certification must be kept current, typically requiring biannual recertification, which includes continuing education.
  • Wilderness EMT Certification (WEMT): This is an advanced training that integrates urban medical care skills with wilderness-specific adaptations. It’s highly recommended for those specifically looking into wilderness SAR operations.
  • Technical Rescue Certifications: Depending on the types of environments you expect to operate in, additional certifications can be very beneficial. These might include Rope Rescue Technicians, Swiftwater Rescue Technicians, Avalanche Rescue Technicians, and Confined Space Rescue Technicians.
  • Incident Command System (ICS) Training: Understanding the structure and strategies of incident command is crucial, especially for large-scale operations typical in disaster zones.

These certifications ensure that SAR EMTs are not only prepared to provide medical care but also to effectively coordinate and conduct rescues in complex and hazardous environments. Additional credentials, such as specialized training in navigation or survival techniques, further enhance a SAR EMT’s capabilities in the field.

Search and Rescue EMT Salary

The salary* for Search and Rescue (SAR) EMTs can vary significantly based on several factors, including experience, geographic location, type of employer, and level of training. According to data from the BLS, which tracks earnings for EMTs and Paramedics, the mean annual wage for EMTs and Paramedics is about $39,000.

Search and Rescue EMT Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Search and Rescue EMTs?

The job outlook for Search and Rescue (SAR) EMTs, which can be aligned to disaster relief roles in general is fairly positive, reflecting a growing demand for skilled emergency responders in various challenging environments. This demand is driven by several factors, including an increased emphasis on wilderness safety, adventure tourism, and disaster preparedness, as well as climate change effects leading to more frequent and severe natural disasters.

  • Increased Emphasis on Wilderness Safety and Adventure Tourism: As outdoor recreational activities gain popularity, there is a corresponding need for more SAR professionals to ensure the safety of adventurers in remote or rugged environments. This includes responding to emergencies in areas like national parks, hiking trails, and other wilderness settings where traditional emergency services may not readily reach.
  • Disaster Preparedness and Response: The frequency and intensity of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, necessitate robust disaster response capabilities. SAR EMTs are crucial in these scenarios, providing medical care in conditions where access to hospitals and clinics is hindered by the disaster itself. Government and non-governmental organizations alike are investing more in disaster response teams to improve readiness and reduce response times.
  • Climate Change Effects: The impact of climate change is leading to more frequent and severe weather-related disasters. This trend increases the need for trained emergency responders who can operate effectively in extreme conditions brought on by climate change. SAR teams are often first responders in these critical situations, dealing with the immediate aftermath of extreme weather events.
  • Technological Advancements: The integration of technology in SAR operations, such as the use of drones and advanced GPS systems, has made the field more efficient but also requires more skilled personnel who can operate and manage these technologies.
  • Policy and Funding Shifts: Changes in government policies and increased funding for emergency management and disaster response also contribute to the growth of SAR roles. Governments are recognizing the importance of having well-prepared and well-equipped SAR teams as part of their emergency services.

Increasing demand for SAR services

  • Adventure Tourism and Outdoor Activities: With the rise in popularity of outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and water sports, there is a corresponding need for more SAR operations in wilderness areas. This trend increases the demand for EMTs who are trained to handle emergencies in remote locations.
  • Disaster Preparedness and Response: As both urban and rural areas across the globe face the impacts of climate change, including wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, there is a higher emphasis on disaster preparedness and response. SAR EMTs play a crucial role in these scenarios, providing medical care and assisting with evacuations.
  • Wilderness Safety Education: There is a growing emphasis on wilderness safety education, which often includes SAR EMTs providing training and preventive measures to reduce the incidence and severity of outdoor emergencies.

Take the First Step Towards a Rewarding Career Today!

Search and Rescue (SAR) EMTs are vital components of emergency medical services, providing life-saving care in remote and hazardous environments that traditional medical response teams might not readily access. These professionals are trained to navigate diverse and challenging terrains, from wilderness areas and national parks to urban disaster zones and maritime settings. Their role is not only to offer immediate medical interventions but also to manage complex extrication and evacuation procedures effectively. SAR EMTs are equipped with specialized skills in wilderness medicine, outdoor navigation, and technical rescue techniques, enabling them to respond efficiently and effectively to emergencies that occur far from conventional medical facilities.

For those interested in pursuing a career as a SAR EMT, the path involves obtaining foundational EMT certification followed by advanced training in wilderness and technical rescue operations. Prospective SAR EMTs should seek out rigorous education and certification programs, such as those offered by Unitek’s EMT Boot Camp, which provide both the necessary knowledge and practical skills to excel in this demanding field. Gaining experience through volunteer opportunities with search and rescue organizations or related emergency services is also highly beneficial and can provide invaluable real-world experience.

The career of a SAR EMT is undeniably challenging yet immensely rewarding. Individuals in this field make a significant impact by saving lives and providing critical support in emergency situations where timing and expertise are crucial. The satisfaction of assisting those in dire need, coupled with the continuous personal and professional growth that comes with the job, makes this career path fulfilling for those dedicated to making a difference in extreme conditions.