Forming a Ground Search and Rescue Team


Many training and certification demands are placed on the fire service. In addition to fighting fires, most departments are involved in EMS (at one level or another), hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction, and technical rescue. Some of these demands are required by law; others are self-imposed. The Blue Lake (MI) Township Fire Department (BLTFD) decided to take on another responsibility—the formation of a ground search and rescue (SAR) team.


Blue Lake Township is located in west Michigan in the northeastern portion of Muskegon County and covers 36 square miles (23,040 acres); more than 50 percent is wilderness and is owned by the U. S. National Forest, the State of Michigan, Muskegon County, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Blue Lake fine arts camp. There are also many single-family homes built on five or more acres. Blue Lake Township’s population is about 2,500. Camping activities during the summer months cause the population to soar to more than 10,000.

Although the above may read like a travel brochure, it is meant to convey the region’s vast amount of wilderness and its large population increase during the summer. Many of these people are unfamiliar with the area, which means there are many places for them to get lost. Realizing this, the BLTFD decided to organize, train, and equip a SAR team. The team was activated on January 1, 2007.


The SAR team was open to any interested BLTFD member, as well as members of neighboring fire departments and interested government-related agencies. It was important that the BLTFD include only members who have had background checks.

Since the SAR team’s beginning, some community members have expressed an interest in joining. As a result, the BLTFD adopted the policy that any person not working in government organizations could join the county’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). This would not only provide these people with basic emergency response training but also ensure that they receive driving and criminal history background checks. These candidates could then join the SAR team, and the BLTFD would train them.

Presently, there are 19 SAR team members; 16 are BLTFD members, one is a Montague (MI) Fire Department member, two are CERT members, and two are members of Muskegon County’s Emergency Service Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). RACES members help establish and maintain radio communications in areas where reception is usually very poor.

Maintaining a membership list and member certification sheet allows the SAR manager to quickly set up search teams with appropriately certified personnel. This sheet shows the BLTFD SAR team members and their certification levels.


The SAR team members are trained (by a certified instructor) and certified according to NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents. They are encouraged to be certified at all levels—awareness, operations, crew leader, and SAR manager. Since the BLTFD is a small volunteer department, this will ensure that those who do respond to a search can operate at whatever level is needed. Training is provided throughout the year, usually in the form of mini-evolutions dealing with basic SAR skills.


The BLTFD SAR team is equipped to work at the Operations, crew leader, and SAR manager levels.

Twelve backpacks were purchased and stocked for Operations and crew leader team members (photo 1). This equipment includes the following:

  • Front pouch—pen, notebook, first-aid kit, emergency blanket, compass, and whistle.
  • Middle pouch—two bottles of water and orange flagging tape.
  • Top pouch—LED flashlight.
  • Main pouch—reflective orange safety vest and space for the searcher’s personal equipment.
  • Right pouch—insect repellant and mosquito head net.
  • Left pouch—12-hour light sticks (two red and two yellow).

(1) Twelve backpacks have been set up with items primarily for search team members’ safety. (Photos by author.)

There is sufficient room in the backpack for personal items. Also, there is a water bottle pocket on each side of the backpack. All backpacks are set up identically. The two crew leader backpacks will have one additional item in the near future—a global positioning system (GPS) unit. Each crew leader is also given a portable radio for communications. Each team member receives a safety green T-shirt to wear in warm weather for easy visibility.

The SAR manager kit contains all the supplies needed to efficiently manage a search (photo 2). These items include the following:

  • Front pouches—notepad, drafting compass, three pens, four grease-marking pencils, highlighter, Search Time Estimator (helps determine places within a search area where the lost person most likely could be found), sector ladder rules, and clips.
  • Middle pouch—clipboard with pad of paper.
  • Rear pouch—SAR notebook (BLTFD SAR team’s standard operating guidelines), any necessary paperwork, member list and certification levels, and a copy of NFPA 1670.

(2) The SAR manager kit contains everything the manager may need to direct the search from start to finish. The SAR notebook contains the SOGs chronologically listing the order in which to conduct the search. All necessary documentation is included for each step.

The backpacks and SAR manager kit are carried on the BLTFD’s medical/light rescue truck, a five-passenger, four-wheel-drive truck that carries medical first responder equipment and supplies, enabling licensed search team members to begin necessary medical treatment on the victim as soon as he is located. The BLTFD SAR team also has several large updated maps of Blue Lake Township showing different township details. They are kept in a cardboard tube with the SAR manager kit on the medical/light rescue truck.


The BLTFD SAR team was organized to respond within Blue Lake Township. However, realizing that much of its surrounding area is environmentally similar to Muskegon County and neighboring counties, the SAR team also responds to mutual-aid requests within the entire region. SAR team members are paged by BLTFD members; RACES members and non-BLTFD members are telephoned from Muskegon County Dispatch. In addition, a SAR run card, which lists the agencies needed as the incident becomes more complex, was set up to activate additional support personnel.

Search teams consist of two five-person teams for a search in Blue Lake Township; a crew leader is assigned to each team. One or two SAR managers organize the search from a command post. A safety officer monitors activities outside the command post.

Most BLTFD members are state of Michigan-certified incident safety officers; at least one member of each search team, preferably the crew leader, functions as the search area’s safety officer.

When requested to assist on a mutual-aid call, the BLTFD SAR team provides at least one five-person search team, one crew leader, and one SAR manager. The SAR team expects to work under the incident’s incident command or operations chief. If other SAR teams have already assumed this responsibility, the BLTFD SAR team will work under its SAR manager. As with all specialized fire department operations, it takes time to organize SAR personnel into a team and to respond to a mutual-aid request. An estimated time of arrival is given when the SAR team leaves Blue Lake Township.

If a unified incident command structure has been established, the BLTFD SAR manager directs the SAR operations within this system.


Since the BLTFD SAR team’s activation in January 2007, the team has responded to seven missing person searches.

The first search in Blue Lake Township illustrated the reason the BLTFD was needed. Seven Boy Scouts from the Chicago area went for a hike at dusk on the Owasippe Boy Scout campgrounds and became disoriented. After a futile search attempt, the Scout camp administration requested the SAR team. During the “hasty search” (a quick check of the area where the lost person was last seen), the boys were located on a trail near a county road. Their location was given during radio operations.

A Michigan state trooper in the area picked the Scouts up and drove them back to the command post. The boys were then turned over to White Lake Ambulance Authority medical personnel, evaluated, and released to their Scout leader.

The BLTFD SAR team also responded to one mutual-aid call in Montague Township, two in Kent County, and one in Isabella County, the last involving a missing person search and an evidence search.


After gaining some initial experience in 2007, the BLTFD SAR team implemented a few operational changes for 2008.

First, we realized that, based on the volume of work initially involved, the SAR manager position was really a two-person operation—one SAR manager would be overwhelmed. As we gain more experience, one SAR manager will be trained to handle this operation.

Second, we realized that refresher training and periodic search technique reviews would be very beneficial. SAR managers have since had a refresher course, and search techniques are being worked into the fire department’s training schedule in 2008.

Third, one of the major SAR team changes shifts the resources on the BLTFD SAR team run card. The Kent County SAR team is now activated on the first alarm instead of the second alarm. This team has at least a 45-minute response time and provides experienced searchers and search dogs.

Fourth, Muskegon County Central Dispatch also changed its notification procedure for BLTFD firefighters and non-BLTFD search team members and will use a special pager tone and telephone calls to notify all team members sooner.


The BLTFD SAR team hopes to achieve the following goals:

Realizing the importance of human resources, the SAR team will continue to train all new members at least to the Operations level and also have at least one representative from the Muskegon County Fire Department and neighboring Ocean County Fire Department. Neighboring fire department members have already expressed interest in participating.

A long-term goal is to develop a regional team. This will necessitate a diverse geographical membership of more than just fire department personnel. The BLTFD SAR team will reach out to the volunteer civilian search teams in the neighboring counties, provide their members with certified training, and offer membership to the BLFTD SAR team or the SAR run card.

Also, we may request a multipassenger all-terrain vehicle equipped with a stokes basket and other emergency medical equipment. This would enable the fire and ambulance personnel to reach the victim more quickly to administer any necessary medical care.

Although the BLTFD has taken on a large responsibility, the members of the SAR team feel that they provide a necessary service to the township. Over the years, several people have become lost in Blue Lake Township’s wilderness. With this SAR team, the BLTFD hopes to be better prepared for this in the future.

LARRY RADTKE is a four-year member and captain (training division) with the Blue Lake (MI) Township Fire Department, a four-year member of the Muskegon County Hazardous Material Response Team, and a part-time teacher at the Department of Homeland Security Hazardous Material Training Center in Lansing, Michigan. He was a 21-year member of the Frankfort (IL) Fire Department, serving the final eight as assistant chief. He founded and was chief of the Will County (IL) Hazardous Material Response Team for 18 years.

No posts to display