Search and Rescue Specialist Lives for the ‘Positive Addiction’

National Association for Search and Rescue President Dan Hourihan addresses the evolution of SAR and the importance of training.

by / August 5, 2013
SAR personnel sift through wreckage from a tornado in Moore, Okla. Photo courtesy of William Welch/FEMA

Dan Hourihan is the president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, and a training specialist at the Nevada Division of Emergency Management. He has more than 35 years of search and rescue experience and instruction. He lives for the “positive addiction of aiding those in need and what makes those involved in search and rescue tick.”

Question: When or how do you determine if a particular rescue is too dangerous?

Hourihan: The No. 1 priority in any incident response is life safety. No matter what the flavor of the response — and that goes for the responders and the general public. You do a risk assessment for anything that’s deemed hazardous to the responders and you train people to use various techniques and equipment to mitigate that hazard.

And ultimately you make an assessment that if we can undertake this task with this training and equipment, which does not eliminate all risk, then we proceed if it is truly a rescue and not a recovery. If it’s a recovery and involves any risk to the responders, there will be a different call. We do an assessment on-scene and sometimes the assessment is quick.

We know based on training what’s involved and the degree of risk we’re taking. We assess that and make a decision based on that. The risk assessment is based on training.
That goes to my next question: How important is the training and planning?

Training and planning for responders, whether they are paid or unpaid, is the component that SAR [search and rescue] responders spend the vast majority of their time on in preparing for those calls. Preparing for routine calls and for those that are low-frequency, high-risk, based on history or some sort of SAR vulnerability assessment so that folks aren’t faced with the situation I described earlier — the need to rescue someone without the proper training and equipment.

How do SAR teams come to terms mentally with some of the things they see?

Critical incidents affect everyone in different ways. The effects of witness trauma, whether it be injury or death either to the subjects of our efforts or to team members, will have an effect on everyone in different ways. Minus injury or death, prolonged operations, multioperational, multiday operations — for example, the search for a lost person that bears no fruit — will have an effect on responders.

It used to be that this was little addressed. People dealt with it their own way and went about their business. In many cases that lack of attention manifested itself in various negative ways, either through the behavior of an individual or one day that individual just said, “I’m done.” It not only has a different effect for every individual, it has a cumulative effect. If it’s not properly addressed, they will say, “I’m done, no more.”

Through the process of addressing it, through a series of steps that are addressed all the way to a formal critical incident stress debriefing, which is conducted by debriefers who are trained to deal with critical incident stress, it needs to be addressed. The long and short of it is all responders need an opportunity to share their emotions with the rest of the team. Simply that activity can often take care of this by getting it out in the open. Different folks need to be nurtured in different ways to deal with this. Some people deal with it easier than others, but it’s an essential component of any operation.

What changes to SAR have you seen through the years?

If our neighbors’ house catches on fire, it is a core human emotion to gather together and put out the fire. Law enforcement is a core human emotion. We bind together to take care of the bad guy and return peace to the village. They’re such important core human emotions that we all put money on the table and say let’s collectively bring our financial resources together and hire people to do this full time.

The third core human emotion is helping people in need. And that’s the focus of all efforts of search and rescue, whether it’s a loved one or a total stranger. That emotion has existed forever. And the need to develop tools, resources and procedures associated with technology go all the way back to putting men in space — the need to fulfill that core human emotion has existed, and SAR has evolved to develop techniques and equipment to respond to the changes and developments from technology — where people go and what people do.

Any human undertaking can have a bad day. And so we’ve evolved right along with it. When we shoot someone into space there is a plan to rescue them. As well as if someone goes swimming off a public beach. People are trained to rescue them if they have a problem. A hand-in-hand evolution.

What special qualities or characteristics make up a good search and rescue person?

The No. 1 quality from my perspective is that finely honed human emotion I just mentioned — the emotion to help those in need. Responders, whether they’re paid or unpaid, all have that emotion. Otherwise they get into the business for the wrong reasons. The focus is in keeping everyone’s eye on the ball. The ball is helping those in need. That quality is essential for anyone who is going to spend any length of time in a SAR mission.

They’ve got to be determined; they have to understand that there is an awful lot of training, depending on where you live, punctuated frequently — or in many cases infrequently — by the need for your services. But you need to be ready to go.

Also you need to be thick-skinned because things don’t always go right. None of us are perfect but we attempt through our endeavors to approach perfection. We continue to adjust our approach so that we provide the service to those in need. And often responders are the object of public 20/20 hindsight and they just need to keep their eye on the mission, adhere to best practices and do the best they can do. Association with SAR outfits, those that have that human emotion I spoke to, their lives will be enriched by not only helping those in need, a very positive addiction, but really the enrichment comes associated with those of a like mind and having the need to associate with people who think the same way.

How does SAR mesh and coordinate with other agencies?

Fire services does rescue all the time. Typically across America and internationally, search and rescue is the legal statutory responsibility of law enforcement. It is their responsibility because of the word “search,” which denotes missing person. Whether it’s a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) or an organizational component of a sheriff’s office, and that exists across the country — in 44 of the 50 states it is the statutory responsibility of the county sheriff, regardless of the fact that the forces that are called upon are organic to a fire department, but jurisdictionally the buck lands on the sheriff’s desk.

So it’s incumbent upon any independent teams to be very close to the authority having jurisdiction in the operational area if they’re going to be used as a resource. Typically that agency having jurisdiction will say, “We will use you as a resource and here are the guidelines or parameters under which we will use you and here are the standards we expect your team to meet.”

Jim McKay Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at