Search & Rescue Techniques

Did you know that when a major earthquake or hurricane strikes, it could be three to five days before you see any help? You see, first responders get completely overwhelmed, and there will come a time when it is up to you and those who survived to do whatever is possible to help…

Step up!

I have lived most of my life surrounded by excellence, by a group of guys I trust with my life. I have been spoiled by high standards of bravery among men who race into danger whenever they find it.

When I see a general lack of courage among bystanders in these situations, I have to continuously remind myself of the training and background I came from. That said, you don’t have to be a SEAL to have the courage to do the right thing and help those in need. Especially during a disaster.

You may be safe, but there will be people out there fighting for their lives. The clock is ticking, and you have a duty to aid. Gather as many people as you can. This is a clear-cut case of strength in numbers, and your mission is to save lives.

Organize the group and tackle one challenge at a time. Don’t forget to do a continuous “scene size-up.” You are operating in a very hazardous and constantly changing environment.

Situational awareness is paramount — Don’t add to the fatalities!

Having the right gear on hand is critical when performing search and rescues. From communication devices and backup power sources to stay in touch with other search groups, right down to the clothing you put on.

Be sure to wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes and gloves to protect your hands and feet from broken glass, and if you have a hard hat or any kind of helmet, put it on. You may think you look ridiculous wearing a football helmet, but if that’s all you have, use it. Keep yourself safe from falling rubble and other hazards. Your mission is to save lives.

Search: Going in

Ordinarily, you should not re-enter a damaged structure unless it has been cleared. But if there are no professionals of this caliber and you hear survivors trapped, you must take action.

1. Ensure the gas and power sources have been secured and turned off to any building or house you need to search.

2. Never go in with fewer than two people in your rescue party, following the buddy system used by SEALs.

3. Establish a search pattern: start right and go counter-clockwise. If there are multiple search teams, then direct each group or buddy pair to start at opposite ends, so as to meet in the middle.

4. Use caution while moving through the structure, remembering NOT to move any weight-bearing material. Watch your step; you could go right through the floor.

5. When searching rooms, understand that there are six sides to every room. There are four walls, a floor, and a ceiling, all of which could be places where someone is trapped.

6. Be thorough! Do it right the first time. Call out and then remain silent. Someone could be wedged under a very small space, or it could take them time to hear you and muster the energy to respond.

When you call out, don’t merely ask, “Is anyone here?” If there are survivors in the search area, chances are they are dazed. Instruct them in how to respond. Tell them to tap something if they are unable to speak.

Mark it

A very important aspect of search and rescue is to mark doors, indicating that the area was already searched, or that it is being searched. You don’t want to have another team wasting time going over the same areas, when they could be searching for survivors in other structures.

You can mark the front door or a visible part of the building using anything—spray paint, magic markers, chalk, crayons, or even a bottle of mustard.

1. Before entering a room or building, make one diagonal line across the door. This will let anyone know that someone is inside searching.

2. If you don’t find anyone inside, place another diagonal line on the door to form an “X.”

3. At the top of the “X” write the time and date. At the bottom of the “X” place a “0”. This will let everyone know that the house has been searched and there is “0” or no one inside. They can move on to the next area and save valuable time.

Found someone: Methods of extraction

More than likely you will find someone who is buried under quite a lot of weight. Since there will be no backhoes or cranes available for some time, you must devise ways to get the person out safely. The person could be under rubble that cannot be moved with bare hands. There are two methods to try to get them out.

Lever: Use the longest and sturdiest piece of wood available, such as a long 2×4 or 4×4, and place one end under the rubble. Then put another object under the lever a few feet back from the end. This will serve as a fulcrum. This longer the lever, the more weight it will lift.

Cribbing and shoring: The second technique you can use is what Search and Rescue crews call cribbing and shoring. This works well if you have a car jack available.

1. Place the jack on top of several pieces of wood to distribute the weight at the base.

2. Place a similar piece of wood between the top of the jack and the object to be lifted.

3. Slowly start jacking up the object to a height of about 4 inches.

4. Place pieces of wood that form a box or “cribbing” under the object you are lifting. This will keep it from dropping back down, and then “shore” it up.

5. Then continue lifting the object another 4 inches and repeat the process until the object is high enough to pull the victim out


Don’t think that the danger is over because the earthquake has stopped or the hurricane has passed. Aftershocks continue for days following the initial earthquake and frequently do more damage to structures already compromised. Some aftershocks are just as strong as the first tremor. Flooding can cause the entire area to be extremely hazardous.

If you are on the move, be alert and remember that what was once normal landscape is now a very different environment. Post-quake dangers are numerous:

  • Avoid entering structures without approval, unless for rescue purposes as described above.
  • Sleep outdoors, make shelters, or go to designated shelter centers. If in a city, try to set up a base in parks or wide-open areas.
  • If living near coastal regions, get to high ground as quickly as possible because of the possibility of a tidal wave.
  • Avoid bridges, overpasses, elevated walkways.
  • Watch out for downed power lines.

As a search and rescuer following a disaster, you may be the only hope for a worried or grieving family. Hopefully the information I’ve shared here will inspire you to take action, help you stay safe, and know what to do once you’ve found someone in distress.

Be a survivor, not a statistic,

Cade Courtley
Former Navy SEAL / 4Patriots Contributor

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