Friday, April 5, 2024

The Mental Health Risks of Search and Rescue Workers


Search and rescue (SAR) is one of the most crucial and challenging jobs in the world. It involves looking for and providing aid to individuals in dangerous or desperate situations. From treacherous mountain terrain to rough waters, SAR teams are routinely exposed to difficult situations as they put their own lives at risk to help others.

In the United States, there are multiple organizations responsible for SAR at national, state, and local levels. Most daily SAR operations in the US are led by County Sheriffs, although some states such as Alaska have State Highway Patrol overseeing SAR efforts. In certain areas, local fire departments, EMS services, or non-profit agencies may also provide SAR assistance. Members of SAR teams typically receive training in the Incident Command System (ICS), first aid, and necessary outdoor skills for their designated terrain and climate.

Though search and rescue teams receive important training to help them perform their duties, there are very few full-time SAR roles or opportunities for individuals to pursue. Most often, aspiring SAR professionals work other, relevant full-time jobs on the side and stay on call for any potential search and rescue situations. The most common career fields that offer search and rescue opportunities include:

• Law enforcement

• National parks employees

• Firefighters

• Emergency organizations

• United States military

Like other first responders, SAR personnel are frequently exposed to traumatic incidents in their line of duty. This includes life-threatening situations, severe injuries, and the loss of colleagues and civilians. As a result, they face a higher risk of developing Compassion Fatigue, Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

As with firefighters, SAR volunteers have higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide than paid career first responders. This could be due to the heightened work-family conflict caused by the demands of their volunteer role, limited training on mental health and critical incidents, and potential challenges in accessing mental health care. Over the years, the demands placed on SAR volunteers have become more challenging as outdoor recreation grows in popularity without an equivalent increase in volunteer-based rescue services available.

While it may seem glamorous, SAR work is far from it; there are no set hours and teams must be prepared to spend the night in the field if necessary. SAR teams undergo rigorous training and live their lives on-call, ready to help others at a moment's notice.

SAR personnel are often faced with the reality that it will take hours and sometimes days to reach those who need help. Some will be beyond help when they are found. Those who are still treatable will have the added insult of prolonged suffering and exposure to the elements as they are transported to a car facility. SAR personnel are required to handle themselves and the operation in a professional manner while dealing directly with people’s suffering.

Unfortunately, burnout and high levels of stress among SAR personnel are common and comparable to other first responder groups.

Research has shown that the risk of developing PTSD increases with each traumatic event experienced by SAR personnel.

Unfortunately, SAR personnel, like other first responders we’ve discussed, are often the last to admit they need help, as it goes against their role as providers of support rather than recipients. Seeking help is often stigmatized or seen as a weakness in this community, where toughness is essential. However, it is crucial for first responders to know how and where to find help in order to build resilience.

Support mechanisms, the removal of the stigma associated with experiencing emotional distress, and education about good mental health being just as important as good physical health need to be available and easily accessible to all first responders.


If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”

Get your copy of The Soldier's Guide to PTSDThe Soldier's Workbook

or Acknowledge & Heal, A Women's-Focused Guide to PTSD

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