A Cultural Shift in Search and Rescue?

Hiker helping HikerLlanberis Mountain Rescue Team, were forced to edit a Facebook post on Monday after a simple report of a rescue deteriorated into a discussion about the injured party themselves and then swiftly moved on to the perennial question of charging for rescue. Unfortunately this type of incident and the inevitable debate that follows is indicative of the changing face of search and rescue.



Search and Rescue has a long history. Many teams, especially lifeboat crews, can look back on histories of several hundred years. They were set up by local fishermen and sailors to support each other when one of their colleagues got into trouble. Each knowing that bad luck and/or bad weather could mean that the next person in need of rescue was themselves.

Likewise Mountain Rescue Teams were originally set up by mountaineers, again looking out for themselves and their colleagues for when accidents happen.

In both cases the need for rescue was nothing to do with unpreparedness or foreseeable risk but rather the unexpected or freak accident that meant self-rescue, which was the norm, could not be achieved without additional support.

Anyone reading any mountain rescue history or story will also be struck with the inevitable time delays caused by party members taking days to get down and get help, and then rescuers taking days to get to the injured individual.

Several cultural changes have meant that this old system of "mutual support" search and rescue has gone.

Everywhere is so much more accessible these days. Individuals, with little training or experience, now think nothing of driving to a mountain or the coast, and venturing out. They are unaware of the changeability of these environments and the inherent risks, unaware of the equipment required to safely venture out, and unaware of basic self-rescue techniques if required. They expect to go out and be back, sitting comfortably with a hot drink, at home or their hotel by nightfall. They do not even think that this might not happen.

Added to this we are all now accustomed to being in contact 24 hours a day by mobile phone. Position location and mapping features that come as standard on most smart phones give total reassurance that not only can they call for help but also give an accurate position.

Examples of this are aplenty. The UK's RNLI often has stories of having to rescue the same sailor several times due to their lack of skill. Likewise I cannot think of many MR teams that do not have a recent story of an unprepared walker / climber who needed rescue.

There is, alas, a cultural shift, away from individuals assessing risk for themselves and taking responsibility for their own actions, to one where risk is expected to be managed by someone else and if something happens, a) it wasn't their own fault, and b) someone else will rescue me.

This is partly a societal shift, neatly blamed on ambulance chasing lawyers and "where there's blame there's a claim" attitudes but search and rescue teams need to take some of the blame themselves.

Take a look at the UK's RNLI website's advice on beach safety.

"When you're heading to a beach, we urge you to respect the water and visit a lifeguarded beach. On a lifeguarded beach there are trained professionals to help keep you safe – they'll be on hand if something goes wrong, in or out of the water. It's easy to search for lifeguarded beaches with our free RNLI Beach Finder app, to make sure you and your family have a safe and fun trip to the coast."

It can be read as sensible advice about keeping your family safe at the beach. It can also be read as abdicating responsibility for keeping yourself and your family safe and leaving it to the professionals.

I once witnessed one of these professionals telling beach goers that they were not "allowed" to swim outside of the flags he had up; blowing his whistle vigorously should anyone stray. No explaining the supposed dangers of swimming outside this area, the localised current that might have caught them unawares if they were not careful etc. Rather he assumed sole responsibility for anyone on "his beach".

The RNLI would obviously like all beachgoers to be overseen by their lifeguards. Does this position though add to the problem?

Wouldn't it be nice to start with something about don't rely upon us being there; be prepared and be smart? Shouldn't we all be educating individuals in our disciplines to think carefully about the dangers and how to avoid the need to call us in.

Which, as always, brings us on to those individuals who chose to ignore the advice and then, when in trouble, expect rescue. Unfortunately search and rescue personnel around the globe are generally nice people. Much as letting Darwinian evolution happen by letting some of these individuals actually face up to the consequences of their actions might solve the problem quickly, most of us agree that that would be unethical.

How then do we deal with this?
The vast majority of individuals involved in search and rescue see it as a free service to those in need. That is why so much SAR around the world is organised by volunteers. However, there is the suggestion that by charging we can "punish" those unprepared, unequipped individuals and deter future problems.

Unfortunately charging for rescue doesn't solve the underlying issue that people see search and rescue as a service, on call for them. In fact charging would amplify this belief.

What then is the answer? SARworld wishes there was an easy answer but unfortunately there isn't one. All we can do is educate as many people as possible to the dangers of the environments and emphasise self-responsibility in all situations; even if this means continuing to let them make their own mistakes and being there to help when they do.