Our final post in the four-part series dedicated to emergency and patrol services by bike is all about search and rescue. We have already covered police bicycles, EMS (emergency medical service) bikes, and fire service bikes. Search and rescue (SAR) service by bike is closely related to EMS services by bike, but with a slightly different flair. Header image source: Calgary Search and Rescue.
Search and Rescue vs Emergency Medical Services
Before getting into a discussion of SAR service by bike, I’d like to briefly discuss the difference between search and rescue (SAR) and emergency medical service (EMS). Like many concepts, both SAR and EMS vary to some degree or another depending on the context in which they are being implemented. However, for the most part, SAR refers to “the humanitarian cause of saving lives.” Generally speaking, many SAR operations occur in non-urban environments, while EMS activities – which are also dedicated to the cause of saving lives – typically occur in urban environments. SAR and EMS professionals alike are typically trained in emergency medical service practices such as first aid, CPR, and the like. SAR searchers are also typically trained to survive in harsh conditions due to the weather, terrain, hours, and more, while EMS professionals are trained to deal with the challenges presented in urban environments. For the purposes of the SAR bike service discussion, I will be referring to SAR in non-urban environments, and naturally, by bike.
Search and Rescue Bike History
The use of bicycles for search and rescue (SAR) is relatively new. In the Mountain Bike Search and Rescue Training Manual available from the Backcountry Trail Patrol Association, Hans Erdman describes one of the first incidents of mountain bikes being used for search and rescue:
The headlights split the darkness ahead; the only sound, the heavy breathing of the cyclists as they made their way down the mountain trail. The terrain was rough, the sky as dark as 3 AM on an overcast night could be, but the four mountain bikers stuck to the task they had been given. By the light of their bike’s dual headlights, helmet headlamps, and occasional pocket flashlights, they picked up the occasional footprint. However, the boy they were seeking was not sticking strictly to the trail, which made the difficult night tracking even more arduous. They continued on, dropping gears to go up steep hills, hoisting the bikes onto their shoulders when there was a stream to be crossed. Gradually, the sky started to lighten, and the sun slowly rose over the mountains. Now any observer could see the orange shirts and white helmets of the sheriff’s mountain bike search and rescue (SAR) unit, as they pushed on through the gathering daylight.
Erdman goes on to describing this particular SAR unit finding the boy they were seeking. The particular incident he describes took place in southern California in 1995, and since that time, more and more SAR units have started to use bicycles – typically of the mountain bike variety – as additional tools for SAR operations.
Image Source: Back Country Trail Patrol Association
It is important to note that SAR cycling is not the same as bike patrol. Bike patrols are typically groups or individuals who volunteer to patrol trail areas by bicycle in order to assist trail users, inform trailer users of land use laws, and educate trail users about proper etiquette and more. The International Mountain Bike Association (IMPA) runs the National Mountain Bike Patrol (NMBP), which is a nationwide group of bike patrol organizations. Bike patrols generally operate on a volunteer basis, as do some SAR cyclists, but SAR cycling focuses primarily on search and rescue.
Search and Rescue Procedures by Bike
It goes without saying that SAR operations by bike are not typically “a ride in the park,” as Erdman puts it. He emphasizes that SAR cyclists are riding for a different purpose than law enforcement, EMS, or trail patrol. SAR cyclists are not riding for recreation either. Unlike EMS cyclists, SAR cyclists may be asked to navigate very rough terrain, in nasty weather conditions, across long distances, and for long hours, not to mention they often have to carry between 30-50 pounds of equipment. So it comes as no surprise that good SAR cyclists have to train – mentally and physically – in order to successfully fulfill their duties and to not become a rescuee instead of a rescuer.
SAR cyclists also need the appropriate training for their job, in addition to the mental and physical training on the bike, in areas such as wilderness first aid, CPR, map and compass use, communications, backcountry survival and search procedures (including general and bike specific), according to Erdman. Knowledge of bike repair and tracking may also be necessary. Last, but certainly not least, SAR cyclists need to be competent mountain bike handlers, as well.
Image Source: South Australian Bike Search and Rescue
Why Search and Rescue Bikes?
The reason for using bicycles for search and rescue operations is generally the same as it is for using a bicycle for law enforcement, EMS, and fire: a bicycle allows an individual to cover ground faster and more efficiently than on foot and to navigate areas that are not accessible by car. There is a great deal of utility in using a bicycle for emergency and patrol services, because the bicycle is extremely efficient and versatile. But you already knew that, didn’t you? 🙂