Canine Unit
Communications Unit
Medical Unit
Motorized Unit
Mounted Unit
Search Management Unit
Tactical Search Unit
Technical Rescue Unit
Training Unit


The San Diego Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue K-9 Unit has been in existence for over 30 years. Teams are available 24 hours a day to respond to local, state and federal law enforcement as well as other public service agency requests.


The following documentary by County TV gives you a peek inside the canine unit of Search & Rescue. Follow along as they conclude a successful search for a missing man in the rugged back country of San Diego County.


  • An overdue hiker in a wilderness area

  • An Alzheimer's patient who has walked away

  • A missing child

  • A drowning victim in a lake

  • Human remains detection (HRD)

  • A victim buried in a landslide or avalanche, or a collapsed structure

  • To help determine if a subject was in an area


"Trailing" canines are trained to follow the path that a missing person has taken. Similar to traditional "tracking" dogs, these dogs require a properly preserved scent guide and should not be distracted by other people in the area. These dogs usually work on long leashes. Trailing dogs most frequently work trails that are several hours old.

"Area" search dogs are trained to find any human scent in an area. These dogs work most frequently off-leash and can cover large areas. "Area" search dogs can be helpful in a variety of situations in the wilderness, as well as, in urban settings.

Many of our mission-ready dog teams are also certified for:
  • Water

  • Human remains detection

It is estimated that a single dog team can be as effective as 20 to 30 trained human searchers in locating a missing person in a given time frame. Please remember a Search and Rescue dog is a tool and like any other tool, there are limitations. Some of the factors that impact a search dog's ability to detect scent include air temperature, humidity, terrain, wind and age of scent.


Search and Rescue canine handlers are continually updating their skills and knowledge. Most participate in up to 100 hours or more of training and missions per month. Canine handlers must attend the Search and Rescue academy prior to becoming a member of the Canine Team. All members must be certified in first aid, and proficient in navigation, survival and man-tracking, plus the special skills required to be a dog handlers.


Search dogs are well-socialized animals and represent a wide variety of breeds. They are tested extensively for temperament and must be able to work independently and for long durations. Search dogs are exposed to a wide variety of conditions and are expected to function in almost any environment they are placed in. Minimum dog training requirements include socialization, obedience, helicopter orientation, and search work. As a team, the dog and handler must pass a series of search tests to become mission-ready. On average, it takes two years for a handler and dog to become mission-ready. Teams must participate in on-going training throughout the year, as well as, annual re-certification.


If you think a search dog may be helpful to you, work with your local law enforcement agency, who's handling your case, to contact the on-duty Search and Rescue Coordinator through the Sheriff's Communications Center.


The Communications Unit is one of the most versatile units assigned to the Search and Rescue Detail. The unit is comprised of both sworn Reserve Deputies and non-sworn Rescue Volunteers and Citizen Volunteers. This unit is one of two that do not require attendance at the Search and Rescue academy. This makes it available to those potential members who may not have the time or physical stamina to attend the academy. The SAR Academy starts every January and ends in May. Citizen volunteers waiting to attend the academy are assigned to the Communications Unit until the start of the Academy.

The primary function of the Communications Unit is to provide communications services to the Search and Rescue Detail, personnel for the operation and staffing of the Sheriff Department's mobile command post. This mobile command post becomes the heart of operations for the department where ever it responds. It can be seen supporting the Detail on a wide variety of events which may include, missing person incidents, local disasters and other emergencies. Non-emergency activities have included the Del Mar Fair, Sand Castles, Mother Goose Parade, and Miramar Air Show.

Training is provided for all Communications Unit personnel. This will include a general orientation, Mobile Command bus orientation, radio operation, computer operation, resource management, ICS forms training and GPS training.


The primary mission of the Medical Unit is to provide trained medical personnel in support of Search and Rescue and other Sheriff's Department operations. Medical personnel respond in on-road and off-road environments using a variety of field vehicles (medical service vehicle, 4 x 4 utility and 4 x 4 quads) to provide basic life support (BLS) pre-hospital emergency care to injured victims or rescue workers. The Medical Unit also provides stand-by/special event medical services to other Details within the Sheriff's Department at their request. The Medical Unit provides update, refresher and continuing education training for Search and Rescue personnel.

A Rescue Volunteer (RV) within the Medical Unit provides field medical support (pre-hospital emergency care and basic life support) in support of Search and Rescue and other Sheriff's Department operations. Rescue Volunteers must successfully complete the Search and Rescue academy.

A Civilian Volunteer (CV) within the Medical Unit will provide base camp medical support (pre-hospital emergency care and basic life support) in support of Search and Rescue and other Sheriff's Department operations. Because Civilian Volunteers do not attend the Search and Rescue academy, they are not field qualified. However, Civilian Volunteers must successfully complete the Medical Unit training program.


It is required that all Medical Unit members maintain the baseline requirements for Search and Rescue Detail qualifications. In addition to maintaining a current CPR card, members of the Medical Unit must possess and maintain a current medical certification in one of the following:

  • Medical Doctor (MD)
  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Paramedic (EMT-P, WEMT-P)
  • Emergency Medical Technician (1A, FS, WEMT)
  • Emergency Medical Responder (EMR)

Although the Medical Unit currently employs persons with Advanced Life Support (ALS) medical certifications, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department is classified as a Basic Life Support (BLS) medical provider within the County of San Diego. The Sheriff's Department is not a transporting agency. All treatment provided by the Medical Unit will be to the EMT-BLS standard of care, in accordance with County treatment guidelines and protocols.


Members of the Search and Rescue Medical Unit utilize medical equipment consistent with County Basic Life Support (BLS) protocols. Medical Unit personnel will typically respond with a medical response kit containing the following items (partial list):
  • Airway Management

  • Burn Management

  • Cervical-Spine Immobilization

  • Oxygen Delivery System

  • Patient Assessment

  • Splinting

  • Trauma Management

The Medical Unit leads the medical support missions for multiple trail endurance races around San Diego County. Our unit provides basic life support services and medical assessments for all participants.

The Search and Rescue Medical Unit is proud of its service to the residents and visitors of San Diego County and would like to continue the tradition of service for years to come.


The Motorized Unit is primarily responsible for vehicle-based searches and moving people and resources, day or night, in all-weather conditions, in support of rescue and training missions. Unit members use their personal 4WD and 2WD vehicles to transport personnel and equipment in and out of search areas in both rural and urban settings. Unit members can provide perimeter containment and can act as mobile radio repeaters by utilizing geographic high points to increase communication capabilities where field teams cannot maintain direct radio contact with the search command post.

Motorized Unit personnel receive extensive off-road training, including certification for safe and effective off-road vehicle techniques and tool use. The training and certification provided to Unit members provides Search and Rescue mission planners with an inventory of specialized motorized resources that may be needed when off-road activities are required.

Collateral functions of the Motorized Unit include the Search and Rescue Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Unit. Both teams are made up of field-qualified personnel from various units in the SAR Detail.


As a member of Mounted Unit, not only do you have a chance to donate your time to your community but also to work with your horse as a partner.

The horse/human partnership in a search can have many different and exciting dimensions. The elevated position of the searcher can enhance the ability to see sign and track the subject. It also provides a wider range of view. The independent awareness of sound, movement and odor that a horse possesses can lead to the conclusion of a successful search. The speed in which a horse/human partnership can move will assist in covering outlying areas. This is critical to foot searchers in order for them to focus on a more specific area. The strength and power of the horse can be utilized for subject evacuation, and movement of supplies to areas not accessible to vehicles. This partnership can be utilized for radio relay and observation posts.

As a member of the Mounted Unit you are also asked to participate in some fun community public relation duties. This can include appearances where you and your equine partner represent the San Diego County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Team.

As a member of Search and Rescue you are trained to participate in disaster services, as well as Search and Rescue. Under normal circumstances, this training is more than useful. In this day and age, it could be critical to the lives in your community.


The Search Management Unit is responsible for conducting the planning and operations functions of Search and Rescue deployments. The primary goal of the Search Management Unit is to ensure lost person searches are run effectively and to make efficient use of available resources. Its members work at the command post and manage Search and Rescues mobile command vehicle, MC5. During a call out, Search Management Unit members develop search strategies and determine what resources will be needed to conduct an operation. Search Management Unit members develop search assignments and form teams to deploy in the field. They handle clue management, team briefing and debriefing, and after-action analysis functions for each search. The Search Management Unit also works closely with the Communications Unit and others to provide logistical support of search operations.

Search Management Unit members are experienced searchers from both the San Diego Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team and the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team teams. Both Teams combine their years of field experience with specialized search management training. Search Management Unit membership requires graduation from the Search and Rescue Academy or Mountain Rescue Team's yearlong training program, at least one year of field experience, and a commitment to ongoing training and practice. Search Management Unit members are expected to maintain field qualification status and can be deployed on search teams.

The Search Management Unit also trains new search managers in the Search and Rescue, and San Diego Mountain Rescue Team ranks, providing courses and field experience to members of other units. This training function ensures that qualified search managers are available for every call out.


The primary mission of the Tactical Search Unit is to provide specialists in tracking and navigation. This unit provides extensive expertise in ground search activities and provides support to other units during specialized Search and Rescue missions. The Unit is responsible for training personnel in tracking and navigation skills, and teaching basic tracking and navigation to the Search and Rescue Academy.

The members of the Tactical Search Unit are major participants on field teams during actual missions and have fondly earned the name "Ground Pounders". A title they proudly sport! From desert heat to mountain snow, deep ravines to high ridges, through rugged canyons and heavy brush, up or down steep slopes, in daylight or darkness, the Tactical Search Unit members are prepared for field team assignments and leadership.

Members of the Tactical Search Unit are specialists in both tracking and navigation. Tracking is both an art and a technical skill. Members of the Tactical Search Unit are highly trained and skilled in preserving and assessing the point last seen (PLS) for clues and sign left behind by the subjects of a search and in determining a direction of travel of subjects. They specialize in discerning disturbances on the ground and in the brush to detect the slightest indication that a person has or has not passed through an area. They are trained specialists in both, "slow" or step by step tracking and "fast", or jump tracking. They are highly trained specialists in the use of maps, compass and GPS units to navigate through any type of terrain and can provide navigation support for any field team.

The Tactical Search Unit is responsible for monitoring and mapping the movement of field teams during each mission and providing this information to the Search Management Team. Radio transmissions are monitored in order to collect navigation data, or map coordinates, as each team carries out their assignment. When teams return to the command post, data is collected from their GPS units and downloaded onto specialized computer programs. An up to date record is maintained on the computer to indicate where teams are in the field, as well as, to record a history of what search areas have or have not been covered during the mission. This data is plotted to provide detailed graphic representations of maps that are then used by the management team in the planning of the future search operations. All members of the Tactical Search Unit are required to attain specialist certification in both tracking and navigation within one year of entry into the Unit. This is accomplished through training, testing, and mission experience.

Each year the Unit offers a course in Tracking Specialist and a course in Navigation Specialist. The courses include both classroom and field training and are in addition to the basic tracking and navigation training received in the Search and Rescue Academy. After completing the Specialist courses, the candidate must complete and document 20 hours of training for each of the two specialties. Mission experience is counted toward certification. Following completion of the training phase, the specialist candidate will be required to complete a certification trial, or test, to successfully demonstrate the specialty skills.

Overall the Tactical Search Unit offers an exciting opportunity to participate in demanding assignments on critical search and rescue missions. By developing and utilizing specialized search skills; training with enthusiastic, highly skilled personnel; and being prepared to take on field team leadership responsibilities; members of the Tactical Search Unit are an active, integral part of the San Diego Sheriff's Search and Rescue Detail.


Each of our unit members goes through Rescue Specialist training. It is a 32-hour in-house class held once a year, over the course of several days, to teach the basics of rope rescue. The topics covered include anchor systems, hardware and software, knots and improvised harness tying, belaying, rappelling, raising and lowering systems, low angle rescue, litter tending, and the Incident Command System as it applies to rope rescue. The certification is good for one year. Other groups that have participated in our class include some members of Border Patrol's BORSTAR team and San Diego Mountain Rescue Team.

Rope rescue involves an element of risk… so we strive to minimize the risk through constant practice and repetition. The Technical Rescue Unit puts on organize group trainings, at least once a month to maintain proficiency. During a typical training venue, we will practice pickoffs, litter work, rappelling, raising and lowering systems, and low angle systems, etc.


The keys to a successful Search and Rescue team are well-trained personnel and teamwork. The Training Unit is responsible for qualifying Search and Rescue recruits to work in the field, as well as coordinating ongoing training for the entire Search and Rescue membership. The goal of the Training Unit is not just to maintain, but to constantly improve Search and Rescue’s mission readiness.

Search and Rescue recruits become field qualified after attending the San Diego Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Academy, which is offered annually starting in mid to late January. During the 3 ½ month academy, the Training Unit coordinates with other Search and Rescue units to provide students with over 200 hours of comprehensive training in a variety of skills necessary to be effective Search and Rescue team members. These skills include, but are not limited to, Advanced First Aid, CPR, Land Navigation, Tracking, Technical Rope Rescue, Communications, Search Techniques, Urban and Field Safety, and Understanding Lost Person Behavior. Classes are taught by Search and Rescue team members, Sheriff’s Department staff, and outside professionals, and include both classroom and hands-on field training components. The academy experience culminates in an overnight field exercise where students must utilize all of their Search and Rescue skills to complete a challenging and meaningful mission. After graduating from the academy, newly field qualified rescue volunteers select a unit to join where they continue to develop the skills they will bring to the Search and Rescue team.

In addition to running the academy, the Training Unit coordinates quarterly training exercises for the entire SAR team. These exercises often include outside agencies that commonly interact with Search and Rescue, including Border Patrol BORSTAR, San Diego Mountain Rescue Team, ASTREA (Sheriff's Air Support), Civil Air Patrol, State and County Park Rangers. These exercises present challenging scenarios Search and Rescue members are likely to encounter, such as downed aircraft scenarios, searching in inclement weather, and scenarios taken from previous missions. During these exercises, multiple challenges are often presented allowing Search and Rescue teams to hone their various skills. Teams may be tasked with tracking a lost hiker, required to provide emergency care to a hypothermic subject, or use technical rescue techniques to extricate an injured hiker from a cliff. Search and Rescue members find themselves testing their skills, leadership, teamwork and physical fitness, all to ensure they will be prepared when the next mission occurs.