Canine Unit
Communications Unit
Logistics Unit
Medical Unit
Motorized Unit
Mounted 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 Avtek Productions 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

  • An area where there may be human remains buried

  • A victim buried in a landslide or avalanche

  • A missing person where suicide is suspected

  • Persons suspected of being in a collapsed structure

  • To help determine if an article was worn by a subject

  • To help determine if a subject was in an area

  • To locate human remains after a fire

Trailing dogs 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 days 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. 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

  • Cadaver

  • Avalanche

  • Disaster
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 SAR dog is a tool and like any 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.


Dog handlers are continually updating their skills and knowledge and most participate in 50 to 100 hours or more of training and missions per month. Dog handlers must have all of the training required of other SAR members such as first aid, navigation, survival and man-tracking, plus special skills required to be a dog handlers.


Search dogs are well-socialized animals and represent a wide variety of breeds from golden retrievers to bloodhounds and German shepherds. 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, please contact the on-duty SAR Coordinator through the Sheriff's Communications Center at 858-565-5200. You may also contact the Sheriff's Search and Rescue Coordinator directly during business hours at 619-956-4990. The Coordinator can discuss your situation with you and make recommendations regarding the use of search dogs or other SAR resources.


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 primary function of the Communications Unit is to provide personnel for the operation and staffing of the Sheriff Department's mobile command post. This command post is called "Mobile Command One" It is a forty foot Thomas bus that is equipped with two radio dispatch consoles, mapping table, mobile data terminals, computers and other specialized equipment. It contains a Radio Room, Planning Room and Command room. This three room mobile facility becomes the heart of operations for the department where ever it responds. It can be seen on a wide variety of events. From local disasters and emergencies to assisting other agencies in law enforcement and related duties. Recent local emergencies have included the Viejas Fire and Santana High School shooting incidents. Non-emergency activities have included the Del Mar Fair, Sand Castles, Mother Goose Parade, and Miramar Air Show.

Training is provided for all personnel. This will include a general orientation, Mobile Command One orientation, map and compass, radio operation, computer operation, map plotting, resource management, telephone operation, forms and more forms.


The Logistics Unit provides support to all aspects of the search function. It establishes a base command set up, providing traffic and parking control. Additionally, the unit establishes a safe landing zone for aerial support.

In Logistics, individuals provide food service for all personnel via our Search and Rescue Mobile Field Kitchen. This unit is capable of serving approximately 200 searchers, three meals a day.
Our Sheriff’s Department utilizes our Logistics unit frequently. Past mission request have included San Diego Biotech staging area for Mutual Aid personnel, S.W.A.T. Rifle Competitions, Station Open House celebrations and many others.


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.

There are currently three levels of participation within the Medical Unit:

  • Reserve Deputy- Reserve Deputies are sworn reserve peace officers. Medical Unit Reserve Deputies provide field medical support (pre-hospital emergency care and basic life support) and limited law enforcement services during Search and Rescue and other Sheriff's Department operations. Reserve Deputies may be called upon to provide additional law enforcement services at the direction of another Reserve Deputy or full time peace officer during other law enforcement operations. Reserve Deputies must successfully complete the Search and Rescue academy in addition to 832 PC reserve academy training.

  • Rescue Volunteer (RV)- Rescue Volunteers are non-sworn civilian employees. Medical Unit Rescue Volunteers provide 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.

  • Civilian Volunteer (CV)- Civilian Volunteers are non-sworn civilian employees. Medical Unit Civilian Volunteers 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. Civilian Volunteers must successfully complete the Medical Unit training program.

In addition to basic Search and Rescue Detail qualifications, 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)

  • Possess and maintain a current CPR card.

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

  • Portable Suction Device

  • Splinting

  • Trauma Management

At the request of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department - Off Road Enforcement Team, the Search and Rescue Medical Unit provides pre-hospital medical care and basic life support response for the Ocotillo Wells Off -Highway Vehicle Recreational Area located within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park at the eastern edge of San Diego County.

During the off road desert season (Halloween through Easter), the popularity of recreational vehicle riding draws large numbers of people to the deserts of San Diego County. Unfortunately, the large crowds and high concentration of off-road riders stretches the resources of the local law enforcement and medical providers, especially during busy holiday weekends. In an effort improve public safety, the local public safety provider (California State Park Service) has invited the San Diego County Sheriff Department's Off-Road Enforcement Team and Search and Rescue Medical Unit to assist in providing law enforcement and medical services within the concurrent jurisdiction. The San Diego County Sheriff Department's ORET and SAR medical resources are a supplement to the services already provided by the California State Park Service, Ocotillo Wells Volunteer Fire Department, Imperial County Sheriff, Westshore Ambulance and Mercy Air.
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.


Members use their personal SUV’s and pick-up trucks to transport personnel and equipment in and out of search areas, in rural and urban settings. Included are 4x4 and 4x2 vehicles. They are also used for perimeter containment and can transport mobile repeaters to high points to increase communication capabilities. Utilizing their mobile, higher-powered radios, they can provide relay communications in areas where the field teams cannot contact the search command post.

Also, included under the Motorized Unit, is the SAR Bike (Search and Rescue mountain bike) Squad. It is made up of field qualified personnel from the Motorized Unit and other units in the SAR Detail. Field qualified personnel from other SAR Units may participate on the SAR Bike Squad.


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, canine rescue when needed, 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 parades and other appearances where you and your equine partner represent the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

As a member of SAR you are trained to participate in disaster services other than SAR. 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 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 SAR missions. The unit is responsible for training Detail personnel on tracking and navigation skills and for teaching basic tracking and navigation at the SAR Academy.

The members of the Tactical Search Unit are major participants on field teams during actual missions. Because they employ no more than their own feet, rather than horses or motor vehicles, to traverse the terrain, they are often referred to as the, "Ground Pounders". A title they proudly sport! Desert heat to mountain snow; from 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 PLS (point last seen) 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 map and 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 located on Mobile Command-1. 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 SAR 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 demonstrate successfully the skills of the specialty.

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 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 the Border Patrol's BORSTAR rescue team and the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team.

Rope rescue involves an element of risk so we strive to minimize it through constant practice and repetition. The unit trains once a month in some element of rope rescue to maintain proficiency. During a typical training we practice doing victim pickoffs, litter work, rappelling, raising and lowering systems, low angle systems, etc.

We've developed a short 6-8 hour first responder class in how to access a subject down a steep embankment, such as when a car goes over a guardrail. The class covers gear, knots, improvised harnesses, anchors, rappelling, and ropewalking. Just enough so that you, as a first responder, can safely and expediently access an accident subject in steep terrain.


The San Diego Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Academy is one of only a handful nationwide. Search and Rescue's Training Unit organizes and coordinates the Academy with assistance from a Training Committee composed of Training Sergeants throughout the Detail.

Academies are scheduled once per year and over 50 people from the SAR Detail, as well as, paid members from the department will participate as instructors and assistants. In one way, many search and rescue applicants are similar to Law Enforcement applicants. They come to SAR with visions of sirens, flashing lights, headlines and, "film at 11:00". Our job in the Training Unit is, to channel the enthusiasm that all applicants bring and develop disciplined and dedicated searchers.

SAR Academies consist of about 30 students. These people come from any occupation you can name including blue collar, professional, medical, military and more. Some come to SAR because of an interest in Law Enforcement, but have found search work more to their liking. Others have channeled a love of the outdoors, or hobbies like backpacking and mountain climbing, into community service. Some others simply learn about the work in the news or from friends or co-workers.

Students attend classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and alternating Saturdays plus a couple of full weekends. They will receive approximately 220 hours of classroom instruction and "hands on" field training in a range of subjects. Topics included are: Introduction to the Incident Command System, Lost Person Behavior, Search Theory, Tracking, Land Navigation, First Aid and CPR, Traffic Control, Technical Rescue, Helicopter Operations, Crime Scene Protection, Interviewing, Hot and Cold Weather Survival, Radio Communications Theory and Practice, Wildland Fire Concepts and Safety Practices and Search Canine basics.

The students also get an introduction to the Medical Examiner, Critical Incident Stress and learn about the odd meth lab, or marijuana field they may encounter in the backcountry. And what academy would be complete without Report Writing? All that instruction is with an eye toward our main job - Finding lost people. Upon graduation, the students will have the knowledge and skills of an entry-level searcher. It is the job of the graduates, working with their individual units, to expand knowledge in their specialties.

The Training Unit and committee also plan two "All Units" training venues per year, where the entire Search and Rescue Detail comes together to sharpen skills, update qualifications and practice on a large-scale basis, the running of a search mission. Typically 70 to 90 people participate in the All Units sessions which can run through most of a weekend. An All Units exercise might recreate a past search mission or be entirely "fictional". It can include anything from downed airplane scenarios to high angle rescues with patient packaging and ground teams tracking "lost" adults or children. Personnel often find themselves testing their training and resourcefulness to do anything from extricating a trapped victim, to plucking an injured hiker from the face of a cliff.

Assets used during an All Units exercise include horses, 4X4's, tracking and trailing dogs, fixed wing aircraft of the Aero squadron, ASTREA, the Border Patrol's BORSTAR team, the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team, R.A.C.E.S., and support equipment such as Mobile Command 1 and the Logistic Unit's chow wagon. Click here to see the Academy (this PowerPoint presentation may take a while to load)