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Operating principles

There are four phases in every search and rescue scenario. Depending on the incident, they may be present to a greater or lesser degree. They are known by the 'LAST' acronym:





These phases are the basis of a set of principles that may be applied at every incident requiring search and rescue operations. The nature and complexity of the situation should determine the levels of management and control applied to the incident and the scale of the search and rescue operations.

Fire and rescue services should be prepared to deal with this type of operation. Guidance for operational planning may be found in Section 7 of the government publication Fire and Rescue Authorities, Health, safety and welfare framework for the operational environment.

The overall responsibility for search and rescue operations should rest with the appropriate (lead) agency and their representative. A competent person from the lead agency should be nominated as soon as possible in the operations to co-ordinate resources and activity around the search and rescue principles.

The requirement for search and rescue operations will usually fall into one of the following broad categories:

  • Operations in the built environment, such as a fire in a building or a collapsed structure
  • Operations in the natural (open) environment, such as unstable ground or a wide area search on land or water

Please note that an incident involving a confined space may occur in either of these categories.


  • 'Locate' represents the search phase. This may be brief, in the case of a clearly identified casualty, or protracted, when the person is reported to be missing.
  • Identify, record and mark the point last seen (PLS) or last known position (LKP), collectively referred to by UK search and rescue organisations and the police as the initial planning point (IPP).
  • Record the casualty details and time at PLS or LKP
  • Assess the situation in terms of significant hazards, operational activity and the required resources. Resources include personnel, personal protective equipment (PPE) and work equipment (including firefighting, rescue and communication equipment).
  • Allocate tasks and brief operational crews on the working environment, hazards, tasks and communication method - enhance the briefing with visual information, such as suitable plans that have been annotated to provide clarification
  • Take into consideration the resources available and, en route, consider what else may be required
  • Establish search management records. Operational crews should landmark any recognisable features to:
    • Provide orientation, and therefore support. for effective briefing of crews
    • Support effective recording of the areas and compartments that have been searched
    • Communicate progress to inform the overall tactical plan
  • If the casualty is not immediately located, a number of search phases may be identified and considered: primary phase, secondary phase, tertiary phase and so on
  • Identify and employ a safe system of work throughout
  • Ensure this information is communicated and included in the overall tactical plan


  • Start a dynamic risk assessment (DRA) and communicate the findings when the casualty is located
  • Identify the agency with the appropriate capability to access the casualty
  • Update search management records using progress and activity reports


  • 'Stabilise' should involve stabilising both the situation and any casualties
  • Stabilise the situation to reduce the risk to operational crews and prevent further harm to any casualties. Examples may include securing unstable structures or ground, or controlling a fire compartment
  • Stabilise the casualty by physically isolating them from any immediate hazard with the potential to cause harm. Ideally, any hazard should be removed from the vicinity of the casualty. If the hazard cannot be removed the casualty should be moved to a place of (relative) safety
  • Assess and secure the casualty following the <C> Ac B C D E approach
  • Carry out casualty packaging for transport, extrication and rescue using, for example, a vacuum mattress, scoop stretcher or basket stretcher
  • Prepare for transport and rescue
  • Communicate progress to inform the overall tactical plan


'Transport' is the final part of the operation. It should provide the removal of any casualties to a place of relative safety and definitive care.

  • It is important to remember that the casualty should be protected from any harm during this part of the operation
  • Information that may be relevant and important for casualties to be safely and effectively transported should be passed to the responsible agencies. The hand over of accurate standardised information recognised by local medical responders is essential. An example of an acronym to ensure that this is done is ATMIST, details of which can be found in the Casualty care section of this guidance. Information transferred in this format should contribute to successful pre-hospital care.
  • Operational crews, their personal protective equipment (PPE) and other equipment should be removed to a place of safety

End of the incident

Operational activities should be safely and effectively managed throughout the closing stage of an incident. A debrief should be conducted to identify best practice and lessons learned.

Guidance on incident debrief can be found in Section 12 of the government publication Fire and Rescue Authorities, Health, safety and welfare framework for the operational environment.

See National Operational Guidance: Operations - Incident closure and handover