Search and rescue service. The performance of distress monitoring, communication, coordination and search and rescue functions, initial medical assistance or medical evacuation, through the use of public and private resources, including cooperating aircraft, vessels and other craft and installations.
Search. An operation normally coordinated by a rescue coordination centre or rescue subcentre using available personnel and facilities to locate persons in distress.
Rescue. An operation to retrieve persons in distress, provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety.
Source: ICAO Annex 12
Search and rescue (SAR) service is provided to the survivors of aircraft accidents as well as aircraft in distress (and their occupants) regardless of their nationality. The basic elements include a legal framework, a responsible authority, organized available resources, communication facilities and a workforce skilled in coordination and operational functions.
The SAR service, while related to the alerting service, is not part of the air traffic services (ATS), as it does not fulfill any of the ATS objectives, as defined in Annex 11, Chapter 2. It is therefore often performed by agencies other than ANSPs (although close cooperation with the ATS units is ensured by the establishment of relevant procedures).
The states define the regions within which SAR service is provided. These regions do not overlap and normally coincide with the corresponding flight information regions (FIRs). Nevertheless, neighbouring states are advised to develop common SAR plans and procedures to facilitate coordination of these operations. Based on such coordination (and subject to relevant national law), a state would permit immediate entry into its territory of search and rescue units of other states for the purpose of searching for the site of aircraft accidents and rescuing survivors. Also, arrangements are made so that aircraft, vessels and local services (which are not part of the SAR organization) cooperate in search and rescue effort and assist the survivors of aircraft accidents.
The provision of SAR is organized by rescue coordination centres (RCCs). They are staffed 24 hours a day by trained personnel proficient in the use of the language used for radiotelephony communications and have means of rapid and reliable two-way communication with appropriate units and facilities (e.g. ATS units, SAR units, the regional Cospas-Sarsat Mission Control Centre, etc.).
SAR operations are conducted by SAR units. They are elements of public or private services designated by the states and are composed of trained personnel and provided with appropriate equipment (including appropriate communication eqiupment). They may be complemented by other units that do not qualify as SAR units but are nevertheless able to participate in such operations.
Pilots of other aircraft in the vicinity assist the SAR operation by obtaining and providing useful information to RCCs or ATS units, e.g. type and position (coordinates) of the aircraft in distress, information about survivors, weather, etc. Also, any distress transmission must be acknowledged and forwarded to the appropriate RCC or ATS unit.
SAR operations continue until all survivors are delivered to a place of safety or until all reasonable hope of rescuing survivors has passed. The decision to discontinue the SAR operation is made by the responsible RCC.
ICAO Annex 12: Search and Rescue