There are no heroes in backcountry search and rescue

In Public by Anna Debattiste

Cover photo by Jack Hickisch of Arapahoe Rescue Patrol

Have you ever noticed that backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) teams usually emphasize their teamwork rather than promoting the actions of individual rescuers?  For the most part, you won’t see hero stories in the news or on social media.  

In the language of organizational development theory, the true definition of “team” is a group of people who have task interdependence.  In other words, it isn’t possible for one person on the team to be successful and others to fail; they sink or swim together.  That may be part of why BSAR teams have a culture of teamwork rather than individual heroism, but this culture runs much deeper than organizational structure; it is woven into the fabric of everything we do.  It is an important part of our operational effectiveness, our culture of volunteerism, our interpersonal relationships, our public image, and most importantly, our focus on safety.  Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.

Operational effectiveness

Is there ever an incident in which one person could accomplish the entire rescue operation him or herself?  Sure.  In fact, it happens sometimes.  Mission coordinators sometimes talk a lost person out of the field over the phone, sitting home at their dining room table.  Occasionally a BSAR responder or sheriff’s office deputy might drive an ATV or snowmobile into the field to pick up a stranded or injured person.  But even those things could not be accomplished without all of the infrastructure that has already been built by the team and its partners – the equipment that has been purchased and maintained by various team members, not to mention the fundraising that went into it; the protocols put in place by team management; the training that makes it possible for a single responder to know how to handle a call; the county 911 system that makes it possible for the call to get to the right person in the first place.  And in a typical incident, this web of interrelated activity goes beyond infrastructure and into actual response.  When a person is injured in the backcountry, we need many people playing their roles to successfully respond, from the mission coordinator determining and deploying resources, to the hasty team that makes first contact as quickly as possible, to the team members who carry in evacuation equipment, and the medical team who makes the assessment.  We need people manning radios, loading and unloading snowmobiles and ATVs, sometimes rigging rope systems, sometimes doing avalanche transceiver searches.  And behind the scenes, there is all the work that must be put into training team members in basic procedures and advanced technical skills, not to mention the work of governing the team, fundraising for its equipment, and educating the public to help prevent some of the calls in the first place.  In other words, no response is ever fully pulled off by one person alone.

Interpersonal relationships

Teamwork is an important part of how BSAR team members interact with each other; in fact, some teams will tell you they select for teamwork over technical skills and experience when vetting potential new team members.  Teamwork means a culture of helpfulness, and what that looks like in behavioral terms is team members with their “heads on a swivel,” always looking around to see where help is needed.  Teamwork also requires trust; in order for teammates to work effectively together and to genuinely want to be helpful, they must trust in each other’s competence and motivation.  Trust in competence means I know the teammate who set up the anchor my rope is attached to knew what s/he was doing.  Trust in motivation means I know my teammate has my best interests at heart and won’t throw me under the bus by speaking ill of me when I’m not around.

A culture that celebrates individual heroism, however, does damage to a team’s culture and interpersonal relationships.  Team members feel undervalued and may even become resentful when one person’s contributions are publicly elevated above the rest, and trust between team members erodes.  That doesn’t mean we don’t value outstanding contributions and sometimes give annual recognition awards, but those activities are typically internal and not public, and are carefully considered in a broader team context.

Daniel Kimble, in Six Ways Your Company’s Hero Culture Is Killing Productivity, writes, “A culture that overly rewards heroism often leads to hiding of information, and protecting and building ones ‘turf.’ While heroism doesn’t require this behavior, too many people end up trying to put themselves in a position to be a hero by keeping information to themselves and building/protecting their territories in an overly self-serving way.”  

Tracy Brower, PhD, Forbes senior contributor, says in her article, Don’t Be a Hero: A New Take On Teamwork, “When the spotlight is too bright on any one team member, it can dim the attention on other team members and potentially get in the way of team relationships.”


With a few exceptions, BSAR teams are typically made up of volunteers who serve as non-paid professionals. This is an important part of BSAR team culture.  Volunteers have many motivations to serve and often provide dedicated service over many years, or even decades. This provides their teams with an invaluable pool of knowledge, skill and experience. A famous quote by DeAnn Hollis about volunteering says, “The heart of a volunteer is not measured in size, but by the depth of the commitment to make a difference in the lives of others.” As volunteer experts in BSAR, we do what we do out of a true passion for service, contributing our efforts for the sake of a mission we believe in rather than for a paycheck. But, volunteers may feel undervalued if individuals on a team are singled out in the media by coverage that neglects the efforts of the rest of the team.  Keeping the focus on the team, rather than on an individual, ensures all team members feel valued and motivates them to continue serving.  Teams that consistently promote the efforts of the entire team will build an enduring spirit of trust and cooperation among volunteers.

Public image

BSAR teams sometimes have well-meaning rescue subjects reaching out to say, “Can I buy pizza and beer for Tom, Harry and Jane who rescued me last weekend?”  And Tom, Harry and Jane may well have been the three people who were able to respond that day, who weren’t working their day jobs when the call went out, and who were close enough to the trailhead to get there first and be part of the hasty team.  But most of that is pure chance.  On a different day, it might have been Sally, Dave and Martin.  And no matter who it was, there were still all those other team members working behind the scenes to make it happen, both during the rescue and before.  So, we say, “thank you but no” when those well-meaning requests come in.  We tell the subject we would love to have their support, but it would be best for them to make a donation to the team or send a nice thank you note addressed to everyone.  

David Mullings, in Ouray Mountain Rescue Team’s book No Individual Heroes, says, “Sure, some teammate had to rappel down into the ‘hole’ to a fallen ice climber, but that choice centered solely on the best outcome, and not whose turn it was to be in the newspaper photo.”

Focus on safety

BSAR teams are often called to help people in dangerous settings and severe weather conditions.  The team may have to navigate rugged terrain such as cliffs, gullies and rivers, sometimes in extreme heat, cold, lightning, heavy rains, high winds, or snow and avalanche conditions. Most BSAR teams have a general rule or protocol that team members don’t go into the field alone, and this is purely a matter of safety.  A responder can twist an ankle or blow out a knee just as the subjects we rescue can, and if they are alone, that makes the situation potentially more dangerous for them.  

BSAR has no place for heroes and with our heritage from stoic woodsmen, mountaineers, and ski patrollers who knew that they had to avoid trouble so they could help others, BSAR members have always recognised their individual safety comes first and their teammates’ safety comes next. They also learned early on that the best results come from the efforts of the team; teamwork is effective risk management. It is a tenet of BSAR to avoid  making a search and rescue situation worse, and the easiest way to do this is to not get hurt. 

Going it alone encourages unnecessary risk-taking. For many generations, the firefighting world has struggled with a culture of individual heroism. Taking significant personal risks was a tradition and an expectation, although it is improving thanks to efforts like the US Fire Administration’s initiative  Everyone Goes Home.  A 2019 white paper titled “Culture Shock: Culture Factors that Kill Firefighters on the Ground” by Yang Kil Jung found that a culture of heroism was one of the top three contributing factors to line-of-duty deaths among firefighters.  “Cultures that emphasize heroism and bravado lead firefighters to neglect safety procedures; leaders of the fire department view this cultural feature as one of the main causes of firefighter deaths.”

The bottom line is that a hero culture is not good for anyone – not the team, not the rescue subjects, nor the general public.  A team culture, on the other hand, benefits everyone. Tracy Brower says, “A new study by Northwestern University finds when team members have prior experiences where they have succeeded together, the likelihood of winning increases for the whole team. This variable – prior shared success – was more important than individual member stardom across the sports that were represented in the study of basketball, soccer, cricket, baseball and online gaming.”  A team that succeeds together builds momentum for future wins – and a win, for us, means everyone comes home safe.