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Policy and legal environment

Page updated: 29 December 2020

While Search and Rescue is not a highly politicised policy area, those responsible for governing the sector need to stay abreast of key policy and legislative changes.

Policy and legal decisions impact on SAR significantly

The ability of the SAR sector to function effectively depends on having fit-for-purpose legislation and regulations spanning land, air and sea activity. 


Decisions around policy and legislation impact a lot on the demand for SAR activity. For example, existing legislation that sets out the responsibilities of agencies for promoting safe outdoor recreation includes:

  • the Maritime Transport Act, under which Maritime NZ has a range of responsibilities to promote safe recreational boating on seas, rivers and lakes.  It also has a range of enforcement powers to prevent unsafe practices[i]
    • For example, the fact that there is currently no legislative requirement for mandatory skipper licensing or vessel registration has a direct impact on the ability of Maritime NZ to oversee and regulate safe practice on the water[ii].  It also means there is a missed opportunity to potentially impose user charges which could subsidise SAR activities.
  • Even adjacent legislation such as that regulating the use of drones and the speed with which vehicles can travel close to shore, can impact on the ability of the SAR sector to operate effectively. 

    • For example, Surf Life Saving New Zealand has to get dispensation to use Inflatable Rescue Boats (IRBs) and jet skis within 200 meters of the shore. 

    • Similarly, current Civil Aviation rules[iii] require drone users to both only operate during daylight and maintain a line of sight with a drone and there are restrictions on using drones near airports.  

NZSAR Secretariat staff note that during both the Kaikoura response and dealing with the Port Hills Fires, they had to stop the response for a time because someone was flying a drone nearby. 

In the future, as drones become more able to operate autonomously, and potentially become more useful for SAR operations, the review of relevant legislation and regulations may be in order.

[iii] “NZ Drone Rules.” Airshare NZ Hub for Drones and UAVs,
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The sector should expect more policy changes in future

We can expect policy, legislation and funding changes to continue happening in future as the NZ public service continues to evolve.  This is particularly pertinent given the accelerated pace of adaptation required due to COVID-19. 

For example, in future, we might see policy initiatives around:

  • consolidation of 24/7 monitoring and alerting functions;
  • new consideration of how emergency services work together following the FENZ review;
  • the funding model for air ambulances, police and health services (e.g. ambulances, hospitals);
  • continued professionalisation of accounting and human resources practices; and
  • changes to the funding arrangements – e.g. changes to the fuel excise duty or road funding model (e.g. as a result of electric cars), would have a direct and material impact on the funding of search and rescue activity (for better or worse).

In addition to all of the above, the authorising environment for condution SAR operations in both NZ and across the wider Search and Rescue Region is constantly evolving due to COVID-19. 

For example, there are now new rules across many Pacific Islands regarding where NZDF aircraft can land, and processes that must be followed in order to keep local people safe from COVID-19.

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So the SAR sector needs to actively engage in policy discussions

It is possible that certain parts of the SAR sector could use more of a presence in the Wellington policy community. 


More engagement in the world of policy would enable relevant SAR agencies to both to scan the range of changes across agencies that could impact on its functioning and to ensure there is a top-down perspective on the sector happening somewhere. 

It would also enable the sector to advise Ministers and influence the direction of legislation and policy that could impact meaningfully on both its role and its ability to fulfil that role in the future.

For example, in the course of preparing this environmental scan, several members of the SAR sector commented that they had concerns that the new Health and Safety legislation could inadvertently deter volunteers. 

These kinds of concerns are usefully expressed as inputs into government legislative processes, so that they can be factored in, rather than after the legislation has passed. 

There are also implications of certain Acts and regulations that need to be considered after the fact in terms of their impact on the obligations, risks and liabilities of the SAR sector. 

For example, one NZSAR member has commented that:

“LandSAR uses people without demonstrated competencies unlike Coastguard and Surf.  This will have to cease at some stage under the Health and Safety legislation. 

At present LandSAR does not have a framework on place to support structured competency assessment and management.  They have a project to address this but it has a long way to go.”

In this context, it is important that the SAR sector continues to actively monitor emerging policy, legislative and funding changes (both within NZ and internationally) and engages across government to understand the potential impacts on the sector. 

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