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When was the last time you were traveling and looked up only to realize that your real and perceived locations no longer matched? It’s a common and unsettling experience to say the least. In these moments, humans tend to use a combination of observational, logical and investigative techniques to reorient themselves and get back on track. However, any combination of factors can undermine a person’s chances for success:
- Lack of familiarity with the environment (causing perception error)
- Decreased cognitive capability (due to medical issues, environment, panic, exhaustion, etc.)
- Inability to use key skills and techniques (due to training, experience, lack of awareness, etc.)
- Equipment failure, physical disability or an overwhelming dose of Murphy’s Law.
The result is being lost, which can be a terrifying and life threatening experience. One of the most dangerous environments in which this can happen is the rural/wilderness areas that surround our familiar man-made environments. Since most people aren’t trained or equipped to survive in these circumstances indefinitely, a key part of survival for the lost person is being found.
In this article, we’ll examine what the average hiker/camper/outdoor enthusiast can do to increase their chances of being found by examining how Wilderness Search and Rescue Personnel approach the missing person incident.
The Searcher’s Perspective
In the United States, search managers are frequently taught that the missing person incident is “the classic mystery.” This is because finding a person involves bringing together a variety of clues, indicators and theories to narrow down where a person is located. This is achieved by using investigation, lost person behavior analysis, terrain analysis, specialized search resources and brute force grid searching to find “the subject.” This effort can be complex and is as much an art as a science. Some fundamentals:
Information We Want To Know
- Geographic Information
- Where was the person last seen? What was the person’s last known location?
- Was there a plan of movement, direction of travel or destination?
- Where have people previously gotten lost in the area?
- Are there any tricky decision points along the route where a person may get off course?
- Is there any indication that the missing person is not in the area being searched?
- Lost Person Information (abbreviated)
- Name, age, sex, physical description, medical history
- Skill-set, experience, knowledge of area and equipment
- Known activities or plans
- Events leading up to disappearance; time since last contact.
- Characteristic behaviors and traits
Actions We Will Take
- Begin investigative activities and determine where to start search operations.
- Establish containment around the search area at a distance that matches the behavior profile and terrain. Set up methods for attracting the lost person (sirens, fires, flashing lights, etc) or detecting if they leave the search area (track traps, motion sensors, etc).
- Search the immediate area around the place last seen/last known point to find the subject/and or determine a direction of travel.
- Search routes of travel and linear features that speed movement from the search area.
- Search locations of interest, such as destinations, hazards or natural attractors.
- Long Term
- Investigation activities, in concert with local law enforcement, will be used to develop a detailed picture of the missing person, the events surrounding their disappearance, probable behavioral patterns, likely scenarios of events and narrow down probable locations where the person may be.
- Search resources will be applied in a combined manner to search high probability areas, eliminate areas the subject is not at, locate specific sign/indications of the subject’s presence and follow up on pertinent clues and indicators. Multiple types of resources will be moved through search areas in order to increase the likelihood of detecting the missing person.
How We Search
Ground Units (walkers)
Foot patrol styled searching involves a variety of tactics including grid searching, purposeful wandering (going to notable points) and surveying (observation post work). These personnel depend on the use of their senses, teamwork and attraction methods.
Mounted personnel are able to search areas rapidly. The riders benefit from their raised perspective for general observation and sign-cutting. The horses themselves, when trained, can be as active in searching as their riders. Trained horses will alert to both visual clues and smell (which has been shown to be as good, if not better, than most dogs).
Dogs and their handlers work in small teams to either search large areas or seek and follow a specific scent trail. Different dogs are trained in different methods. Not all dogs are “scent specific.” Those that aren’t scent specific will search for human scent versus a specific person. Knowing the dog’s training and its handler’s experience is key to effective use by a search manager.
Trained to various levels of proficiency in detecting, identifying and following disturbances in an environment made by humans or animals. These personnel depend on keenly honed observational and analytical abilities to understand their environment. Frequently used to determine route of travel and analyze clues. Extremely versatile and frequently combined with other units as force multipliers (especially alongside dog units).
Though their effectiveness varies according to the environment and skill of the crew, these units are often able to bring sophisticated imaging technology into play. Forward Looking Infra-Red (or FLIR) in dense environments and active visual observation in open areas can yield good results. These units depend on visual cues. They’re also immensely helpful in raising the morale of the missing person (since they tend to hear or see the helicopter, even if it does not see them).
What You Can Do
The best way to speed your rescue is to tell the authorities where you are. When you make a plan for your trip, document your intended route of travel, planned activities, timetable, how you can be communicated with and key information about your travel group. Leave this information with a person you trust and establish an emergency plan: When will you be back? How long should they wait before calling authorities? Will you be checking in regularly? Oh yeah… and stick to your plan. If you do make a change, communicate those changes before you act on them. Sending rescue to the wrong location can be as bad as sending them on a wild goose chase.
Get The Right Equipment and Training
Buy yourself and your rescuers time by equipping to survive for at least 48 hours on your own. Train and practice survival and basic wilderness medicine. Equip to fill skill-deficits and meet the demands of your environment. If you’re out hunting, bring some flashy clothing alongside your camo or consider carrying an MPIL.
Be Honest With Yourself – Realize When You are Lost
People in denial get themselves into deeper trouble. Be honest with yourself and acknowledge if you’re lost. Move to the next step.
If you’ve done the above and ended up in a bad circumstance, STAY PUT. Find a safe location to set up camp and stay there. This is one of the most effective plans if you have a reasonable expectation that someone will come to find you. People tend to get themselves more lost when they move or take themselves out of the search area before there’s time for rescue resources to respond. SAR teams using the data provided and effective tactics will narrow down your location.
Burn the Camouflage
Make yourself and your location as detectible as possible. Think in terms of sight, smell and sound from all angles. Match your methods to the resources that may be used to find you. Your nice leaf-shelter may be warm, but a searcher may walk right past it if it isn’t distinctly marked.
More and more of the country is covered by cell phone communication technology and satellite communications are becoming increasingly affordable. Even if you don’t know where you are, trained SAR and Law Enforcement personnel can use the device’s signal to narrow down your location. Personal locator beacons can help immensely as well. As with all technology, have backups and know how to use it properly.
Be Ready For Variable Responses
There’s not a single standard for Wilderness Search and Rescue methodology. Availability and quality of Wilderness Search and Rescue varies widely across the nation. Know the organizations that are responsible for missing person incidents, how they operate and who the right points of contact are. Be very wary of any private search and rescue organization that isn’t integrated into official emergency management or Law Enforcement systems.
Don’t Get Lost
While every Search and Rescue Responder loves to get into the field and apply their skills, they also know they’re taking a tremendous risk. Remember that every mission involves putting numerous people, animals and resources in harm’s way. All will push the limits “That Others May Live.” Respect their dedication and sacrifice by taking every effort to prevent an emergency before it happens.
Special Considerations for Children
A lost child is a terrifying experience for parents and an incident of greatest urgency for rescuers. Given the limited mental development of children, especially at younger ages, it can be extremely hard to prepare them for being “lost.” The National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) developed an educational program called “Hug-A-Tree” in the 1980’s to combat this challenge. Designed for children between the ages of 7 and 11, it teaches basic survival principles and how to appropriately respond to being “lost”, as well as being “found” (which can be an issue all its own). This highly effective program can be taught by anyone with adequate preparation. All training materials are available for affordable purchase or download from the NASAR Website.
To Learn More
If you’re interested in learning more about Search and Rescue, contact your local search and rescue team or look into the following organizations:
- Mountain Rescue Association
- Appalachian Search and Rescue Conference
- National Search and Rescue Association
Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Evan Koepke as a contributor on ITS Tactical. Evan is the former chairman of the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue Group and the Appalachian Search and Rescue Conference. His training and experience includes wilderness search management, lost person behavior, sign-cutting, technical rescue and wilderness medicine. He currently works as the Operations Planning Associate for Team Rubicon, a veterans-based international disaster response organization.
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Former Search and Rescue person myself and former SAR Instructor for KY Division of Emergency Management. I particularly liked the warning of being wary of any private SAR group. In KY there are groups of "K9 SAR" people who really contribute to nothing and talk about how amazing their dogs are. Dogs are good, but they're crap if they're not trained right and the people utilizing them are idiots. I will also say that the most successful dogs and handlers I've encountered were law enforcement K9s from either Kentucky State Police or local law enforcement. I actually cannot recall a time when a volunteer K9 SAR made a find on the missions I went on. The finds that were made with K9s were from KSP. Another thing about K9 people is some of them seem to be a little different. They're more or less pet owners first and put a lot of emphasis on their dogs being really good. They don't regard the dogs are tools, which is what working dogs are. They're tools, not pets. They perform a lot of the training for the dogs if not all of it. Whereas police K9s are purchased all ready trained by professional companies. That's the huge difference in police dogs vs. SAR dogs in a lot of jurisdictions. So with these volunteer K9 SAR handlers you sort of get that hero mentality you often find with some of the volunteer firemen who love running red lights to anything and everything whenever they can. If you've been around the community a while you know exactly what I mean. If you wanna see how weird some of these K9 SAR volunteers can be, there was a woman and her dog that were internationally famous for helping solve cold cases. She was caught planting evidence in one of them. Search for Sandra Anderson and Eagle to read up on her. No different than a volunteer fire fighter who goes around catching abandoned buildings on fire so they can go be the hero and save the day. I worked a drowning recovery once and cadaver dogs were used. This operation had an extensive use of GIS mapping and the handlers who said their dogs indicated precisely were all over the freakin place and none were anywhere near where the bodies were found. Sorry if I seemed to go off on a rant here, but that was one of the things that always bugged me in the SAR community.
I will even say that SAR groups officially associated with county government are to be considered with caution as well. For example, in KY SAR falls under 'rescue squads.' Rescue squads vary from county to county in KY and some counties don't even have rescue squads so SAR responsibility falls to local volunteer fire departments. In KY vehicle extrication is supposed to the responsibility of EMS and rescue squads so a lot of rescue squads focus more on vehicle extrications than they do SAR. Some rescue squads don't perform vehicle extrications because the fire departments perform that function. There are even some fire dept and rescue squad combos in the state and some of those the SAR program takes a back burner but retain that 'capability' so they can apply for additional grants.
A lot of rescue teams don't have adequate personnel to perform good searches and must rely on paging out volunteer firemen to assist with searching. Volunteerism in public safety sector has gotten pretty low all around as it is. And of course volunteer fire fighters don't train for SAR so there's a lot of stuff they're missing when they're out there. And if they ever get near the LKP they will trash any and all clues at that LKP because they don't know any better. Some areas there are turf battles about who is in charge. It's a 'fire vs rescue' kind of thing, so a lot of time can be wasted when the fire chiefs and rescue squad chiefs try to measure whose penis is longer.
Some SAR teams have dogs, most do not. Last I checked there were only a few teams in KY that had Mounted SAR capability. Some SAR teams don't even have rope equipment and if they do they have a very, very basic knowledge of how to use it. There are some who rock out with it and are very knowledgeable. Wolf County rescue comes to mind, they perform missions at red river gorge and are an incredibly talented group of volunteer professionals.
So in some areas the SAR program really sucks, in others it is a kick ass program. But unfortunately it can be a little hard to ascertain which are good and which are bad.
I'll also add that none of them possess air capability. Private air medical services are often times reluctant to fly to assist with searches. KY National guard will provide air assets, but only if the local EM Director requests it and can document that they've exhausted their resources or are nearing that point. So by the time air assets are involved, a lot of time has already passed.
I also want to add that some teams do not search at night. At all. When the sun goes down they're done.
Tracking is something that some teams have had 'training' in, but you have to look at who is providing the training. My initial training was from a guy from North Carolina if I remember correctly that taught the Ab Taylor curriculum. Since then I've seen a person from KYEM provide a tracking class and it was all classroom power point and about a hour long field exercise in one location. As far as awareness goes it was decent but it was being paraded around as a full blown tracking class.
The same type of thing has gone on with basic search and rescue courses and management courses. They're all death by power point with little to no field exercise. And some of the 'instructors' read word for word what the slide says and don't explain much of anything. I know of one agency who fluffed some paperwork to get people who weren't even involved in SAR for more than two years to become KYEM instructors! So some of the people who are supposed to be training others aren't even experienced in what they're trying to teach!
I think I've aired enough dirty laundry for today.
Again, great article.
And for those who have volunteer teams in your area, check them out. You volunteer some time and you might get some pretty decent training out of it for free. All my diving courses and technical rescue courses were paid for, as were some of my instructor courses. Some may even pay for first responder level medical courses, others may even pay for EMT-B level type of courses. And depending on their financing and gear availability, you may even get to score some free gear out of it, too.
Shoutout to the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue Group (http://brmrg.org) in three of these photos! ;D
Good article- Good overview. Thank you for putting in the time to write. I was with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group for about 5 years and have volunteered with other search and rescue groups and EMS orgs around the country, both wilderness and urban (my expertise is tracking and medical, I also instructed in land navigation and other aspects of SAR).
Thanks a lot for this being in the coast guard as a helicopter flight mechanic we are often tasked with searching for people in distress not just in the ocean but on land as well. People have to understand how difficult it can be to spot a lone person on the ground especially considering the predominate colors worn by outdoorsmen and 'tactical' enthusiasts are often drab earth tones. Because, of my experience from the air I carry a full array of signaling devices whenever I am hiking or in the outdoors my kit includes: 3 flare kit (handheld flare, parachute style flare, orange smoke), A signal mirror, a bright orange survival bivy, and a strobe light (a simple bicycle tail-light that can be had for under $20 works great and flashes for quite a while.) Carry signal gear its not that heavy and it is one of those things you will be kicking yourself for not having it when you need it.