Photo credit: Search and Rescue requires a special skill set and an integration of many public safety assets.
Search and rescue (SAR) is a unique calling. There isn’t a single skill set appropriate for these missions. A technical rescue team, capable of plucking a victim off a high mountain would differ in composition and expertise from a team designed to cover a huge forested area. The SAR trade requires an arsenal of basic skill sets, like first aid and navigation, and from what I’ve seen, members generally gravitate toward a specialty, which they often refine on their own. There are cave rescue and swift water rescue specialties; there are teams that operate in a mountain rescue capacity and others with specific skills that make them indispensable in urban environments.
I recently had an opportunity to interview Jeff Lehman, the coordinator for training and expertise of SBSAR, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue. SBSAR is constantly, though not voluntarily, involved in high-profile searches year-round. These are the go-to guys when it comes to SAR expertise.
LET: How do you generally organize your searches? I know that each search can be different in terrain, population, etc.
JEFF LEHMAN: For the most part, our searches are managed in accordance with the principles of the Incident Command System. ICS began with the fire service, and has been applied to just about any emergency response. This makes it easier for mutual aid between jurisdictions.
When we receive a call it is routed to the local station. Most missions incorporate two facets: the field search and the law enforcement investigation. The LE investigation typically involves establishing the identity of the lost person and contacting family and friends to make sure that he or she is not sitting in a friend’s living room enjoying a football game while folks are out looking for them. This part of the search is typically handled by sworn officers, while the field portion is often managed by SAR personnel.
The wilderness search usually includes establishing a last known point (LKP) and attempting to track the missing person. At the same time, “hasty teams” are deployed along common trails and other known routes (checking trail and summit registers as well as interviewing other hikers). We begin by searching common places where people make wrong turns or take shortcuts, while search managers try to contain the area. Depending upon conditions and available resources, trail blocks may also be established. These people will camp at trail intersections and trailheads in an effort to intercept the missing person.
If the hasty search is not fruitful, the search is scaled up to include less probable areas and a more careful covering of high probability areas. If the missing person is not ambulatory, or is non-responsive, this greatly complicates matters and we might require additional searchers.
Team size is a function of assignment and resources. During the hasty phase it is not uncommon to have teams of two. When an area must be searched more thoroughly, the team can get larger. I lead a team of about 15 searchers. We once looked for somebody in a riverbed and my team covered the whole river (dry) and searched with high probability of detection (POD). Of course, in an alpine environment, a large team is not practical—three to five is more common.
If further resources are required, a call to the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA), allows for other jurisdictions to send resources. We regularly respond to searches as far north as Mono County, and south into San Diego County.
LET: Can you give our readers an overview of the types of teams and their deployment?
JL: San Bernardino County has about 20 SAR teams. Aside from wilderness searchers, specialty teams include mine rescue, cave rescue, dive rescue and mounted units. The state has resource types for each kind of searcher and their skill level. Typing is integral to ICS so that when jurisdictions request resources, they know what to ask for, and what they are getting. Each team is responsible for its training, and members must meet basic county requirements as well as those established by the local team.
The Mountain Rescue Association is the only national body that accredits teams. Their accreditation includes three disciplines: search management and tracking (including emergency locator transmitter [ELT] search), technical rope and snow and ice. California has a number of fully accredited MRA teams. While some have an explicit specialty, just about all of the teams can execute a typical search. At the same time, certain teams get lots of practice in particular environments, so they become very good in certain skills. Our desert teams (Morongo Basin, Barstow and Victor Valley) operate in environments where tracking skills are a staple. As such, they are good trackers.
Most of our deployments are for your “typical” overdue hiker. Occasionally these turn into rescues. We are also used for evidence searches and fire/flood evacuations.
LET: What type of first responder training and equipment can the victim expect?
JL: As a minimum, all SAR members must maintain current first aid and CPR cards. Some teams outside of our county require EMT certification. The reality of wilderness SAR is that our subjects are either stable or deceased when we arrive. Advanced Life Support is not practical an alpine environments when the rescuer must carry everything. It is more likely that first aid/CPR skills will be used for fellow rescuers rather than for rescuees. That being said, aviation employs ALS resources in wilderness environments, weather permitting. Air medics, also SAR volunteers, can provide significant medical resources to the wilderness rescuer.
As for wilderness rescue equipment, San Bernardino County and most other counties have just about anything required to pull off any wilderness rescue scenario—hundreds of feet of rope, artificial climbing protection, litters, etc. This includes specialty environments like caves and mines (two separate disciplines whose only relationship is that they both occur underground).
LET: What types of technologies work for you; AEDs, GPS, FLIR, night vision or image enhancing, electronic mapping?
JL: It has been my experience that simpler is better. This goes for items in the field as well as in the command post. We often operate in compromised environments where the command post is without Internet access or even reliable phone access. All early communication is via radio. Over time, further resources such as satellite communications can help us manage resources.
We are big GPS users. In fact, more than anything else, GPS has greatly improved how we manage resources. Teams can report accurate positions and search managers can use downloaded tracks to determine area coverage. However, even a “simple” GPS can introduce problems when map datums are used incorrectly or if the user is unsure of the coordinator system. We mostly use the universal transverse mercator coordinate system due to its ease in interpolation on a printed map. Aviation uses lat/lon in degrees, minutes, seconds; decimal degrees; or degrees, decimal minutes. It’s important for the rescuer to be able to meet these requirements.
While GPS is extremely helpful, if I had to choose between a map and GPS or a map and compass, I would choose the compass every time. A compass won’t run out of batteries, and it has other uses (inclinometer, signal mirror, protractor).
Electronic maps are also quite useful. MapTech’s Terrain Navigator has a number of handy features for the wilderness rescuer. Its bearing plotting function can track ELTs for downed aircraft, and establish a location of lights or sounds in the dark. Searchers on the ground can use their compass to determine the direction of the sound/light. If they are successful, the location can be triangulated. Electronic mapping allows us to print maps for each assignment and to keep records of areas we’ve searched.
We use night vision and FLIR on the airships. Both are very helpful in locating people under the right conditions.
LET: Can you describe an especially challenging or memorable incident?
JL: I suppose there is no “typical” wilderness mission. We had a cave rescue a few months ago that was rather interesting. From the outset we knew exactly where this person was stuck. Many people get stuck there, but we had never had a rescue. In fact, a few years previous to the rescue one of my teammates got stuck in the same location during training. A guy had gotten himself wedged into the final squeeze. By the time it was over we had used a 4x4 piece of lumber, a car jack, climbing pro, ropes, a tent pole, and a lot of elbow grease. The cave entrance was about two miles from the road, so it was fortunate we had air resources at our disposal to get us within a few hundred meters of the entrance.
More recently we had a search for a missing sky diver. I only mention this because I had never searched for somebody who may have fallen from the sky. There is no way to track them, and they can fall into heavy brush where a walking person can’t access. This makes the searching very difficult.
LET: What kind of low-tech equipment works for you? How would you improve it?
JL: We are big users of analog radio systems, whistles, flashlights, printed maps, pencils and simple compasses. Equipment must be capable of operating in the cold and wet. Something that works well on the showroom floor may not be worth anything in the field. A few years ago we evaluated a new litter tie-in system. It worked great when we tried it out, but a bit more investigation showed that all the buckles would fill up with snow and become inoperable. Equipment must be simple to operate, and not “fiddly.” If you can use it while wearing gloves, all the better. Rescuers are often sleep-deprived, cold and tired. Simple and rugged is best.
Night vision in Sierra County
I also had an opportunity to talk to Dep. Matt Boyd of the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office. Sierra County is an area where Californians vacation to “get away from it all.” Although the main highways are quite accessible year-round, most of the wilderness areas are just that: wilderness. Sierra County is rich with fishing, camping and winter sports. It is home to the Downieville Classic, the raison d’etre for hard-core all-mountain, cross country and downhill mountain bike racing.
The type of deputy that carries rope and a backpack in his or her patrol vehicle or rides a snow machine is a special type of officer. Boyd told me that wilderness cases, both rescue and enforcement, are very common in Sierra County. He agreed that while high-tech is great, nothing beats reliable equipment, planning and organization.
Boyd’s agency uses the ATN PVS-7 goggle, purchased through a homeland security grant. This latest generation of technology has dramatically improved the clarity of the intensified image. Not to mention, a couple of AA batteries can last through an entire operation.
Boyd’s agency also uses FLIR thermal detectors, not image intensifiers. One night vision product I’ve experimented with, the FLIR H-Series Compact Tactical Thermal Night Vision Camera, can pick a lone figure out of a hillside of vegetation. Boyd told me they used their FLIR cameras during operations and training with satisfactory results. Both technologies have their limitations and advantages; I recommend that agencies have both available to their officers.
Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif. Reach him at email@example.com.