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.