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.