Search and Rescue (SAR) is a unique calling. There isn’t a single skill set appropriate for search and rescue missions. There are common skills, but 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 culture and refine on their own. There are cave rescue and swift water rescue specialties; there are teams that generally 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 an organization that is constantly, though not voluntarily, involved in high-profile searches year-round. Many of their members are the "go to guys" when it comes to specific SAR expertise.
LET: How do you generally organize your searches? I know that each search can be different in terrain, population, etc.
For the most part, searches are managed in accordance with the principles of the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS began with the fire service, and has been applied to just about any emergency response. This allows for the expansion and contraction of management throughout an incident, and makes it easier for mutual aid between jurisdictions.
When a call is received, it is routed to the local station, where the local team is activated by the watch commander. The local team then begins the operation. Most search missions incorporate two facets: the field search, and the law enforcement investigation. The LE investigation typically involves establishing the identity of the lost person, contacting family and friends in order to make sure that he/she is not sitting in a friend's living room enjoying a football game, while folks are out looking for him. This part of the search is typically handled by sworn officers, while the field portion is often managed by the 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). Each area has its history. We begin by searching common places where people make wrong turns, or take short-cuts. At the same time, search managers try to contain the search area. Depending upon the resources available, and the conditions, trail blocks may also be established. These are people who will camp at trail intersections and trailheads in an effort to intercept the missing person. These sorts of assignments often include setting up strobe lights and noise making devices in an effort to attract 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 areas of high probability. If the missing person is not ambulatory, or is non-responsive, then this greatly complicates the search. Finding a non-responsive person requires one to walk right over them. These sorts of searches take many searchers.
Team size is a function of assignment and resources. During the hasty phase of the search, it is not uncommon to have teams of two. When it is necessary to have an area searched more thoroughly, the team size can get larger. I have been the leader for a team of about 15 searchers. We were looking 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, such a large team is not practical. A common team size is 3-5.
Like any emergency service, 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?
San Bernardino County has about 20 SAR teams. Aside from wilderness searchers, there are specialty teams that 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.
All SAR members must complete the Basic Search and Rescue Academy (BSAR), and each year they must re-cert certain skills. Each team may have additional requirements. For example, my team, The Cave & Technical Rescue Team, has cave rescue requirements, and our recert interval for many of the rope skills is shorter. Other teams may have different categories of members, each requiring additional skill sets.
The Mountain Rescue Association is the only national body that accredits teams. Their accreditation includes 3 disciplines: search management and tracking (including ELT search), technical rope and snow & ice. California has a number of fully-accredited MRA teams. While some teams 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 get particularly good in certain skills. For example, 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?
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. ALS is not practical in an alpine environment when everything must be carried by the rescuer. It is more likely that first aid/CPR skills will be used for fellow rescuers, rather than for our rescuees. This being said, there are ALS resources available via aviation which can be deployed in wilderness environments, weather permitting. The Air Medics, also SAR volunteers, staff the county's rescue ships, and 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. This includes hundreds of feet of rope, artificial climbing protection, litters and related materiel. 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?
As far as technology goes, 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 (wired or wireless). All early communication is via radio. Over time, further resources such as satellite communications can come into use which helps with the management of resources.
We are big GPS users GPS. In fact, more than anything else, GPS has greatly improved the management of 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 incorrectly used or there is uncertainty with coordinate systems. We mostly use the universal transverse mercator (UTM) coordinate system due to its ease in interpolation on a printed map. Aviation, however, 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 the 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. Being able to navigate by compass is mandatory. They don't run out of batteries, and they have other uses (inclinometer, signal mirror, protractor).
We are big users of electronic maps. The current preferred package is MapTech Terrain Navigator. Terrain Navigator has a number of features that are useful to the wilderness rescuer. Its bearing plotting function is useful for tracking emergency locator transmitters (ELT) for downed aircraft. This feature is also useful for establishing a location of lights in the dark, or sounds. The searchers on the ground can use their compass to determine the direction of the sound/light. If enough teams are able to do this, then the location can be triangulated. The electronic mapping also allows us to print maps easily for all the search assignments, and to keep a record of areas searched. Overlays of the GPS downloads greatly help in this.
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?
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 there. 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 that 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.
I suppose one of the more high-profile searches was for Steve Fossett. We were called to assist with the search of the crash site.
LET What kind of low-tech equipment works for you? How would you improve it?
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. For example, a few years ago we were evaluating 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.
Keep in mind that I am no Luddite. I am a big fan of technology and its use in the rescue business. The trick is to design an interface that works under the conditions that we experience. Smart phones can be a terrific asset, but they aren't ruggedized like a GPS. At the same time, you probably wouldn't want to carry a ruggedized cell phone on a daily basis.
I also had an opportunity to talk to Deputy 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 through Sierra County are quite accessible year-round, most of the wilderness areas are just that: wilderness areas. Sierra County is rich with fishing, camping and winter sports. It is the home of the Downieville Classic, the raison d'être for hard-core All-Mountain, Cross Country and Downhill mountain bike racing.
Most paradigms of law enforcement include patrol cars and similar vehicles. The type of deputy that carries rope and a backpack in their vehicle or rides a snow machine is a special type of officer. Deputy Boyd told me that wilderness cases, both rescue and enforcement are very common in Sierra County. Boyd agreed with what Lehman told me. While high-tech is great, nothing beats reliable equipment, planning and organization.
Boyd’s agency uses NVGs purchased through a homeland security grant. This is the ATN PVS7 goggle. The latest generation of technology has dramatically improved the clarity of the intensified image. Many agencies prefer the ATN products because a couple of AA batteries can last through an entire operation.
Boyd told me that their agency also has FLIR products, which are thermal detectors, not image intensifiers. I have had an opportunity to use both types of products and there are advantages to both. One night vision product I have 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 types of technologies have their limitations and advantages, and I recommend that agencies have both available to their officers.
There are several types of ruggedized equipment appropriate for search and rescue operations, depending on the nature of the operation.