Some perspective on rescues

Posted by: Whitney Zone

Some perspective on rescues - 10/22/05 06:20 PM


Posted by Ken, 10-22-05


This was posted on the PCT-l listserver, in response to a poster's complaint of response by SAR. I thought it was enlightening.

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L-Rod,

I can understand your frustration, however, in California, state law
mandates that Law Enforcement are responsible for talking a report for each
and every reported missing person and '601' runaway juvenile.

During my four years with a small city police department close to the PCT in
California I took literally hundreds of missing person and '601' reports.
Despite having a staff of only 100 or so people, the department had to have
one full time person whose sole function was to handle the administration
(not the investigation or search and rescue, just the paperwork) of reported
missing people.

I can guarantee that when working a shift on a Friday evening or Saturday
morning, most of my time would be taken up with the taking of 'runaway'
reports often the same ones each week when a kid doesn't come home from
school and stays out all night.

For many 'average' cops, another missing person report is simply a paperwork
chore in the absence of any evidence to support accident or foul play. It
is for this reason that if you are concerned for the safety and well being
of another hiker, use the 911 system. Be prepared to provide some
explanation for your concerns and if possible something tangible to support
your concerns. Clearly if many calls result in a full scale search and
rescue activation while the subject of the search is sat in a nearby pizza
place warming wet feet reports will not be taken seriously. The majorities
of missing persons are voluntary and not in any trouble at all. Most do not
want to be reported missing, but in order that nothing falls though the
cracks, the taking of reports by law enforcement is mandated and not
discretionary.

It is beholden on thru-hikers who distribute an itinerary to make
appropriate notifications if they voluntarily substantially deviate from
that itinerary.

If at all possible, no-one should be missing for weeks before being
reported. I don't know the circumstances of John's disappearance, and you
subsequently reporting him missing. A lone thru-hiker, like any wilderness
adventurer should ideally be planning to report in periodically. Three
weeks is too long to be unreported. The area that could be covered by an
experienced hiker in three weeks would likely be covered by many of
jurisdictions. Even a day-hiker should have a planned return time, so that
their absence can be noted, and necessary action taken. Anyone who wants to
be 'missing' for three weeks in the wildness needs to be aware of the risks
and as such cannot expect conventional support during that time. The longer
the period of time out of contact, the progressively harder it is for search
and rescue activities to coordinate. It is possible that someone has been
lying on the first ten miles for three weeks, or three hundred miles away
for just a few hours - or somewhere in between. It is made worse when the
hiker leaves the track, either accidentally or deliberately. In three
weeks, someone could literally be anywhere in the world.

As I posted earlier - if you believe that someone is lost and potentially in
a life threatening situation - call 911. Do not try to determine
jurisdiction yourself. Jurisdiction (in California) is with the law
enforcement agency - County Sheriff's Department or City Police Department
where you are. It is their job to determine how to proceed from there.

You cite that law enforcement didn't take the disappearance of an individual
seriously. Remember that this is probably the third, fourth, or even the
ten such report that day! Many, many people are reported missing every day.
Very few reports result in SAR activation. That decision will largely be
based upon the information being provided by the reporting party.

I would be interested to know what exactly you reported and what response
you got. (perhaps you would be kind enough to share more detail with me
privately) I would be interested to know what you expected to be done (for
this man, and the other being reported all over the USA every day). Bear in
mind that there are probably more missing people reported each week than
there are SAR personnel.

In my own county, Shasta (through which the PCT passes), there are probably
around 100 activations of the Sheriff's SAR team each year. The members are
largely volunteers who activate at the request of the SAR coordinator. They
are responding in their own time, often taking time off paid employment. As
an example of their determination, they responded when my neighbor's
juvenile son went missing. He was reported missing in PCT country within a
few hours of being last seen, dozens of volunteers searched for days, on
foot, on horseback, using 4x4s, on ski's and snowmobiles (it snowed the
night he went missing), using dive teams and dog teams and from the air.
The search was called off after a week, at which time it was presumed that
the child had not survived. Three weeks later another week long search was
made after the child's shoes were found. A third search was made when the
snow receded in the spring using cadaver dogs. No trace of the child has
ever been found.

Now imagine responding to a report that an adult may be somewhere in similar
wilderness, may have been missing for three weeks, and could actually be
anywhere in the world. How many people do you ask to take off work to look
for him? Now multiply that dozens of times?

The Shasta County section of the PCT probably covers some fifty miles of the
total trail, or about 2% of the trail, and while passing through Shasta
County, those fifty miles are covered by two differently staffed rural
Sherriff's stations. The PCT is not widely promoted or signed in the area,
and I doubt that many offices posted to the Burney or Shingletown stations
have any knowledge of the PCT. Perhaps the PCTA could produce a public
safety information brochure which could be distributed to those who
ultimately get called upon to assist thru-hikers and day users on the trail.
Ultimately, much of the responsibility lies with the PCT users themselves.

Perhaps one solution is to have a solution like many sailing and flying
clubs operate. The member files an itinerary and is responsible for
periodically reporting in. This requires and organized and reliable
administration (inherently with a cost involved). If they then fail to
report in, the search can be limited to their last known location. Another
is to mandate (seeing as they are available to be carried voluntarily)
personal emergency location beacons. (I can already hear cries telling me
how many ounces that will add to a pack). Ideally, each individual should
have another (family member or friend) monitoring their progress and safety
from off the trail.

Like most things in life there are risks, there are costs and there are
consequences. Part of planning a trip is the balancing of the risks, costs
and consequences. Part of any wilderness adventure is the knowledge that
help is not two minutes away like it is when we are at home.

The recent events on the south coast indicate that no amount of emergency
planning can anticipate a catastrophe. I watched a British rescue team (of
which I am a former member) wait ten days for permission to respond to
Louisiana (it never came), yet in under twenty four hours they were pulling
survivors from collapsed buildings in Pakistan the next month.

Over the past thirty years I have enjoyed periods of wilderness adventure in
a number of places around the world, finally being fortunate enough to
emigrate from the UK to now reside close to the PCT in Northern California.
During the same period I have held professional and voluntary positions, in
law enforcement, fire fighting and emergency pre-hospital care, and in
disaster management, search and rescue. I can empathize with both sides,
and would encourage trail users to work with and educate professional
rescuers in their interests and particularly their safety needs.

Drew
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