The Other Side of Lost…

Chris Anderson is a naturalist who writes a blog,  MidWestBushCraft.  He posted a recent item on a search and rescue situation he was involved in.  Without claiming any specific search and rescue expertise – I think he provides sound advice worth noting.  Chris kindly provided permission to re-post his report.  You can read his original full article here.

Situation Report-Tuesday, Dec. 28th 2010 4:45 PM
Temperature: 22 Deg. F
Substrate:snow/light powder, approximately 2′
Physical description: Female, average build, 5’4″, blonde, wearing light blue jacket
Became separated from group of 6 cross country skiers while visiting 300+ acre woodland reserve in urban area…

Most of my day was pretty mundane, some program planning, some research, answering phone calls about injured Kestrels, renting out snowshoes, roof raking the nature center in preparation of some freezing rain in the forecast, helped a young couple get over their fear of snakes, the usual 9-to-5 type stuff.

I was wrapping everything up, and stowing away some of the last snowshoes returned at the end of the day when I looked up to see a coworker talking to two other women on the trail that leads to the parking lot.  Sound travels fairly well when it is cold, and the ground is covered with snow so I picked up bits and pieces of the conversation even at close to 100 yards distance.  Something about “She’s wearing a blue jacket… on skis… was right in front of me… separated somehow…”

My co-worker came a ways back down the hill and related to me that a family had been out skiing on our trails when one of their daughters became separated from the group and the family, with help of some other hikers were out looking for her.  While my coworker came to tell me this the women she was speaking to turned and went back up the hill towards the parking lot.  I hopped in my truck and headed up the access road that leads from the nature center to the main parking lot and there I saw the two women I had seen before and another woman in a light blue jacket on cross-country skis.

Since I was officially done for the day, and the woman in the blue coat was found, I thought about just continuing on home, but I didn’t.  I stopped my truck and walked down and asked “Everybody found now?” to which a very worried looking woman replied “No, my daughter is still lost”.

Turns out the women in the blue coat was the lost woman’s sister.  The mother explained that the family, six in all, had been out skiing.  Being of different skiing abilities the group had become spread out on the trail.  The woman who was lost had been somewhere in the middle of the group and it was assumed that she had taken a wrong turn that led her away from the rest of the group.

After a few questions and some clarifications of directions I had a fairly good mental picture of where the group had been skiing, and a plausible mental scenario as to where the missing women might be. I followed a set of protocol I have developed through personal experience an some training, grabbed snowshoes, and took off to where I thought I might find the missing woman. Which brings me to my inspiration for this post…

Coordinating Initial Search & Rescue (S&R Triage)

Am I an expert at S&R?  By no means, no.  I have however done a few, and I learned a lot about what needs to be done initially to get things rolling and hopefully find the person(s) fast because time can be of the essence.

Remain calm and appear confident:

When you find yourself in a situation where you are assisting someone else in searching for a missing person you must at least appear clam and confident.  Whomever you are assisting will likely be on the verge of panic (even if they don’t show it).  Your relaxed demeanor will help to calm the people you are assisting.

Establish lines of communication:

It is important to exchange cell numbers (and to find out if the person you are looking for has a phone).  You’d be surprised how many people don’t even think to call the person’s phone.  Maybe they don’t realize they are lost yet and are just having an enjoyable time outdoors.  Don’t bother getting everyone numbers, exchange yours with one or two member of the party.  Now you can relay communications with developments as you go along.

While you are exchanging numbers find out what the missing persons name and what they are wearing (ask in the present tense i.e. “What are they wearing?” not “What were they wearing?”).  Find out there approximate height, weight, and footwear.  Why foot wear?  If there is a good substrate, and you have tracking skills you can get a pretty good idea of what tracks to look for which can help with your search.

Establish last point of contact:

Find out where the person was last seen if they were part of a group.  You may be able to find their specific tracks and follow them.  DON’T WALK ON THEIR TRACKS!!! Walk to the side so if you lose the trail you can go back and pick it up.  If they were not part of a group find out if there was a trail they used a lot, or a circuit they liked to follow.  People are creatures of habit.

Start looking:

Spread out, watch for signs, call out the persons name (then stop and listen).  Before you call out give three loud whistles to attract attention.  If the person is just lost and not hurt they should answer back, if they are unable to answer you need to keep your eyes out for parts of a person, not a whole person.  I’m not saying that they are so hurt that the forest will be littered with their parts, I’m saying odds are some of their body will be obstructed from view by trees, shrubs, tops, etc…

With luck you will find someone that simply took a wrong turn, or lost track of time.  They may be in need of first aid of some sort so it is important that you are prepared and know what you are doing.  If you spend much time outdoors it’s a good idea to get some formal training in CPR and First AID.  Also keep in mind others when putting together your kit, it may not be you that needs it in a survival situation, but rather someone less skilled or prepared than yourself.

What do you do if you find someone and indeed the worst has happened?  To be honest, I don’t know.  Most of the limited training I have received when I was with the U.S.F.S. didn’t cover it. We would just radio in our coordinates and wait a plane with a LEO (Law Enforcement Officer) to arrive and take over.  In a situation where I was on my own (not part of an agency) I would call 911 before I even thought about contacting the friends or family that asked for my assistance.

Back to the woman I was looking for.   While I was out on the trail my phone rang and it was the woman’s mother.  The other members of her family returned, unable to find her and she asked if she should contact the police.  I told her that the more people we could get looking, the better.  It was getting colder and we were losing light fast.  If our skier was injured and or unconscious this could get dire fast.  I suggested that the more people we could get in the woods the better.  She decided she would wait a touch longer before contacting them.  She hung up and I continued scanning the floodplain timber and calling the woman’s name.  A few more minutes passed and my phone rang again.  The missing woman had just called, she was in a neighborhood to the south of the preserve and she had found a woman that was giving her a ride and letting her call her family with her phone.  Happy ending, yeah.

Most of the S&R’s I’ve been involved in – scratch that – ALL the S&R’s I have been involved in came about because people were not prepared, well informed or stupid (yes I said stupid).  Needless to say sometimes people get lost, or hurt on accident just no one I have ever had the pleasure of looking for.  So here are a few simple guidelines for staying found so I can go home to my family at a decent hour, and you don’t return to yours “bagged and tagged”.

  1. Whenever possible travel in a group.
  2. If you travel alone let someone know where you will be going, and when you will be back. I’m talking specifics, not generalities.  Highlighted trail maps, etc…
  3. Learn to read a map.
  4. Learn to use a compass.
  5. Hope for the best; plan for the worst (make a simple light wait survival kit, learn to use it AND CARRY IT!)
  6. When in a group the slowest member of the party always leads. ALWAYS!
  7. If you have a cell phone, carry it, and turn it on.
  8. If you have a GPS mark way points, especially where your car is parked. (Be sure you have extra batteries)
  9. Learn CPR/First Aid
  10. Make a simple light weight survival kit. Practice with it and carry it.  If it’s too big you’ll leave it behind.  The best survival kit you have is between your ears.  Be sure to use it.
  11. Pay attention to your surroundings.  Don’t just head to the woods to see how fast you can do the trails, that’s what running tracks are for, my opinion I know, but still slow down, enjoy the woods, and pay attention.  If you are paying attention you won’t get lost because you’ll know where you are.

Do you have experiences with S&R or (heaven forbid) getting lost that you would like to share?  I myself have never been lost.  However,  I have however been powerfully confused for a couple of months (name the movie).

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