Alive and Well
It's midnight when you get the call to assemble your team and get to work. Someone's life is on the line, and, unlike an emergency room doctor or EMT, you don't even know where your person is. Someone - the reporting party, or RP - has reported a friend or family member missing, and all you have to go on is the place last seen (or PLS), a map, and the talent and experience of your team.
Time is of the Essence
Every minute counts, and often the clock has started ticking well before the rescuers ever know there's trouble. According to Robert, a veteran of over 400 searches, a benign situation, such as a well-traveled hiking trail on a warm afternoon, can become life-threatening very quickly, given an injury, disorientation, dehydration, darkness, or an unexpected storm.
Rescue teams generally start with a profile of the person or people they're looking for, and follow established patterns of behavior to find them. Critical points are, What were they wearing? Are they familiar with the area? Do they have wilderness or survival training of any kind? "The answers point us in the right direction," said Paul, a team captain in the Sierra Wilderness. "Someone who is trained might build a shelter, forage for food, or try to build a fire. Someone who's not will seek natural shelter in caves, and more often than not end up in a mountain lion's den or an old mine shaft."
In addition, SAR captains use nationally published guidelines on specific behaviors they can expect. "Sixty percent of hunters follow water. Berry pickers go uphill, and children under three don't understand the concept of being lost: believing Mama is the one who's lost, they start looking for her," Paul explained.
Davis, SAR captain for the U.S. Coast Guard, is primarily responsible for water search and rescue operations, which are completely different from mountain and wilderness efforts. "The main problem we have, aside from weather, is the area we have to cover, and mapping a grid of open water so we can make sure we've covered it all. You'd be amazed how easy it is to miss a small boat or a person in the water behind a large swell. High winds can make helicopter rescues very difficult, but sometimes there's just no time to get a boat out to them."
A search and rescue captain not only feels responsible for finding the lost party, but also for keeping his or her own team safe. "You're dealing with conditions that have already gotten someone lost, hurt, or worse. So your job is to send your teams out equipped with gear, provisions, and training not to get themselves into the same situation," said Robert.
Many SAR "professionals" are actually volunteers who devote perhaps 15 hours a week to the search and rescue "job." High levels of burnout are often attributed to something called "critical incident stress," a syndrome somewhat akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, known primarily among emergency workers.
The Good News
Believe it or not, statistically 98 percent of lost people are found alive and uninjured, although they're usually "cold, hungry, and really glad to see us," said Paul. That's good news for all amateur hikers. And the satisfaction of returning a lost person to his or her loved ones is unparalleled, paid or not.
So if you want to get called out in the middle of the night, with the possible reward of saving someone's life, buy yourself some hiking boots and a powerful headlamp…and dream on!
For More Information
To learn more about search and rescue professionals, consult the National Association for Search and Rescue at http://www.nasar.org.