Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reflections On A Mutual Aid SAR

Dale Matson

Searchers went to the mutual aid search in Southern California for missing firefighter Mike Herdman. There are a number of factors that led to the tragic outcome. There has been quite a bit written about lost person behavior but this is not just a case of what Mr. Herdman did or did not do. The person hiking with Mr. Herdman began searching for him in the middle of the night and in the process became lost also. Had he not come across a couple of fisherman two days later, he may have perished also.

I lay no blame on Mr. Herdman’s companion who gave a valiant effort to find his missing friend but there is too often an inherent problem when the group leader/navigator becomes incapacitated. Also, even with a navigator/leader, people may become separated from a group and are immediately lost because they have little or no navigational skills. I would like to make the case for everyone being a navigator. If the group leader becomes incapacitated, what is plan B?

A few years ago two men were backpacking in the Sierras when the leader fell and was knocked unconscious. His companion went for help. The injured man’s companion was lost for two days and eventually spotted by a sheriff’s helicopter. Unfortunately, by the time he returned with the helicopter, his injured and confused friend had crawled off the edge of the cliff and fallen to his death.

There are certain things that could be done before a hike that would help to avoid some of these situations. Ideally all hikers would have a copy of the topographical map with the route outlined and there would be a briefing by the leader to orient the hikers. Each hiker should have a compass and know the direction to head to get back to the trail, trail head or a main road. If all else fails wait on or near the trail until the group returns.  Keep in mind that a group is only as fast as its slowest hiker. The plan should be that the group would reassemble at all trail junctions.

Each hiker must realize that he or she is ultimately responsible for their own safety. Know where you are, where you are headed and which way to go to get back. Everyone should have some basic navigational skills. Navigating in the wilderness, like swimming is a basic life skill and could be taught in school. Also if there is someone in the group with connectivity and another person in the group has gone missing, don’t be shy about contacting the local sheriff’s office. The sooner an organized search begins, the more likely someone will be found.   

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