‘We only have a few hours to find them!’

CarolinaFireJournal - Bob Twomey
Bob Twomey
04/21/2013 -

Has your department or agency ever been faced with a search and rescue (SAR) operation in which a rapidly closing window of opportunity is available to conduct a successful search? Have you ever had to make a decision based upon the benefit-risk assessment to the victims and rescuers? Have you ever had to suspend a SAR operation due to an approaching storm, knowing the victims are still lost, possibly hurt and needing to be rescued? If you stay in SAR work long enough, you will likely be faced with such decisions — and they won’t be easy to make, because we are rescuers. And we have been taught that we never quit or give up, right?


Planning map generated in terrain navigator program.

A typical scenario, of many, could be the following: your agency has been called in to conduct a land search for a missing man and his son, who were only going for an overnight camping and “day hike” to a remote waterfall on the national forest, over Christmas vacation. They were to have returned from their venture early the following afternoon after hiking back out from the waterfall. For some reason(s) yet unknown, they did not arrive back to their car at the parking lot. Several hours pass, they have not called home nor arrived home, and by mid-afternoon family members begin to worry — but decide to “give them a little more time” to return home. Evening now approaches, and the frantic family calls authorities for assistance.

Your department receives the call to initiate a search for the overdue hikers, and the operation begins. As Incident Commander (IC), you begin the task of lost person questionnaires, descriptions, assessment of available food and water, appropriate clothing for the season, medical issues or conditions, woods knowledge, survival skills, etc. You obtain maps of the area in which they were to have been travelling, terrain conditions, field conditions, previous, current and future weather conditions, you determine the need for mutual aid assistance, set up your command post and delegate ICS responsibilities, all “by the book.”

Same search area now shown in a three dimensional view.

If you are running a search by today’s technical standards, you determine such things as point last seen (PLS), direction of travel (DOT), probability of area (POA), travel speed over the rough terrain, you calculate the number and type of resources to be needed to cover high probability areas, and the acres of area to be searched to a certain probability of detection (POD). In short, you are putting together your Incident Action Plan (IAP). Simultaneously, your ICS staff is working the logistics to acquire the resources you, as the IC, feel you will need for this SAR operation. Staging areas are set up, communications are being established as the terrain dictates, the public information officer (PIO) has been established, and the operation begins.

Terrain navigation with two dimensional view of a search area.

Perhaps as IC you have chosen to utilize “hasty teams” to quickly cover the highest areas of probability where you would think, mathematically, the hikers should be. You might be using horseback teams, mountain bike teams, ATV teams, or foot teams in this aspect of the search. Now a family member shows up at the command post (CP) and you interview this person in detail for all possible information that may help in this SAR operation, such as personal habits, tobacco use (clues), verification of food/clothing/water, or anything that could lead to a higher probability of success (POS) of detection.

You have run an intense search all night without success. You called in a SAR Dog Rescue Team to assist in the search once you were able to obtain scent items from the victims’ car when the family member unlocked it for you. As the search progressed, you as IC or your Operations Officer calculated your POS based upon the numbers of rescuers searching certain size areas with an acceptable POD. Maps were marked accordingly, notes recorded, and a log of ALL activities was maintained as required. Other probability areas were determined besides the one highest area of probability where you would have reasonably expected to find the lost hikers.

Searching rough terrain for lost victim.

Morning has arrived. It is 34 degrees and high clouds are building. When you contact central communications or check your weather application, you see that an impending cold front is approaching with temperatures dropping into the mid 20’s during the day and snow forecast in the range of six to 12 inches deep depending upon elevation. Now, do you see what is happening? No victims located, a storm approaching within a few hours, conditions to deteriorate considerably, and the risk to rescuers increasing as the search continues into the storm.

This very situation has happened to us before, and will happen again. So what could you have utilized earlier during the night search, and what resource might you use while weather conditions allow, before the front closes in on you?

From the topographical map shown, you can see that there is a lot of potential acreage to cover besides the trail high probability area. The range rings show a one mile radius in all directions from the point of interest (POI), which was the waterfall. You can also see that there are several alternate routes the pair could have taken by accident, thinking they were on the right trail to the waterfall. The total theoretical area is 2010.6 acres or 3.1 square miles of very rough terrain. It takes a very long time to search this much area with any reasonable degree of victim detection; therefore, it is always prudent to understand the “logical probable location” in the theoretical search area. This is based upon lost person behavior from past search data collected nationwide, about what certain categories of lost people did in their respective situations. From this data, certain patterns can be derived that will allow you to concentrate your often limited resources to those areas of highest reasonable probability.

So, the first thing that you should consider is the use of a mapping system, such as Terrain Navigator Pro that allows you to easily calculate the size of areas to be searched, the terrain features you will face, locations of terrain features such as streams, trails, roads, slope aspect, elevation, distance and many more features. From this data, you can determine the additional resources needed to search an area to a high degree of victim detection, estimate the time to search an area, and even determine the best routs if ingress or egress to a particular site. This becomes especially important when one of your SAR teams finds the victim(s) and need assistance immediately. These maps can help you readily decide a good route into the rescue site, and then figure the best route back out. This is search technology. Doing it like it was done 20 or 30 years ago — well, those days are gone.

Local helicopter pilot assisting in an aerial search.

Being able to “see” all of the terrain at night using topographical maps and even Google aerial photography — along with the topographical maps — allows you to warn your SAR teams of hazards in their search areas. These tools are readily available; to me, NOT using this technology in SAR operations would be similar to sending your firefighters into a warehouse fire without a floor plan or pre-plan of the facility and its contents. It’s just not done much anymore.

Searching at night can be very effective. Victims are moving slower, if at all. It is usually quieter, so that victims’ calls for help can be more easily heard; it is beneficial for SAR dogs, as scent remains closer to the ground in cooling (descending) air; it can be cooler and more comfortable for SAR teams in hot summer months; and the potential for fewer people in the woods is reduced.

However, there is another technology that you should consider using to increase you probability of detection for the victim(s). If you want to increase your probability of spotting your victim(s) in darkness, you should begin using thermal imaging cameras (FLIR) and night vision goggles (NVGs).

Thermal cameras allow you to “see” heat signatures, day or night. They are obviously more effective on cooler nights at spotting a body, when other heat-producing sources, such as rocks and logs, are cooling rapidly. Thus, that heat signature you are seeing 200 feet out into the woods, off the trail, may just be your victim(s).

NVGs allow you to greatly enhance your ability to see people in very dark environments. If you are searching along the trail in the highest probability of area at night, you can only see so much with external lighting from head lamps or flashlights. However, if you use a dim light in conjunction with generation 3 NVGs — or on a bright moonlit night you don’t even need external lighting — you can see so much more, and see it clearly! So, on that search down the trail, as you look into the woods, you can see more; thus your ability to detect the victim(s) goes up dramatically. On our helicopter SAR team and in our local rescue squad, we use this technology routinely. The photo shows spotting a person walking on a trail from 500 feet above ground at two times magnification. As you can see, it works, and this search was done during the daytime in May.

As you can see, the mapping program enhances management; the thermal imaging and NVG systems could have easily been utilized at the start of the search. But now, you have only a few hours left before the storm hits. If the weather conditions at this point allow, there remains one additional resource that should be seriously considered: aviation resources.

Spotting a lost person walking on a trail
from an altitude of 500 feet.

Over the years I have tried to show rescuers statewide the tremendous value in conducting aerial search operations from helicopters. Until you have actually done this from the air, looking into a forest after leaf fall, you just might not appreciate the ability to see things, or people, on the ground. A trained crew, employing standard aerial search patterns, can save you so much time in locating lost persons. Likewise, utilizing a local helicopter pilot/crew, or a state resource, may make the difference in life, death, or permanent injury for your victim(s).

If you are lucky, or pro-active enough, to train with and utilize a local helicopter pilot to assist you in searches, you have given your victim(s) one of the absolute best chances of being located in the least amount of time. If you are utilizing the terrain navigator system, and the pilot locates your victims, all he has to do is call in the latitude-longitude coordinates to you at the CP, you enter them in the “locate” part of the mapping system, and you have their location marked on the map. It’s just that simple — and it really works!

The decision to use helicopter resources has to be made early into the process, depending upon weather conditions over the search site, cloud ceiling, winds aloft, haze — that can obscure mountains — high daytime temperatures and high density altitudes, and so forth. Also, an assessment of rescuer and victim risk-benefit has to be made early into the planning process. If terrain is so steep and rugged that it will take hours to search even the highest probability area of it, you should consider aerial search resources. Of course, there are many aspects that must be considered before calling in a helicopter. There are very specific things a pilot has to evaluate before committing to fly your search, things that lead to a “go-no go” decision to assist you. But as you work and train with a helicopter resource, you learn what these considerations are and gain a far greater appreciation of the value of aviation resources as part of your search operation.

As a SAR coordinator, you have MANY newer capabilities available to you than in years past. Technology previously unavailable to fire and rescue services is now available. Search Operations and Management courses are ever evolving, utilizing past search documentation to allow for use of “lost person behaviors” in SAR planning. The ability to enter into local agreements with local aviation resources has ALWAYS been available...just not popular. State resources were not always available years ago, but this is changing for the rescuers’ benefit.

From this scenario, you can see the value in utilizing multi-disciplinary technical resources in your searches in the future. You will run a far more efficient and professional operation... and your victim(s) may live to thank you.

Bob Twomey is the current chief and founder of the N.C. High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc., a volunteer helicopter search and rescue support team based in Transylvania County, N.C. He is the senior helicopter pilot for Wolf Tree Aviation, LLC operating out of Transylvania Community Airport. He also serves as Deputy Chief for Training in Brevard Rescue Squad. He has been active in SAR for 37 years. Twomey can be reached at 828-884-7174 or [email protected].
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