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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lost Child Behavior

I recently read two stories about SAR missions involving young children. Luckily in both cases, the endings were happy ones, but it did get me wondering about lost child behavior as opposed to that of adults.

First, the two stories:

On Friday, December 5th, a toddler went missing in the woods in Halifax County, Virginia, after wandering away from his home. About 300 searchers, including members of the Commonwealth Search & Rescue team, looked for the three year-old for 21 hours, eventually finding him sitting on a log at a pond a half-mile from the house. The family's two small puppies were with him and were credited with probably saving the child's life, keeping him warm as the temperature dropped to 24 degrees during the night. The boy's mother said her son later told her that he'd left the yard to go "hunting and fishing."

The second story occurred on December 6th near Mineral, California, where a ten year-old boy got lost in the mountains. The child and his family had driven down a dirt road to look for a Christmas tree. At some point, the boy, wearing only a hooded sweatshirt for warmth, got out of the slow-moving pick-up to follow along with the family's dogs. About a quarter-mile further, however, the father realized his son was no longer behind the vehicle. After an hour of searching without success, the boy's mother drove back to the highway and stopped a passing motorist, who called 9-1-1.

By 6:30 p.m., Sheriff’s personnel and Search & Rescue units had set up a command post at the point last seen. Four hours later, there were 12 searchers and two tracking dogs in the field, and eighteen additional searchers and four more K-9's joined the effort by 1am. During the night, the temperature went down to 27 degrees.

At 7:15 Sunday morning, as a helicopter and dozens more SAR personnel were enroute to join the mission, the boy was found in good condition by a member of Tehama County Search and Rescue. The boy told rescuers he'd gotten lost when he left the road and, after walking for a while longer, finally laid down under a tree and went to sleep. In the morning, he resumed walking and found the dirt road again, where he was spotted by the search and rescue volunteer.

After reading these stories, I wanted to know more about how young children behave when lost. According to a study titled, "Lost Person Behavior: Search Management for the Initial Response Incident Commander," children up to three years of age are unaware of the concept of being lost. They generally have no sense of direction and tend to wander aimlessly. They do, however, have good survivability because they often find shelter.

As children get a bit older, in the 3 to 6-year range, they begin to develop the concept of being lost and will attempt to return home or find a familiar place. On the other hand, they often don't understand that a return trip is necessary, so they keep going in one direction and are more mobile, covering more distance, than children in the one to three-year age group. In the beforementioned study, however, all children six and under were found less than two miles from the point last seen.

Young children often look for a place to lie down and go to sleep, especially at night, such as under thick brush, an overhanging rock or a picnic table. This holds true in both of the stories I read, the difference being that children six and under rarely walk out by themselves, while kids between the ages of 7 and 12 are not only more adventurous but more likely to try to "find themselves." This can result in "trail running," which can take them far from the last known point. These older kids often wander up to five miles.

In contrast to an adult, children often won't repond to whistles or calls, in part due to the "never talk to strangers" rule many kids are taught. They have a fear of strangers and perhaps a fear of getting in trouble for getting lost. I recall hearing of a multi-day search for two young boys, who, after being located, stated that they'd actually come to a paved road and saw a man on a bicycle but didn't call out or try to get his attention. Instead, they walked back into the woods.

Some Search & Rescue teams give classes to school and community groups, teaching children what to do if they get lost. One example is Mark 9 (K-9) Search and Rescue in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas area, and their fun and informative "Sit & Stay" outreach program. The children meet the search dogs and learn how to recognize "the good guys" (the searchers) and how to respond to them.

Another program, well-known in the SAR community, is "Hug-a-Tree and Survive," designed to tell a simple story that teaches children basic principles for staying safe in the wilderness. Visit the NASAR website to find out more about "Hug-a-Tree," including the true story about the search for a 9-year-old boy that inspired a group of SAR members to put together the program.


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