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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Paradoxical (and one not-so-paradoxical) Undressing

Several months ago, our SAR team was called out for an evidence search after part of a human skeleton was discovered on a cinder hill. Our objective, of course, was to find more bones as well as any additional clues or items that might lead to the identification of the deceased. Needless to say, the mission was very successful, solving a two-year-old missing person case.

What our team found was a full set of clothing--jacket, pants, shoes, underwear--along with the victim's identification and credit card right beside the neatly laid-out garments. So neat, in fact, they may as well have been put there only days before, had it not been for their weathered appearance.

Though some of my teammates and I theorized about the woman's death for weeks after the find, coming up with all sorts of scenarios, we eventually learned that the cause of death had been deemed exposure, as indicated in part by the fact that there was no visible trauma to her bones as well as the manner in which her clothing had been placed. Though I knew quite well what hypothermia was and thought I knew the various stages, I didn't recall ever hearing of a freezing person removing his or her clothing. That seemed counter-intuitive to me.

And then one of my (personal) blog readers posted a comment about "Paradoxical Undressing." It was the first time I'd heard the term, and, when I read the article, "Paradoxical Undressing: Irrational removal of clothing threatens hypothermia victim survival," it made more sense.

As I understand it, when a person becomes hypothermic, blood vessels in the outer extremities constrict, shunting blood to the core in the body's attempt to warm vital organs. The lack of blood in the extremities then causes those muscles to tire. As the muscles in the arms and legs tire, they relax, resulting in a dilation of the vessels and warm blood to rush back to the extremities, thus causing a false sense of overheating. And then the clothing starts coming off, because the victim is now "cold stupid," as the article puts it. Ultimately, the paradoxical undressing only serves to hasten the victim's death.

According to Wikipedia, as much as fifty percent of hypothermia deaths are associated with paradoxical undressing, a phenomenon that sometimes leads law enforcement to mistakenly assume that urban victims of hypothermia have been the victims of sexual assault, while rescuers trained in mountain survival have been taught to expect this effect.

Knowledgeable members of my own SAR team explained that, when paradoxical undressing occurs, the hypothermic person will often lay out their discarded clothing very neatly, as was the case with our find on the cinder hill, though I've yet to locate anything online about that fact. (Then again, it's past my bedtime.)

According to the before mentioned article, there's no known case of anyone who's reached the stage of paradoxical undressing having survived without outside intervention. Another article, this one from the Wilderness Medicine Newsletter, upholds that statement, though some who posted comments dispute that fact.

Both of the above articles cite a much-publicized event involving paradoxical undressing--that of the death of James Kim, after he and his family made a wrong turn and became snowbound while travelling home to San Francisco in late November, 2006. Mr. Kim tried to go for help, but his body was later found lying in the snow. He'd removed several articles of clothing, including his pants.

But on a different and happier note....

At least on one occasion, the subject of a Search & Rescue mission disrobed for the right reason. Apparently, this news story circulated around the web when it first ran in June, 2008, but I missed it. Read "Bra Helps in Rescue of Springs Hiker Stranded in Alps" if, like me, you may have been busy with SAR missions when this was all the buzz.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Message from the SARstories Webmaster

I have to snicker at the "master" part. As if I really know what I'm doing. So far, though, the SARstories website seems to be holding together well enough, but I half expect to log on one day and find everything all topsy-turvy. Hopefully, as time goes on, I'll figure out how to implement more of my ideas, as well as some that have been suggested by others in the SAR community, not to mention improve on what's already there. So keep the suggestions coming!

Anyhow, as you may be able to tell, the tone of this entry is a little different than what's come before. Given that this is only post #17, I figured it's not too late to make an adjustment and, as traffic to the site and blog subscriptions have been going up recently, I thought I'd better do so sooner than later. So from hereon out, you'll probably see a few more I's, because, after all, it's just me doing the blogging and webMASTERing. (Which I'm sure is quite obvious, since I put my own blog front and center on the homepage. Subtle, I know.)

For those of you who just recently stumbled upon this blog and/or who may not have read Deb's Search & Rescue Stories (couldn't resist sticking a link in there, too), I wanted to be sure you know that I'm no expert at anything SAR. As of this writing, I've been involved with Search & Rescue only 15 months and 10 days, with, if I've tallied them correctly, 32 missions under my belt. That's not nothin', but I do have a lot to learn, which is part of what I love about it.

And that's really what this blog is about. If I come across a SAR-related topic, mission report or news story, a piece of technology or gear, or anything else SAR that makes me say, "Hmmm," I'll look into it and write about what I've learned. And I encourage anyone with more knowledge on a subject to post your comments, insights or even corrections if I've made a goof. Also, if you'd like to make a guest post, please email me at Feel free to tell us about your team, too! I personally find it really interesting to learn about other SAR teams, as well as how some of us do things differently. Also, if you've been the subject of a SAR mission, we ... uh, I (and I'm sure everyone else) would love to hear from you.

Which reminds me, I just added a story to the website about a rescue here in Coconino County, Arizona, with links to both my own mission report AND a firsthand account by one of the rescued hikers. (Click here, then scroll down a bit to "A Rescue on the Mogollon Rim.")

I also wanted to tell you about my plan to create forums on, to include topics on the many different types of Search & Rescue, SAR technology and gear, recommended SAR reading, skills, missions and so forth. I'll let you know when the forums are up and running and hope you'll stop by to join the discussion.

Okay, now back to anything and everything SAR. Happy holidays, everybody, and here's to more successful missions. *clink!* (That was a non-alcoholic toast, in case anyone gets a call-out.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Equine Search: the air-scenting horse

Search dogs, sure. But horses? I'd always thought mounted SAR just meant searchers riding horses while the riders did the searching. That is, until I heard a couple of my teammates talking about how air-scenting horses are being used in Search & Rescue.

So I did a little reading and realized that air-scenting is a horse's specialty, and dogs and horses compliment one another very well in the field. While dogs are able to access nooks and crannies horses may not be able to reach, horses can use their long necks and big noses to catch each bit of high-flying, elusive scent. In addition, horses can search a large area in a short amount of time.

Perhaps the person with the most expertise in the realm of equine search is Terry Nowacki of Minnesota, who runs courses showing how horses can be trained to follow their noses and, in 2001, wrote the first manual on air-scenting with horses. Nowacki says riders generally take more training than do their horses, the latter often learning quickly through reward-based training.

According to Nowacki, people have described occasions when their horses had begun acting differently while on a mounted search, but it wasn't until the subject was found that they realized their horses had been acting differently when they'd been close to the missing person. He says that horses by nature know how to follow scents, but what is needed is to show riders how to read the signs and allow their horses to follow those scents.

Air-scenting is best suited to terrain dominated by low brush or long grass. Under ideal conditions such as these, horses have been known to detect scents from up to a quarter-mile away. But horses typically manage to pick up scent from up to 200 feet, a range sufficient to find someone lying in tall grass or off to the side of a trail.

Nowacki says the technique with horses doesn't work like it does with tracking dogs, where a piece of clothing worn by a subject might be introduced for the dog to acquire a scent to follow. What horses are following is a general human scent, not that of a particular person. And if a horse finds the wrong person, such as another searcher, the rider should simply reward the horse and continue on as one would with an air-scenting canine.

To prove the effectiveness of air-scenting horses, Terry Nowacki has performed a number of demonstrations, including one at an "Equine Sign Language and Scent Detection Clinic" at Tumbleweed Stables in Nebraska with the help of Ponderosa SAR, a team that uses both dogs and horses in the field. For this mock search, Ponderosa SAR used four K-9's and two mounted searchers. The dogs and horses were trained, tested and certified in scent detection for Search & Rescue.

Nowacki set up a scenario without the search team's knowledge, placing a person in one hiding spot and a shirt in another. The hidden shirt had been worn the night before by one of the non-SAR clinic participants. Nowacki then found a high vantage point for himself and the remainder of the group, from which they were able to observe about 60% of the search teams' movements. The search area was made up of 75 acres of rolling hills and grassland, intertwined with ravines.

During the demonstration, after the team had searched about 30 acres, one of the mounted handlers called in to the observer group by radio and stated that her horse was using equine sign language, giving a cue that he'd picked up on human scent. The observers then watched as the horse was "given his head" and set off directly into the wind, over a hill, and found the hidden subject. As the rider later reported--and the observers witnessed--the distance from where she first detected the horse's signal to the hiding subject was about 500 feet.

The search continued, and, after they'd covered 65 acres or so of the search area, the rider again reported that her horse had given another cue. And once again, observers watched as horse and rider headed into the wind a distance of about 200 feet and found the well-hidden shirt in a ravine.

In another demonstration, this one involving cadaver scent, Terry Nowacki's horses were blindfolded to prevent observers from saying the horses were searching by sight. During the first part of the search, he rode a 12-year-old horse. When the horse picked up the first trace of cadaver scent, which he confirmed by his silent alert signals, Terry marked the spot with a flag, then continued on until the horse showed a stronger silent alert signal.

At this point, in order to prove that the horse was working totally on its own, Nowacki dismounted and turned the horse free in an open field to locate the cadaver source. After losing and relocating the scent, the still-blindfolded horse searched out the hidden cadaver material from a distance of 50 feet. The horse located the source of the cadaver scent within the 30-minute time frame allowed by the NASAR standards used for this test. A yearling miniature horse was also successfully tested according to K-9 cadaver standards.

In order to make the test more difficult, some road kill was also placed in the test area, but this didn't fool the human cadaver-trained horses. One horse ignored the scent, while the other gave just one signal that something was up-wind but did not try to follow the scent.

To learn more about Terry Nowacki and his equine search clinics and training, visit Equine Detection Services website.

And here's an article by Jorene Downs, a nationally recognized instructor and consultant on effective use of the mounted SAR resource: "Mounted SAR: Equine Clue Dectection"

Book Review: "Mountain Rescue Doctor"

Imagine having to stick a breathing tube down someone's throat. And imagine having to do that without accidentally breaking the person's teeth or inserting the tube into their esophagus. Then imagine doing this while kneeling on sharp rocks on a narrow ledge, while a hovering rescue helicopter sprays you and your patient with dirt and debris.

Endotracheal intubation is one of the most difficult medical procedures an ER doctor performs, and that's within the clean and controlled hospital setting with skilled assistance at hand. But Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg has also been forced to intubate in much less than ideal backcountry conditions as a member of the Hood River Crag Rats, the oldest Search & Rescue team in the U.S.

Christopher Van Tilburg is not only an ER, ski patrol and emergency wilderness physician, he's also an excellent writer. I've spent the last few days reading Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Natureduring every spare moment (even at a red light, I must admit) and highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys SAR stories.

Along with insights into the ethical challenges a wilderness physician faces and the tools and techniques of emergency backcountry medicine, Tilburg describes a number of suspenseful missions. One account involves a call to Columbia River Gorge, where he intubated a patient who'd fallen off a cliff. Another chapter concerns the rescue of an injured and hypothermic man who'd fallen onto a logjam. Dr. Tilman also writes about rescuing cliff divers with back injuries, rushing to rescue a trapped climber within the "Golden Hour," treating the victim of a rattlesnake bite, and participating in a grisly body recovery at the scene of a mountain plane crash. Tilman has been involved in numerous high-altitude, winter missions, including a much-publicised search for three missing climbers on Mt. Hood.

After finishing the book, my only disappointment was that, in certain cases, the reader is left wondering what happened to the victims Dr. Tillman worked so hard to save. Did they survive? Then I happened across a blog post by the author, in which he states, "Yes, several chapters don't really say what happens to the patient. That's part of the deal with mountain rescue missions: we hand off the patients to a helicopter or ground ambulance crew and sometimes we never find out the end result." As any member of a SAR unit knows, that statement is very true. The last we sometimes see or hear of a patient is when they're whisked into the sky in a litter, spinning at the end of a 200-foot rope.

To learn more about the author of Mountain Rescue Doctor, visit Christopher Van Tilburg's website at

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.


Hey, there's new stuff on Three new featured stories, SAR discussions groups, and new links to SAR teams around the world.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Book Review: "Coming Back Alive"

I recently went on a Search & Rescue reading binge, given that my own SAR pager has been quiet for the past few weeks, which is quite unusual. Among the stack of books I've read about the lost, the stranded, the injured and the rescued, my favorite was Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seasby Spike Walker.

This is a book about eight amazing rescue missions off the coast of southeastern Alaska, culminating in the edge-of-your-seat account of the Coast Guard's efforts to save the lives of five crewmen from the fishing vessel La Conte, which sunk in 100-mile per hour storm winds and record 90-foot seas in January, 1998. Without a life raft, the men are left to drift in the freezing water for hours, as three different helicopter crews try in turn to save them.

This was one of those "I don't care how tired I'll be at work tomorrow, I have to keep reading" books. In fact, I was so intrigued that after finishing "Coming Back Alive," I started following Coast Guard SAR headlines on Twitter with links to their news releases.

Author Spike Walker worked for years as a deckhand in Alaska. He researched "Coming Back Alive" meticulously, through hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors.