SARstories News is our blog for all things Search & Rescue: interesting mission reports and articles, featured SAR teams and new items on the website, upcoming conferences, gear reviews, and anything else that piques our interest and we hope will pique yours.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Canine Water Search: Scent Through Water

I'd never known that a search dog--or any dog, for that matter--could detect human scent through water. Not until I read So That Others May Live: Caroline Hebard & Her Search-And-Rescue Dogs by Hank Whittemore.

Caroline Hebard became interested in the unknown field of canine water search in the 1970s, in the early days of SAR. During the search for a lost hunter, Hebard's own dog, Zibo, showed intense interest at the edge of a swamp. The dog's training had taken place only on land, and Hebard had never taught Zibo or any other canine to alert on water. Ultimately, though, the hunter's body was found submerged in the swamp.

Convinced of the potential of this new aspect of K-9 SAR, Hebard began comparing notes with other handlers and, along with Marian Hardy of Dogs-East, put together actual training procedures for canine water search.

In addition to highlighting several missions involving canine water search, Chapter 14 explains the reason dogs are able to detect the scent of a submerged victim:

Scientific studies unrelated to Search & Rescue revealed that the body of a drowning victim gives off invisible skin particles with accompanying vapors, oils and gases. Being lighter than water, these rise from any depth until they break the surface and are released into the air. From the point of release, a widening scent cone forms. Detecting the cone, trained dogs will then follow it back to where the scent is most concentrated on the surface of the water, either by swimming or leaning over the side of a boat. Of course, a handler who recognizes the dog's signals will need to guide the boat operator.

Factors that can hinder a search dog's ability to detect scent through water include layers of cold water--or thermoclines--which can not only trap bodies but scents as well. Heavy algae can also trap scent, and fumes from engine-powered boats may confuse the dog. Incredibly, though, Hebard's dogs were able to detect scent even in fast-moving whitewater.

The Connecticut Canine Search and Rescue team has a nice webpage on Canine Water Search. Check it out here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An Unusual SAR Team

While doing a Google search with the key words, "women in search and rescue," I came across something I sure didn't expect--a team made up entirely of women but for what is, to me, a "foreign" reason. The title of the article says it all: "Pakistan: Only Women Can Rescue Women." Huh?

The all-female team is part of a Search & Rescue program for Focus Humanitarian Assistance, an emergency-response group affiliated with the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of international private agencies working to improve living conditions and opportunities in the developing world. These women train for alpine rescues in the land that's home to five of the world's highest peaks, including 28,250-foot K2. Three of the world's greatest mountain ranges — the Himalayas, Karakoram Range, and Hindu Kush — are located in this region, where avalanches, landslides, tremors, and earthquakes are a regular part of life.

In the Marie Claire article, Jan Goodwin writes:

"That Pakistan has female search-and-rescue workers is in itself remarkable. This is a country, after all, in which arranged marriages, jail sentences for rape victims, honor killings, and dowry burnings (when a bride is burned to death by her husband if her dowry is not large enough) are common. In Baluchistan, one of the country's four provinces, many residents abide by the maxim that a woman should leave her home only three times in her life: when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies."

Wow. I mean, imagine a place where male rescuers won't assist female children trying to escape from a burning school.

I can't relate to that.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Thank You, Search & Rescue Families

Tomorrow, I'll be re-joining a search that's been going on now for eight days. This will be my fourth full day on this mission, as our SAR team and other teams from around the state of Arizona, the Forest Service, Civil Air Patrol, DPS and a number of other individuals and organizations search for a man who went missing when he left for a customary short ATV ride in the area of his rural second home. (You can read more on that story as well as comments from the missing man's friends and family on my blog, Deb's Search & Rescue Stories). Many of my teammates also have spent multiple days participating in this mission, and many of those volunteers have families of their own waiting for them at home.

So I've been thinking a lot lately about the sacrifices that SAR spouses and children often make and really appreciating my husband for his support, not to mention the interest he takes in my never-ending stories.

Which made me take special notice of an excerpt from a book I'm currently reading, Mountain High, Mountain Rescue by Peggy Parr, published in 1987 but very much applicable to today's SAR experience (other than perhaps the number of women who participate). She writes:

"The patience of a husband or wife at home is often forgotten, yet this is a vital ingredient to the team's accomplishments in the field. Since so few women join and most are single, a spouse is usually a woman. The team often rates high in a husband's life--a wife detests the orange shirt as her competition--however, "the other woman" is a mission.

Sleeping spouses, unmoved by adrenaline, are awakened in the depth of night by a pager's piercing tone giving an emergency message ... and subjected to the noise of frantic dressing and departure. If the spouse wants the car, chauffeuring is necessary. During the day the tone shatters silence at the sermon, the movie and the restaurant. Dinners turn cold, picnics are cancelled, guests are left waiting. Bachelors should contemplate this neglect a spouse suffers.

After a mission, the spouse is forced to listen to endless phone calls from other members, where details are dissected like a frog. Gear is spread across the floor as in a garage sale. Two-hundred-foot nylon ropes are cleaned in the washing machine, and hang for days drying in spaghetti coils from the basement ceiling.

The spouse tolerates these annoyances with a patience worthy of sainthood. Members are aware of these qualities, for we take their spirit with us always."

Amen to that.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Featured Story: The Rescue of Michael Tunney

Recently, I added a new story to the SARstories website, including not only a firsthand account by the man who was rescued but also mission reviews by some of the Search & Rescue volunteers who saved his life.

In November, 2006, Michael Tunney and his 16 year-old son were climbing Scotland's Beinn a’Cheachain, when a great day turned into a near-fatal experience. Michael slipped on a patch of ice and fell 200 feet, breaking his neck, right hip and arm, seven ribs and punctured a lung. Luckily, he'd put on some extra, insulating layers before the accident which helped protect him from the bitter cold during the hours he lay waiting for help, wedged against the rocks. The rest of his gear had been lost in the fall.

Fortunately for both Michael and his son, who'd scrambled, slid and fell down the mountainside to help his father, also sustaining injuries in the process, they had two cell phones on two different networks and both were able to obtain signals. As always, they'd kept their phones in their pockets rather than their packs. Calls were made to "999" for help.

After what seemed an eternity, the Arrochar and Oban Mountain Rescue teams came to the aid of the injured climbers. They were flown to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, where Michael was critical throughout the night.

Michael Tunney is now undertaking a fundraising effort to benefit both rescue teams as well as the Northern Police Treatment Centre, where he received physiotherapy after being released from the hospital.

For this fundraising campaign, the challenge that Michael has set for himself is to complete the nine Scottish 4,000-foot peaks and 14 "Munros" along the way, with a total elevation gain of just under 30,000 feet. You can find out more about this challenge at

Michael's personal story begins...

"It has been almost two years since I so nearly paid the ultimate price for my passion for the mountains and the outdoors in general. While I was very lucky to survive a fall that on another day would have proved fatal, it is still very difficult to comprehend how I did manage to survive. What I do know is that, not only am I fortunate to be alive, but that I am extremely fortunate to be physically able to type this at all." Read more....

(Photos courtesy of the Oban Mountain Rescue Team)