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Friday, April 24, 2009

Featured Blog: Hiker Hell

Want to read daily snippets of SAR stories from around the globe, accompanied by great photos and links to the news articles? Then check out I've been following this blog by magazine editor and avid outdoorsman, Brian Quines, since it began more than 1,000 posts ago.

Brian, also known as B-Real, writes in his profile, "Over four years ago, I read Touching the Void, and I was always intrigued by situations hikers find themselves in and the incredible things they do to stay alive. This blog is about learning from other people's mistakes, so you don't make the same ones."

Stories from just this past week include:

"Skier Falls 150 meters" from Austria’s Brobglockner

"Hiker Survives 6 Days in Wilderness" near Big Sur, California

"Lost Backcountry Snowboarder Found" in Garibaldi Provincial Park, near Whistler, Canada

"Boy Dies in 1,900-Foot Fall" in California's San Emigdio Mountains

"Hiker Rescued From Steep Slope" on Cave Rock, near Lake Tahoe

"Three Young Brothers Rescued From Canyon" in Rock Canyon, Utah

If you have a SAR story for Brian, you can e-mail it to him at

**************************** Smart, Be Safe
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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Howth Coast Guard, Ireland

I came across a blog today that I wanted to pass along. It's written by members of the Howth Coast Guard, a division of the Irish Coast Guard, or IRCG, made up of volunteers. Howth is one of 55 voluntary teams inland and around the coast of the Republic of Ireland with a total of 950 members.

Looking at the unit's call-out log, I see they've responded to twelve missions since the beginning of this year. You can read about those missions and the other activities of the Howth Coast Guard at

As you can see by the example here, they've also got some wonderful photos on the site. This one was taken during a training exercise on the west pier of Howth Harbour. Unit members worked on 3 skill areas--roped stretchers, confidence lining and casualty approaches--then combined them in a short scenario.

You can see more photos of this team's activities, taken by member Robin Blanford, on

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Hasty Search

I probably should have made this post before writing about "the anatomy of a grid search," because a hasty search is often the method of first resort. The objective of a hasty search is to put well-trained SAR members in the field as quickly as possible to search as quickly as is reasonably possible, to check high-probability areas where a subject might be injured or lost. Hasty teams may use vehicles, 4-wheelers, and/or snow mobiles as well as search on foot. Tracking and air-scenting dogs are also frequently used in this phase of a mission.

The article, Search Techniques Used by Trained Teams in the Field, states, "The idea is to cover the ground. This is why it is so important to use trained searchers, because they are usually much more in tuned with what clues to look for and how to quickly spot footprints, broken branches (tracking signs), etc."

Hasty searches are usually conducted by small teams that travel to the most likely spots via the route of least resistance, in the hopes that the subject is still alive and responsive.

Hasty teams are not expected--or supposed--to look behind every bush, but neither are they necessarily instructed to move along a certain path. Often, these experienced searchers are given a lot of discretion as to how they move through the area.

Contrary to the term, however, a hasty search should not be equated with carelessness. Rather, the majority of missions never go beyond the hasty search mode, ending within a day or two if not within hours. Hasty searches are efficient as well as quick, and they can often prevent the unnecessary deployment of additional and perhaps costly resources and personnel.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Anatomy of a Grid Search

It seems like it should be a no-brainer: Searchers line up, side by side, and walk. And look. And, if it (or he or she) is out there, they'll find it, right? Uh ... maybe. Or maybe not.

Having been in SAR for about a year and a half now and put in hundreds of mission hours already, I've had my fair share of practice at grid (or line) searching, and it sure isn't as easy as it used to look to me on TV, where I'd often see a bunch of SAR members and other citizen volunteers lined up across a field, walking, unhindered, several feet apart. But I've yet to do a grid search like that. I'm usually crawling through, under and over thick brush, snagging my hair, clothing and skin on thorns and cacti, and struggling to keep in line with and in sight of my teammates to either side.

I've heard it said that grid searching is often the strategy of last resort, simply because of the manpower needed to adequately cover large areas. The fewer searchers there are, the more passes have to be made. And the smaller the object of the search--sometimes as small as a bullet casing or even tinier than that--the closer each person must be, meaning each pass will cover a narrower area. In SAR Field Search Methods by South Carolina's Rubicon Search & Rescue, the following example is given:

Noting that, as a rule of thumb, a trained grid search team requires about 3.5 hours to cover one mile, imagine you have one square mile to search. "Using a grid search, you have to decide how many searchers to put in the search area. Assume you assigned 25 people to search that one square mile. Now, you have to decide on spacing. If you space out the searchers with 20 feet between them, this 'line' will need to make eleven parallel passes through the area to cover it all and will take a total of 37 hours! That’s 924 MAN HOURS and 37 actual search hours, if the searchers are moving at a slow, deliberate pace as they are trained to do."

Putting 100 searchers out there in that same square mile, with the same 20 foot spacing, you’d still be talking about 924 man hours, but the search could be completed in about 3 passes, with only 9.2 hours in the field.

And when I say "field," I'm not necessarily referring to an actual field. Where I come from, it's usually ponderosa pine forest or canyon-filled, cactus-covered, pinion/juniper country, where 20-foot spacing would result in a fairly low probability of detection (POD). And imagine trying to locate something the size of a bullet casing in terrain like that? Not likely.

And I don't know about other teams, but we rarely have as many as 25 people turn up for a search. In high-profile cases I've followed in the news, often involving missing children, untrained members of the general public have usually come out in droves to assist. The article quoted above states that those non-SAR searchers are often assigned to perform grid searches in low probability areas to "give them something to do."

Effective grid searching requires paying attention to a number of details, all the while keeping your eyes peeled for clues (or an unresponsive subject). Maintaining spacing between each searcher, continuously keeping track of the person to your right or your left, is key. That spacing can be determined by placing an object the size of the smallest item you're looking for on the ground between two searchers and determining how far apart they can get and still see the object.

It is also important to keep on your direction of travel as much as possible rather than avoiding brush and other obstacles, because that's often where the clues end up, perhaps carried by the wind or animals or, in terms of people and especially children, they can get caught in the thick stuff if wandering around in the dark.


Being a grid search leader is not an easy task. Depending on the number of searchers in the line, the leader may locate on one end or, particularly with larger groups, in the center, where they can more easily communicate up and down the line. On many of the grid searches I've participated with--usually lines of 5 to 10 people at most--the team leader has stayed at one end with his or her GPS on tracking mode, maintaining our course while taking terrain contours into account, and periodically checking to be sure we can all see the person to our left (or right). The leader checks, often by radio, that no one is falling behind or getting too far ahead. The leader also ensures we don't speed up too much, that we're taking the time necessary to look under bushes and even sometimes up into the trees. The faster the line goes, the lower the POD.

Once at the end of a pass, the line will then pivot. The person on the inside will stay in place, becoming the axis, while the others come around. Then that inner end will move over into the unsearched area the length of the pre-determined interval (spacing between searchers), and everyone else will spread out accordingly. Then the whole line moves in the opposite direction, making the next pass.

What our team usually does is have the searchers on both ends of the line keep their GPS's on track. That way, when the line pivots around, they can both maintain the contours of the pass in an effort to ensure that a gap doesn't form, meaning an area would not have been adequately covered.

You can read about one of our team's successful grid searches, where we helped to solve a two year-old missing person case, in my blog post, Cinder Hill Cindy.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cellphones And SAR

Before joining SAR, I was pretty much a fuddy-duddy about cell phones in the backcountry. To me, that was a place to be free from all electronic gadgets (yes, I even had a "thing" about GPS's, believe it or not) ... but especially phones. Besides, I figured they wouldn't work out there most of the time anyway.

Well, since becoming a SAR volunteer, I admit I've changed my mind--not that I condone yacking on the phone while walking a trail--and learned a thing or two about the value cell phones can have, both to the backcountry user who gets into a jam and to Search & Rescue. I've now been involved with a number of missions where cell phones have literally saved lives and/or made it much easier for our team to narrow the search area or even pinpoint a subject's location.

Speaking of pinpointing one's location, I recently read a brief article entitled, "Cell Phone Users Beware: 911 Operators May Not Be Able To Locate You." Till then, I'd been under the impression that all cell phones that have a GPS chip built into them--meaning all phones made within the past two years--would enable 9-1-1 to obtain a caller's exact coordinates (or at least determine the location to within a small area), just by the person dialing in to the call center. As the article points out, however, this is the case only in areas that have "enhanced 9-1-1 systems."

The Federal Communication Commission's website states:

"The FCC's wireless Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) rules seek to improve the effectiveness and reliability of wireless 9-1-1 services by providing 9-1-1 dispatchers with additional information on wireless 9-1-1 calls."

This additional information includes the phone number of the wireless caller, the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call, and the latitude and longitude of the caller to within 30 to 300 feet. This is accomplished by using either some form of radiolocation from the cellular network, or by using a Global Positioning System receiver built into the phone. How a 9-1-1 caller would be located depends on which service provider and the type of phone being used. Though the federal government requires wireless companies to comply with Enhanced 9-1-1 rules, cellphone users do need to check with their service providers or phone manufacturers to get details about their phone.

Here's an interesting article, discussing how a cell phone signal was used to locate the family of James Kim, who disappeared in Oregon during a Thanksgiving road trip. In "Turning Cell Phones Into Lifelines," writer Marguerite Reardon explains:

"Mobile devices, when they are within range, constantly let cell towers and the mobile switching center, which is connected to multiple towers, know of their location. The mobile switching center uses the location information to ensure that incoming calls and messages are routed to the tower nearest to the user.

If a subscriber is unable to get service, this location information is usually purged from the mobile switching center. But some location information may remain in call detail records. Some mobile operators may store the most recent communication between a device and a mobile switching center for a certain period of time, usually 24 hours.

When someone is missing, even this small bit of information can prove useful in determining the approximate location of a device using the updates from the mobile switching center."

There are some interesting comments following the article as well as links to related stories. Read more....