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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Sunday, May 31, 2009

SAR Stories Aplenty At Grand Canyon

Living just an hour and a half from the Grand Canyon, I often hear and read about Search & Rescue operations within the Park. Several of our County SAR team members are involved with the park in one capacity or another--volunteer and paid rangers, a helicopter medic, guides--who sometimes assist with missions involving missing, injured, ill or deceased canyon visitors. One even co-authored the book, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, which illustrates that the majority of the deaths have occurred when people failed to pay attention to warning signs or didn't use common sense.

(The guy in that photo is my husband, by the way, but he was just goofing around. But it sure was hot that July afternoon. Still, we saw people coming down the Bright Angel trail carrying no water--nothing in fact--at all.)

Given that Grand Canyon is the second most visited National Park after the Great Smoky Mountains, and the 10th most visited National Park unit, (See: with more than 4 million people coming through the entrance gates annually, it's to be expected there will be a large number of "incidents." Unfortunately, though, Grand Canyon leads the nation when it comes to SAR calls.

Each year, rangers at Grand Canyon National Park perform as many as 300 helicopter rescues, not to mention those carried out on foot, boat or by other technical means. Most of those missions stem from falls and medical issues, the former often from horse-play or the desire for that photo at the edge, and the latter frequently from fatigue, extreme temperatures and underlying conditions exacerbated by the effort of hiking out of the canyon.

According to 2007 statistics, these same factors, along with poor navigational skills and lack of preparedness, lead to nearly 3,600 search and rescue operations in National Parks around the country. According to an article in the May 24th edition of the Arizona Daily Sun, the park service also responds to 16,000 emergency medical calls a year for anything from abrasions and twisted ankles to heat stroke and cardiac arrest. In years past, Grand Canyon has accounted for about 13% of these incidents in the National Park system.

And recent weeks have been as busy as ever for SAR personnel at the Canyon. In late April, a man fell 60 feet when he lost his balance while looking over the edge. Just two days later, two teenagers and a young man were swept away and drowned when they went for a swim in the Colorado River near Phantom Ranch. Then a woman was injured when the mule she was riding fell and rolled over her. Currently, rangers are searching for a hiker who's been missing since May 23rd.

In 2005, Grand Canyon led the National Parks with 307 SAR calls. Next in line was Gateway National Recreation Area in the New York/New Jersey area with 293, and rounding out the top three was Yosemite with 231.

To see the rest of the top ten list, along with the costs associated with these missions, see: Staying Safe and How Not to Become A SAR Statistic in the National Park System

See also: Grand Canyon Search & Rescue media releases

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Silver Alert Program

Recently, our Search & Rescue team was called upon to search for a missing 80 year-old woman with advanced dementia. While we were out in the field conducting a ground search and air rescue was flying over the heavily treed area, a message was displayed on nearby automated highway signs, just as it would be for a missing child under the well-known Amber Alert program.

In this case, the programmed message was a "silver alert," intended to spread the word about a senior who'd wandered from her family's campsite several hours earlier. Soon after the alert was displayed, calls came in from passing motorists who thought they'd spotted the woman and her small dog along the interstate. Sure enough, those sightings proved to be the subject of our search, who was returned to her loved ones unharmed.

While the Amber Alert program, which was established in the mid-90s and makes use of state transportation department programmable road signs, public broadcast systems, and a 511 emergency call-line, is in force in all 50 states, the Silver Alert Program has a number of states to go. According to the OLR Research Report of January, 2009, thirteen states had passed Silver Alert legislation at the time, with five others pending. The good news is, the program is catching on. By March, the number had risen to 18 states with Silver Alert Programs and 14 pending. (See: Silver Alert Initiatives in the States from the National Association of State Units on Aging) Also in March, 2009, the National Silver Alert Act was passed by the US Senate to make the safe recovery of missing senior citizens a nationwide project.

In 2006, Colorado became the first state to formally establish an official Silver Alert Program, soon followed by Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas in 2007. Virginia has a similar program called Senior Alert.

In North Carolina, for one, the alerts don't specify health information about the subject, in order to protect the missing person from potential abuse, harm or exploitation.

Governor Charlie Crist of Florida followed suit in October, 2008, with his state's own Silver Alert Program, after the search for an elderly woman who checked herself out of a Pinellas County nursing home and accidentally drove into the intracoastal waterway. Her body was found less than a week later by local fisherman.

Everything I've read about Silver Alert Programs has indicated that the majority of those seniors reported missing in this fashion have been safely returned. One of many examples is the case of 83-year-old Helen Long of North Carolina, who left her home without notice in January, 2008. Her daughter called state police, who broadcast a description of Ms. Long's truck on the state's Silver Alert system. Six hours later, a UPS driver saw the truck and called for help, and Long was returned to her home unharmed.

For additional reading on Silver Alert Programs, see:

Silver Alert: For When Elders Go Missing by Christine Vestal

"Silver Alerts" Sound The Alarm When Certain Seniors Go Missing from the National Conference of State Legislatures

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Featured Team: Pathfinder Search & Rescue

Recently, I crossed paths online with a member of Pathfinder Search & Rescue, a non-profit Canine SAR team based in Moore, Oklahoma. This is the only volunteer K-9 Search and Rescue team in Oklahoma listed with the State as an Emergency Resource.

The group responds to calls involving urban and wilderness search and rescue, both natural and manmade disasters, missing children, cadaver searches, and scent discrimination throughout the state. They've also responded to incidents out of state, including the post-Katrina floods in New Orleans.

Pathfinder SAR began in 1997 and has since grown to include a current group of six active human volunteers and 6 dogs, who train, on average, 300 hours per year.

On January 22, 2000, five search dogs from the Pathfinder team were inducted into the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association's Pet Hall of Fame for their role in the search and rescue efforts after the May 3rd, 1999 tornados that struck Oklahoma.

In addition to responding to mission call-outs, Pathfinder Search and Rescue offers free programs to the community, including educational services to schools and youth groups. Their Sit and Stay program teaches kids what to do if lost and, time-permitting, introduces them to the Search Dogs. The team also offers continuation credit hours to Police or Sheriffs Departments that request the service, making them the only volunteer SAR team in the State of Oklahoma to offer this free service. In addition, Pathfinder SAR offers classes to any agency that wants a better understanding of how Search and Rescue dogs work and how they can be utilized.

Pathfinder SAR's most recent mission occurred on May 4, 2009, and involved the search for a missing 81 year-old woman with Alzheimer's and Dementia, who was found alive and in good health.

Visit the team's website at

Follow Pathfinder SAR on Twitter.

Watch the team's video:

Pathfinder Search & Rescue is currently working on a number of fundraising projects, seeking donations for much-needed equipment for their command trailer, medical and communications equipment, and other ongoing operating costs. Check out the team's wishlist and see how you might help.

(Images courtesy of Patherfinder SAR)

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Incident Command System--The Basics

I recently participated in a table-top exercise based on the 2008 flooding in Havasu Canyon, a tributary of Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, where the Native American village of Supai and the blue-green waters are located. In August of last year, our team along with numerous other agencies, responded to help evacuate more than 400 campers and village residents out of the path of the flood. Luckily, there was no loss of human life--no serious injuries at all, actually--and things went well, I thought. But there's certainly room for improvement in a number of areas, and that's what the table-top exercise was meant to help accomplish, at least as a start.

The exercise was based on the Incident Command System, which most of us learn about as new SAR recruits. But it's one thing to learn about it on paper and from an instructor in a class room and quite another to see it in action and also to practice it in a low-stress scenario like the table-top exercise.

Here, I'm just going to review the basic Incident Command setup--the different functions within the ICS framework and brief descriptions of each functional element. During some missions, only a few of the organizational elements may be required, while other major incidents may necessitate that the organization be expanded. The ICS framework allows for that expansion, but there are five major functions which are needed on any incident regardless of its size.

Those five major functions are:
  • Incident Command
  • Operations
  • Planning
  • Logistics
  • Finance & Administration

On many, if not most missions, multiple functions may be performed or at least overseen by a single person. In other cases, the responsibilities will be broken down to section chiefs and a number of deputies and "subordinates."

Here's a summary of each major function:

Incident Command: The Incident Commander is ultimately responsible for the overall management of the situation, including tasks like determining the incident objectives, establishing a command post, establishing an appropriate organization and authorizing an "incident action plan," to name just a few.

Depending on the scope of the mission, the Incident Commander may have a deputy and other officers to assist with things like: managing and disseminating public information (Information Officer); acting as a liaison between the various agencies that my be involved (Liaison Officer); and developing and recommending measures for assuring personnel safety and assess hazards (Safety Officer).

Operations: The "chief" of the operations section is responsible for supervising the execution of the Incident Action Plan (IAP) and requesting any additional resources necessary to carry it out, as well as maintaining a unit log and making any changes in the IAP that are needed during the operational period.
Subordinate positions to the operations chief can include a strike team leader, a staging area manager, an air ops director and a helibase manager, to name some of many.

Planning: The one in charge of this section will need to collect, evaluate and disseminate information related to the incident. There are four units within the Planning section that can be activated if necessary, including a resources unit (to oversee the check-in of all resources, a master list of resources, and the current status and location of resources), a situation unit (for collecting and analyzing incident data, providing maps and photographs, etc.), a documentation unit (to oversee forms and reports, make copies as needed, and provide incident documentation) and a demobilization unit (for the "wrapping up" of particularly complex incidents).

Logistics: This section is responsible for all incident support needs, such as medical supplies, food and drinks, facilities, communications, fuel and other supplies. The chief of this section and any subordinate units that are established will need to anticipate these needs and request additional resources if necessary.

Finance & Administration: This section is responsible for managing all of the financial aspects of a mission. Tasks may involve things like recording personnel time, providing cost analysis, managing vendor contracts and equipment rental, to name just a few.

Obviously, most missions don't necessitate such an extensive or detailed structure, and the Incident Command System in its entire, expanded form is difficult to envision--personally speaking--until it's seen in action. Even as a "low level" volunteer, though, I think it's a good idea to have a general understanding of what's going on at the upper levels of incident management right down to our own specific tasks and how we fit in to the ICS. Even the most basic responsibilities, which may seem mundane compared to the overall situation at hand, are vital to its operation. And that's a good thing to know.

For more information on the ICS, I'd start with

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Update: Missing A.T. Hiker Found

Backpacking Light Magazine editor, Ken Knight, who was missing for eight days, has now been located in good condition in Amherst County, Virginia, following an extensive search. The mission involved more than 100 search and rescue workers, including dog teams, mounted units and the Civil Air Patrol.

From what I've read on several backpacking forums, he missed the Appalachian Trail turn to John's Hollow and instead followed Little Rocky Row, then got lost from there.

At some point, Mr. Knight started a small signal fire which turned into a two-acre brush fire up on a ridge, which definitely caught people's attention. When firefighters were dispatched to put it out, they found the subject, who was then hiked--"walking and talking"--to safety.

Relief! A happy ending.

And here's an article and photo from The News & Advance out of Lynchburg, Virginia: Missing A.T. Hiker Found

Friday, May 1, 2009

In The News: Backpacking Light Editor Missing After A.T. Hike

This information was posted on by CEO Ryan Jordan:.

Backpacking Light editor Ken Knight is missing after a hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

If you saw Ken or otherwise know of his whereabouts after Sunday morning, please contact us at the following email address:

About Ken:

Ken is 5'4" tall and approx. 180-200 lb. He is vision impaired, has dark hair, and is probably using a dry bag-style pack with an orange pack bag.

Ken is an experienced AT hiker, but his vision impairment may have caused him to lose the trail.

Point Last Seen:

He was last seen on the Appalachian Trail on Sunday morning, around 9-10am, at Punchbowl Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway, mile 51.7, in the aea of Buchanan and Bedford, Virginia.

He'd been trailing behind a group and meeting up with them at their campsites. On Sunday, he reported not feeling well and suggested he might go off the trail. The group did not see him since leaving Punchbowl Mountain on Sunday.

He was anticipated to reach mile 76.3 on Tuesday, which the rest of the group did. To date, he has not arrived, and he has missed his flight back home to Michigan Wednesday night.

Ken regularly blogs via iPhone when he has cellular coverage. His last known blog entry was Sunday morning, April 26, at 6:36 AM Eastern:

Search in Progress:

Ken's family has been notified, and a search is currently in progress by NPS and VA State SAR.

Non-agency SAR and other volunteers interested in assisting with this search should contact us at, who is coordinating the efforts of outside volunteers with the SAR Coordinator on location. Please send your name, cellular phone number, and distance from SNP in your message, and then wait for further instructions.

The photo above shows the actual clothes he was wearing.

Ken's last update from the trail, sent from his iPhone, can be seen at FriendFeed at on April 26th, day 5 of his hike. I was having trouble getting the video to load this morning, but give it a try.

You can watch for updates on this story on the the forums at