A Few Thoughts about Volunteer Search and Rescue

Recently I helped (a little) with a search and rescue effort in Utah. The upshot is that two Colorado men—including a family friend—crashed their vehicle off the side of a cliff northeast of Price, resulting in fatality on impact. Yet, because the vehicle was so hard to see and locate, it was not found until more than a week after the crash and several days after the men were reported missing, even though more than 100 friends and family members had traveled to Price to help with the search.

Here my goal is to offer a few reflections on the search in the hopes that, should others find themselves in a missing persons or search and rescue situation, they might have a little better idea of what to expect.

It has never been so clear to me the living hell created by not knowing what happened. We didn’t know what happened to the men or whether they were still alive. That uncertainty leads to high emotions, hard feelings, exhaustion, and continuous speculation. In such a situation, one must make a special effort to remain civil and productive and not do anything that gets in the way of the search.

There are four basic scenarios for any missing persons case: either the person is lost, injured in an accident, the victim of foul play, or trying hard not to be found. In this case, the second scenario was most likely, but we could definitely rule out only the first scenario. But within each remaining scenario, there are a thousand, a million, possibilities.

The key is to add plausible scenarios to the list of possibilities, while not losing focus on the most obvious explanations. In this case, the most likely explanation was the correct one: the men drove their car off the road in rugged country on the way to their base camp.

One mistake I made was to assume that, since the area had been searched so thoroughly after a few days, both by air and by ground, there was little chance the vehicle was actually in that area off of a road. But the country was so rugged (check out the satellite imagery of the map) that the vehicle was impossible to see from the road. Because the vehicle was so mangled (see the video from KSL Salt Lake), it was nearly impossible to identify from the air; it blended in with the surrounding rock features. (Finally the vehicle was found when a volunteer hiked down a rough incline to look down a cliff.)

Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Wally Hendricks told some members of the team that, during a search, you may need to look behind the same tree (or down the same cliff) six times before you see what’s there. So don’t assume that, just because an area has been searched once, it shouldn’t be searched again. Focus on the most likely routes and devote multiple searches to those.

That said, keep the search as organized as possible to limit unnecessary passes of less-likely areas. The man who stepped up to organize the search kept a large map on the wall and copied more-detailed sections of that map for the searchers. His single-page maps contained several square miles and showed all the dirt roads; typically an assigned search grid was two miles square. (It took my team an unexpectedly long time to cover a grid, but then there were multiple roads, some of which we had to walk.)

One advantage to staying organized and searching by grids is that you minimize the number of tracks over an area. This increases the chances of seeing tracks that may be related to the missing persons.

Take plenty of time to cover a search grid. Be thorough. Get out, walk around, look off the side of drop offs. As the search’s organizer pointed out, you may need to cut your engine and listen for the sound of a car’s horn. Try to mark a particular grid off the list as definitively as possible.

Also, take detailed notes of the search grid. This will help the organizer determine whether to send additional teams through that grid. For example, while walking a rough road I saw a small pond, and somebody had cut a hole in that pond. It turns out the pond was irrelevant to our search, but the fact that I saw the hole caused me to spend more time there and report it to the organizer. Then another team returned the next day to check out the pond more thoroughly. I still don’t know why somebody cut the hole in the pond. But it occurred to me that perhaps another searcher did it to check the pond; if that’s the case, that’s the sort of information that would have been useful in a search report.

All that said, people are going to make some mistakes. So don’t accuse, and don’t feel bad if you miss something. Recognize that tensions are high, people are extremely tired, and emotions are raw. Keep focused on the goal: find the missing people. Take what you have and work with that in a constructive way.

Be careful! You are not helping the situation by becoming lost or injured yourself. Stay rested, fed, and hydrated. Don’t push your vehicle beyond its capacities. Make sure the search organizer knows where you are, who is in your party, and how to get ahold of you. As in medicine, first do no harm. (Again, if somebody does make a mistake, don’t accuse, and don’t feel bad; return to constructive action as quickly a possible.)

Recognize the leaders of the group, and support them. There will be (or should be) two key leaders. One is the organizer of the volunteer search. This person should be responsible for organizing the search pattern, handing out search assignments, collecting search reports, and processing that information. In our case, this person had a second-in-command, and that was vital to keeping the assignments going out and the reports coming in. That organizer (and only that organizer) should interact with the local authorities to coordinate the broader search effort.

The second key leader is the person who facilitates the flow of information. This person (or, in our case, two people) should make contact with the authorities, with the volunteer search organizer, with the family and searchers, and with the media. The media accounts regarding this search were basically accurate and thorough because somebody was assigned to send out official media releases. Obviously this person should have some familiarity with the media (or at least be a decent writer). In our case, a Facebook page facilitated the distribution of these releases and related information.

Thankfully, we had a very organized search. I could see how a disorganized search could result in a great deal of tension and counterproductive action. Do what you reasonably can to identify and assist the leaders (or to become one of the key leaders if you have the experience and demeanor for it).

It was a terrible time with a tragic outcome. The silver lining, as several pointed out, was seeing so many friends and family members stepping up so valiantly during this difficult time.

Be careful out there. Take every reasonable precaution not to become a missing person yourself and to keep loved ones safe. But if the worst happens, and you find yourself in a search for missing persons, get an idea of what to expect and focus on productive action toward finding your loved ones.

See also “Integrating Aerial Photography in Search and Rescue.”