Mountain Rescue: Search and rescue is an inexact science |

Mountain Rescue: Search and rescue is an inexact science

Photos courtesy of GCSARGrand County Search and Rescue search managers work on a search operation at Second Creek.

During two recent weekends I was an instructor for a Managing Land Search Operations course in Buena Vista. The four day course is an introduction to search management and was fully booked with 30 students from around the state, including three Grand County Search and Rescue members.

The Colorado Search and Rescue Board (CSRB) provides this opportunity two or three times a year at the request of a host team. Completion of this course is a requirement for qualification as a GCSAR Incident Commander

Topics through the sessions cover all aspects of search management including land search theory, lost person behavior, search strategy and tactics and interviewing the reporting party.

One of the sessions was determining search urgency. Once the search manager has been notified of a missing person and collected what initial information is available the first decisions must be made concerning the appropriate response. Factors to consider include the subject profile, the weather profile, equipment available to the subject and the knowledge of how to use it, the subject’s experience and terrain hazards. A standard Missing Person Report is utilized to gather this information.

Other factors that may affect the decision-making process are the history of incidents in the area, rescuer safety, the length of time since the person went missing and external influences like family or media pressure. In Colorado, the county sheriff is responsible for search and rescue so often decisions come from that position of authority.

Which of the following examples would you give a high urgency?

Subject A is a 55-year-old archery hunter who has 20 years of experience hunting in the area. He was supposed to return to camp by 7 p.m., it is now 9 p.m. He always carries a fanny pack with food, water and survival gear. He was appropriately dressed for the weather in fleece and polypro, tonight will be clear and cold with no moon.

Subject B is a 12-year-old boy from Iowa last seen at 10 a.m. near their family camp on St. Louis Creek. It is now noon, the family’s search efforts were unsuccessful. The boy is dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt and has no gear, food or water. Afternoon showers are probable. Sunset is not until 9 p.m., and the predicted low overnight temperature is in the 40s.

Not too hard to figure out which one is more urgent. There is a search urgency form available that rates key factors and allows the search manager to put a number on the urgency to help determine whether to respond urgently, provide a measured response or to further evaluate and investigate the situation. Bottom line, the search manager has to do something!

About 30 years ago we were notified of a local hunter who was overdue near Sheep Mountain. We had a good idea of his route plan, but were not aware of the situation until after dark. An October blizzard was raging, making the roads inaccessible by vehicle. We had a couple snowmobiles available that were able to search the Church Park road where the subject dropped off. No tracks were visible near the last seen point since the subject had started before the snowstorm. The decision was made not to field ground searchers until the following morning. I’ll never forget that decision because the hunter was found deceased from exposure the next day over on the Blue Ridge, 5 miles in the opposite direction from his destination.

Maybe if we had gone out that night we would have found some tracks and been able to catch up with him.

One of the first concepts taught to search managers is that search is an emergency, but determining the urgency and then deciding how and when to allocate resources is not an exact science. Sometimes it’s obvious what decision to make, other times very difficult. Available resources may be minimal or inadequate, critical information about the subject may be unavailable.

One technique that we use is consensus. Consulting other trained search managers is a valuable tool and helps avoid inappropriate or biased decisions. New managers are taught to never search plan alone. Even so, those very first decisions are often made by one individual, the on-call Incident Commander.

Experience as a search manager is invaluable, but there is no guarantee that a search manager with years of experience will make the best decisions all the time, especially when there may be more than one correct answer. As an instructor, I learned some new things from the students that I plan to consider the next time we have a search emergency.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.


Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User