Mountain rescue: Preparing for a search
If you follow Grand County Search and Rescue’s Facebook page, you hear the outcome of our missions — whether we found the teenager who wandered away from camp, tracked down the lost hunter who activated his satellite tracking device, or evacuated the snowmobiler who was stuck at the bottom of a powder-filled gully.
Maybe you’ve been out at a trailhead and noticed the GCSAR trucks or team members gathering at the staging area for a recent mission. This isn’t the beginning either, so let’s flash back even further to give you an inside look at how we prepare for a search. Quick reminder, mountain rescue teams “search” for a lost individual when the location is unknown. Teams “rescue” subjects from known locations when they’re unable to extricate themselves.
When a lost subject is reported, the 911 dispatcher notifies the GCSAR Incident Command group, and one of our volunteers assumes the Incident Commander role. This leadership position requires advanced training, experience and hands-on apprenticeship with senior members. The IC begins by making contact, analyzing the situation and deciding on the immediate next steps.
Initiating contact and gathering info about the subject is critical at this point. If you ever report an emergency situation in the backcountry, be sure to leave your cell number and stay at your current location to wait for emergency responders.
The initial response is based on each unique situation. We might call the subject’s home phone and talk to a family member for more information. If the subject is local, the Sheriff’s Office would confirm that he/she isn’t safely at home. In the best case, the subject might have a cell signal and can call or text with up-to-date details.
The IC then takes the subject profile (age, medical condition, survival skills, equipment and clothing) and evaluates it along with other factors. This allows the IC to develop initial scenarios and determine the urgency of the situation.
After GCSAR full-team notification is sent, members are given the Incident Command Post location. As team members arrive, the IC provides a subject briefing, area maps, initial search assignments and a safety briefing.
Team members immediately begin canvassing the area and report any clues about the subject. The IC continues to assign early critical tasks to 3-4 person SAR teams, including the following: 1) Check the nearby roads, trails, power lines or other terrain features such as clearings, creeks or ridges. 2) Check popular spots based on the subject profile. 3) Search for clues at all travel junctions. 4) Establish containment along roads and trails so the subject doesn’t wander further away. 5) Create attraction points such as a fire or lights/sirens to draw the subject to safety.
Alongside these activities, one team member is assigned to continue interviews and investigation. During one Grand County search, the interviewer found a mountaintop picture posted on the subject’s Facebook page the previous day. Using Google Earth, the team was able to pinpoint this as the subject’s last known position.
While team members are clearing all of the areas closest to the point the subject was last seen, the IC group is beginning to plan the longer-term search strategy.
Search areas typically cover many miles of wilderness — so the next step is to evaluate the area and determine high probability search segments. Using mapping software, the IC group divides the area into segments and ranks each segment to determine search priority. The IC can also request a visual air search through partners like Flight for Life Colorado who support GCSAR searches when a helicopter and crew are available. GCSAR searching continues until the subject is found or the search is suspended.
Brenda Reyes has been a member of Grand County Search and Rescue since moving to Fraser in 2015. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.
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