Search and Rescue

Debrief of 15 July 2000 Mock Search

main text written by Tom Russo


The subject, a 36 YO male, left home at 06:00 to hike to South Sandia Peak via Embudo Trail. The reporting party states that he had hiked this once before, and said "he thought he might take a shortcut this time." The other time he hiked that route he returned home by 17:00, but at 22:00 he had not yet returned home. He was wearing a black shirt, khaki pants, and hiking boots, and was carrying a daypack with lunch, snacks and about a quart of water.

The scenario began at 22:00, but in the actual mock search the incident commander was called at 17:15. All times referred to in this debrief refer to real-world times, not scenario times. The point was that the subject had supposedly been out for 5 hours longer than expected, and night had fallen before he returned.


This map was scanned from the original planning map and reduced somewhat to save space. The source map is a 1990 edition of the Tijeras 7.5' USGS quadrangle. Scanned image quality is somewhat degraded due to the presence of an acetate overlay with the planning symbols on it.

Mock Mission

A mission number, 00-00-11, was obtained from Rick Goodman in advance of the mock search. Tom Russo called Incident Commander Cliff Meier at 17:15 and told him to activate the mock mission. IC contacted Logistics Section chief Don Gibson, who called out an incident management team and instructed Bernalillo County ARES to call out search teams.

Incident base was established at the Embudo Canyon trailhead at 18:00. The subject's vehicle was cordoned off with pink trailtape in anticipation that a mantracking team would be assigned to cut sign from the vehicle. A scent article had been provided by the subject's reporting party and this was stored in the subject's vehicle.

Members of Santa Fe SAR had been waiting at a staging area in the Albuquerque area for their callout. Other teams were activated per their normal callout procedures.

By 18:30 teams were arriving at base camp. More than 50 responders (field teams and base personnel) attended. After the subject was found and was being walked out, several team members were instructed to simulate injuries or illness. A litter evacuation for one such searcher concluded the mock search.

Incident Base organization

Incident Commander: Cliff Meier
Operations Section: Erwin Grevin, SC; Don Stone, deputy
Logistics Section: Don Gibson, SC; Linda McClendon, deputy
Planning Section: Curtis Crutcher, SC; Terry Hardin, deputy; Tom Russo, deputy/technical specialist
Communications Unit: Keith Hayes, Larry Golden

Field Resources attending

Cibola SAR (24 responders), Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department Mounted SAR (14 responders/11 horses), Sandia Search Dogs (5 responders/1 trailing dog, 1 air-scent dog), New Mexico SAR Support (3 communicators plus additional support personnel), Santa Fe SAR (9 responders), Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council (1 responder). An additional unaffiliated responder, a licensed EMT, was present at incident base and participated in the litter evacuation. Bernalillo County Amateur Radio Emergency Services performed the activation of field teams and provided communications support.


Hasty teams were sent on foot to cover Embudo trail (Team Alpha), Three-Gun trail (Team Delta-2) and Whitewash Trail (Team Golf-2). Further hasty teams were sent on horseback up Embudo trail (team Horse-2) and Three-Gun trail (Team Delta-3), and two hasty teams (Teams Echo and Juliet) were sent on foot to search possible "shortcuts" the subject might have taken up to the peak or down from it. A horse team (Team Horse-1) was assigned to do an area search in the lower Embudo Canyon area. A foot team was assigned to do an area search of an area beyond Embudo spring (Team Foxtrot). A trailing dog team (Team Bravo) was assigned to follow the subject's scent and determine a direction of travel. An air-scent dog team (Team Hotel) was sent to cover an area to the south of Embudo trail.

The subject was found by the horse team Delta-3 near Embudito trail at Oso Pass at approximately 21:30.

The subject hiked back along Three-Gun trail to the intersection with Embudo trail by following Team Delta-3. He met up with Team Alpha and returned toward base with them via the Embudo trail, while Team Delta-3 continued to ride out via the three-gun trail. At this time, Team Delta-2 met up with Team Alpha and proceeded towards base with them.

At this time, three teams acted out scenarios in which teammembers had become injured or ill.

Team Alpha had a team member simulating hypoglycemia --- he had not eaten since breakfast, and was suffering from nausea and weakness. At this point, Team Delta-2 continued down trail without them, and Team Alpha proceeded to assess and treat their ill member. Once treated by being fed carbohydrates, protein and fluids (gatorade and a "balance" bar), he was able to continue to walk out.

Team Echo had a team member simulating a fall of 10 feet and suffering a minor soft-tissue injury (an abrasion on the left hip). The team had to assess the injury and properly determine that no spinal injury was present. The abrasion was cleaned and dressed.

Team Hotel had a team member simulate a fall of 15 feet with severe injuries including a fractured rib, fractured leg and possible spinal injury. He was assessed and stabilized in the field, and preparations for a litter evacuation were begun.

Team Foxtrot returned to base, were debriefed, and were re-assigned as team Rescue-1. They were joined by Team Golf-2, who arrived in base as the litter was being assembled. The stokes litter, evac-u-splint, and packaging materials were taken up the trail to rendezvous with Team Hotel. Th "injured" team member was immobilized with the evac-u-splint, packaged in the litter and hauled back to base.

After all teams had returned to base, the mission was closed and base camp was broken at approximately 02:30 on 16 July 2000.

Lessons learned

In all, this was a successful training mission. By all reports it was realistic and for the most part ran smoothly. Like all training events, it demonstrated a number of ways in which our work could be done even better.

Team Foxtrot, having returned to base via the Embudo trail, were given an assignment to rendezvous with Team Hotel. The task assignment stated only the UTM coordinates of Team Hotel, and it appears that the briefing of Team Recue 1 was not done near a map. Had it been done near a map, the team would have noticed that the simplest route to the subject would have been to follow Embudo trail for about half a mile, then follow a drainage directly to the subject. Instead, Team Rescue 1 chose to take a beeline path from base to the litter subject --- this took them directly over a prominent hill and unnecessarily increased the workload on the team. At one point during the rescue Incident Base personnel were very concerned that the litter team was exhausted. This problem hammers home the importance of map and compass knowledge in conjunction with the use of GPS receivers. Further, the team should have either produced a map of their own and plotted their destination (at least one team member had a topo map of the area in his posession) or asked to be shown the location of the injured person on the Operations map. Proper route planning would have saved time and searcher energy.

When the original subject was being walked out from his initial contact point to his rendezvous with Team Alpha, he was walking behind a horse team. In addition to it being a bad idea for the subject of a search to be at the back of the rescuing team where he or she could become separated without being noticed, this subject had a great deal of trouble keeping up with the horses and was exhausted by the time he got to Team Alpha. Further consideration of the issue of how a horse team should bring a subject in is needed.

There were several issues involving problems in communication. Communicators at base were overloaded, especially after the three teams began to radio in simulated injured or ill team members. This could have been relieved by reducing the span of control of the communications specialists. There were eleven teams in the field, and only one tactical communicator. In accordance with the principles of the Incident Command System, the assignment of teams to widely separated geographic areas lent itself well to the use of division supervisors, and there were probably enough volunteers to set three aside for that purpose. Had one division supervisor been assigned to each of the geographic areas, it should have been possible to have teams in the field report to their division supervisor, and division supervisors relay messages to Incident Base. The communicator would then have had only three people to talk to instead of eleven, and each division supervisor would have had at most four teams to talk to.

Further overload on the communicators at base was due to an overabundance of base personnel trying to get information to or from the communicators. Most of this should have been avoidable.

When performing communications duty, it is essential that all information be relayed verbatim. There were many instances of information being digested and reported in incomplete or incorrect form. Information coming in from teams in the field should be written down exactly and transmitted unaltered to appropriate incident management personnel. Similarly, information to be transmitted to teams in the field should not be edited, but rather transmitted exactly. When a member of a field team speaks to base, they should do so slowly and clearly, ask for readbacks, and be absolutely certain that their message has been recorded.

Finally, because one of the mission objectives was to practice mission initiation and team callout procedures, there was a decision early on that out-of-district resources should be mustered at a staging area prior to the training callout. This was done to minimize their response time, and was a good compromise. If this is done again in the future, we should pick a staging area with more creature comforts --- teams were waiting in the hot sun with no shade for nearly two hours.


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Jeff Phillips offers the following comment:

Team Hotel ASSUMED that Rescue Team 1 would be directed, according to map, the easy way to reach us. We realized only after making visual contact with Rescue Team 1 coming over the ridge that we should have offered directions for operations to provide as they saw fit.

In an effort to get back to base as quickly as possible the combined Rescue Team 1/Team Hotel proceeded too fast, almost recklessly, with the subject in the litter. Obviously we would not have proceeded this way in the event that the subject truly had severe leg, back and rib injuries. Never-the-less we should all be aware that effort coming down was flawed and resist forming bad habits.

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Last Modified: 04/20/15 12:44:11
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