Search and Rescue

Debrief of 15 September 2001 Mock Search

main text written by Tom Russo

First draft --- 24 September 2001


Incident commander Don Gibson was notified at 17:30 that DPS had received a call from a woman in Illinois stating that her boyfriend had called her at 07:00 that morning stating that he was planning a morning hike out of Elena Gallegos picnic ground and while he expected to be home around noon she was unable to contact him for the rest of the afternoon. Mission initiator confirms the subject's brown Dodge Ram truck is still parked at the Elena Gallegos picnic area. Subject is a healthy 28 year old man in good physical and emotional condition, whose last conversation indicated that he was looking forward to a nice morning hike that day. Reporting party indicates that he likes to hike up hill on trails, but then bushwack to high ground and follow ridges or canyon walls back to the starting point. He tends not to hike with a lot of gear, usually only water bottles and snacks.

The mission had been assigned practice mission number 01-00-15.

The Mission

Teams from out of District 5 had been waiting for the callout at a local park. In-district resources were to be activated per their normal callout procedures.

Don Gibson and Tom Russo attempted to contact Bernalillo County ARES to initiate the mission, but cell phone coverage was strange --- we could hear ARES on the phone, but they could not hear us, irrespective of which phone we used. After this SNAFU a few teams were called directly, and eventually ARES was contacted via radio and things progressed smoothly from there.

The first teams on the scene were naturally those that were waiting at the local park. These were Southwest Search Dogs from Farmington, Santa Fe SAR and Saint John's College SAR from Santa Fe. Initial assignments for hasty teams up several trails and tracking dogs from the subject's vehicle deployed quickly.

At approximately 19:30 the first two "monkey wrenches" came into play. Team 4, assigned to search Pino Trail, encountered an injured woman who claimed that she was a friend of the subject's, and was supposed to have met him for this hike. She had been running late and missed him, and tried to catch up with him. Some confusion in simulation instructions ensued, and the opportunity to perform a medical assessment was missed when Russo was not clear when he stated that no litter evac would be initiated for the simulated injury --- the second subject returned to base and Team Four continued on their original assignment.

At the same time that team 4 called base to notify them that the second subject was found the NM SAR Support communicators at base began to act out their assigned communications scenario -- they had been instructed to ignore all direct communications from team 4, simulating that team 4 was in a location where line-of-sight communications would not work. Team four attempted to contact base several times, but ARES heard them and offered to relay. Once the relay was established and messages passed, the base camp communicators returned to normal operation.

A second communications outage scenario was acted out at 20:00 -- team 3, performing a hasty search of the Domingo Baca trail with Steve Buckley as team leader, simulated not being able to hear base. This time the ruse carried on long enough that it seemed they really were out of contact with base. Their instructions had been to "ignore all direct communications from base until a relay from field teams is established" --- and they took that to mean that they should also ignore "ARES Base." Over the next several hours base attempted to get field teams to contact team 3, and on one occasion team 7 called to team 3, team 3 heard them and called back (and was heard in base), but team 7 could not hear team 3. Unfortunately, the opportunity to use this series of one-way contacts to pass information to team 3 was not exploited, and soon team 7 had moved to a location where team three could not hear them. In fact, team 3 remained "out of contact" for most of the mission until team 10, a hasty team sent after them, reached a point where they could establish line-of-sight communications with team 3.

Some time around 21:30 several teams began to hear the subject calling back to them as they searched. Team seven was an estimated 20 minutes from what seemed to be the subject's location when they encountered their "monkey wrench" --- one of the team members simulated a slip involving a twisting injury to his leg. The injury was assessed as a leg fracture and stabilized with a splint. Once the leg was splinted the scenario was over and they removed the splint and returned to their assignment. Unfortunately, they could no longer hear the subject calling back to them.

Two teams converged on the subject some time around 22:30. They rested briefly with the subject, who was more prepared for a long stay in the cold and wet than anticpated --- he prepared the searchers a cup of hot coffee while they rested. All teams were recalled to base, and the last of them arrived safely for debriefing around 00:00 on 16 Sep. Base was closed down well before the original estimate of 01:00.

Lessons Learned

The subject stated that while he was able to hear the searcher's voices when they were quite far away from him, he never heard a single whistle blast. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that whistle sounds carry better than voices, and would indicate that a combination of whistling and calling is important. As has been stressed many times, it is equally important that searchers stop and listen intently at frequent intervals, and note that even little noises such as the rustling of clothing or the crunching of leaves under foot can interfere with a searcher's ability to hear the subject answering.

While team 3 carried out their "monkey wrench" instructions very well, it should be noted that at no time did they attempt to contact base directly. Prudence would dictate that a team that hasn't heard anything from base in several hours would attempt to make a few calls during that time. A team that knows it is out of contact and has not been able to re-establish contact by any means should return to base immediately.

The communications scenario with team 3 had one chance of resolution, which was not exploited. For a brief period team 3 was able to hear team 7 calling them, and base was able to hear team 3 answering. While two-way contact between teams 3 and 7 was not possible, it should have been possible to relay instructions by telling team 7 what to say, and listening to team 3's response directly. But as soon as team 7 reported that they could not hear team three's responce they moved on to a location where it was no longer possible, and this opportunity never presented itself again.

When the second subject was found it was not clear that maximum use was made of the information that she possessed --- this person was known to be attempting to meet the subject, and therefore should have some idea of where he might have been. A good debriefing of that second subject might have produced this information.


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From David Dixon:

This was mentioned at debrief but worth repeating. As a member of team 7 who initially made contact, contrary to what we have learned or experienced before, the subject heard shouting but never a whistle. Whether related to pitch or terrain or both this was suprising to us. This may not always be the case but it taught us that you need to do both for good sound attraction. Take turns doing both. And do both twice each time with enough wait time for a response. Secondly, the mock injury was also a great learning experience for me. After an initially quick and admittedly poor assessment of injured subject with some missed diagnoses I realized that I was being influenced by the current event. We were close to finding the training subject and so my concentration was not on the assessment. I should have slowed down, taken more time, used my SOAP notes. I would have done a better job. And although this was a mock assessment this could have been a reality mission and I would have been doing a disservice to my own teammate. In fact, considering the terrain this could have easily happened. We have all done too few hands-on medical assessments, especially in the field. Live and learn. I look forward to the WFR class.

From Adam Hernandez:

Before we totally discount the whistle, even though it was stated that we should continue to do both.

I believe that Aaron works with wood ALOT, he may not be able to hear high pitched whistles as effectively as the rest of the population. Wood planers, etc generate a lot of high pitched noises, he may just be desensitized to it.

As stated we should continue to do both.

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