Sep 30, 2011 at 3:08 pm #1280007
2 interesting articles on SAR and the neat gadgets we use to cry for help …
interesting that the bear mauling rescue earlier was possibly delayed because someone triggered a device when their vehicle got stuck …
After the rescue, safely back in Anchorage and more than a little embarrassed, Alaska Department of Fish and Game public information officer Ken Marsh was contemplating a simple question: Cell phone good or cell phone bad?
Back in the day, Marsh confessed, he never would have thought of heading off into the woods without a lighter, a jacket and a compass. And yet that is exactly what he did on Thursday evening after work in Anchorage. He drove out north of the city into the Susitna Valley to look for a moose. The evening was warm. He wasn't going far from his truck parked not far off a road west of Wasilla. He really didn't expect to get a moose. And, of course, he had his cell phone if something went wrong.
As it turned out, something did go wrong, and he made one of several calls that last week sparked necessary — but not necessarily vital — rescues in southcentral Alaska. They were the sort of non-rescue rescues that are increasingly tying up Alaska rescue personnel and state resources. They were the sort of rescues that have helped to inflate the search and rescue budget of the Alaska State Troopers by about 60 percent over the past decade.
Given the huge distances in Alaska and the limited number of people trained for what are commonly called SAR (search-and-rescue) missions, these were also rescues with the potential to tie up life-saving assets that might be needed elsewhere. A trooper helicopter earlier this summer took a long nine hours to reach a group of National Outdoor Leadership School students after they were attacked by a grizzly bear in the Talkeetna Mountains in large part because it had been tied up in a futile SAR operation in the Fairbanks area earlier the same day. Two of the NOLS students mauled by that bear had suffered life-threatening injuries. They were being treated by fellow students who could only hope and pray rescuers would arrive before their classmates bled to death.
Fortunately, help did come and all did survive, but it was close.
NOLS officials later pondered whether the rescue had been delayed by a rescue system bogged down with marginally necessary, unnecessary or even bogus calls for help. These problems are not unique to Alaska, say those involved in SAR. All across the country, the convenience of the cell phone and the creation of the personal locator beacon (PLB) are taxing rescue assets. SAR personnel say that too many people who should be taking care of themselves are instead calling for help.
Technology, a marvelous crutch
Marsh admits he is one of those who should have been able to take care of himself. He wonders, frankly, what he was thinking that night he went moose hunting. "I probably had a little sense of security with that cell phone," he said. "I always carried a lighter."
Always, that is, until recently. Technology is a marvelous crutch.
Marsh wasn't the only one to use it in recent days in the Anchorage area. Less than a day after Marsh called troopers, Barbara Wright dialed them from the Twentymile River near Portage to report she was worried about her son, 31-year-old Josh Hoeldt from Eagle River. He'd dropped his mom and her husband on the river to make camp, then pointed his riverboat back downstream toward the Seward Highway bridge to pick up his wife and kids. The Twentymile is not a particularly dangerous river, but when Hoeldt failed to make it back to camp his worried mom called for a search.
"AST searched the area using AST Helo-1 from approximately 2339 hours until approximately 0300 hours," troopers later reported. "Due to increasing fog and lack of light the helicopter had to leave the area. The following day prior to resuming search efforts, a family friend located Hoeldt at a cabin on Twentymile River. Hoeldt and his family were not in distress. Hoeldt reported on his return trip to the campsite with his family, darkness prevented him from continuing. Hoeldt and his family spent the night at the cabin with plans to resume the trip in the morning."
Helo-1 is a Eurocopter AS 350. The contract cost to charter such an aircraft in Alaska ranges from about $1,500 to $2,000 per hour. The cost of flight time alone to search the Twentymile area with a helicopter departing from Anchorage would be in excess of $6,000, though it costs the state Department of Public Safety less. Government agencies, unlike business, do not need to generate profit. Still, the costs eat away at the approximately $600,000 troopers have budgeted for search and rescue in Alaska this year. The Hoeldt family was not charged. No one in Alaska is charged for SAR operations.
Search and rescue is considered a government responsibility, like the enforcement of traffic laws. Fortunately, troopers can offset some of the costs with volunteers, an option unavailable in traffic enforcement. Historically, about 75 percent of the SAR in Alaska has been done by volunteers. Troopers try to use them where possible.
Lost and found in Southcentral Alaska
A few days before Helo 1 was sent to pick up Marsh, a trooper dispatcher got a call from a man saying he and friends were lost along the South Fork Eagle River Trail in Chugach State Park, just north of Anchorage. The caller said he was with three other men and three teenagers, and that it had gotten dark. Troopers sent Alaska state park rangers and three teams from the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group (ARMG) to look for the lost hikers.
"At approximately 0900 hours (the next morning), while the three ARMG teams were actively searching the area, the seven hikers walked out on their own returning to the trail head," troopers later reported. "All
seven hikers were accounted for and uninjured. All seven hikers were from Anchorage. They were identified as Chang Yang, Sai Thao, Boonchan Yang,Vang Lor, Bee Yang, Tang Thao, and Keng Thao.
In the days before cell phones, few would even have known the group had gone missing overnight. Technology has, however, altered the equation forever — for better or worse. Just days after Marsh made his call from just west of Wasilla, troopers got another call from just east of that community. There was a report 44-year-old Mary Weir from Palmer was missing near Jim Creek.
She "had driven an all-terrain-vehicle away from her campsite in Jim Creek and had not returned," a trooper report said. "On 9-11-11 at approximately 1855 hours, Mary was located by helicopter. Mary was
transported to Mat-Su Regional where she was treated for minor injuries."
Weir probably would have survived the night without the helicopter going to rescue here. The story is the same for Marsh. But the problem hinges on that word "probably." Troopers say they cannot not do SARS,
and Marsh confessed he could not not use his cell phone.
"Better the headline read: 'Dumbass rescued,'" he remembered thinking as he dialed 911, then that someone end up finding his body where he died of hypothermia. That was not likely, he added, but it was within a range of possibilities.
"I made some boneheaded blunders," he said.
Experience doesn't always help in a thicket
Marsh is not some Alaska neophyte, either. He is an avid and now middle-age angler and hunter who grew up in the 49th state. He is a former outdoor editor for Alaska Magazine. He was a fishing reporter for the Anchorage Daily News back when that newspaper published an awarding winning Outdoor section. He's spent many a night camped out. And there was a time when, if he'd shot a moose just before dark and spent hours butchering it, he'd have recognized his predicament come the inky blackness of night. He'd have started a fire, settled in, and spent the night dozing and waiting for the dawn.
Only it's hard to start a fire without some sort of fire starter. So, on this night, after getting the moose tended to and the meat spread out to cool, Marsh started back in the direction of what he thought was his truck, knowing that if things went really, really wrong on the hike, well, he had that cell phone. A compass might have been more useful, he added. The Point MacKenzie Road slices across the east end of the Susitna River valley from Wasilla to tidewater just across Cook Inlet from Anchorage.
From anywhere near where Marsh had killed that moose, a straight line east would have hit the road. But it isn't easy to walk a straight line in the woods, and it's almost impossible in the dark without a compass or a landmark. Marsh didn't have either.
"The problem is there are no landmarks," he said. "It's flat country."
Many are those who can sympathize. The lower Susitna River valley is an easy place to get lost, not dangerously lost but all twisted around as to where you are, which is exactly what happened to Marsh. Unsure of where he was, his glasses fogging, his shirt soaking with sweat, he followed the pencil beam of a headlight (he'd had the sense to bring that) in the direction he thought would take him to his truck.
"I was getting deeper into timber instead of out of it," he said. "But I just kept busting through until I found an opening in a muskeg."
On the way in to where he'd planned to hunt, he'd had to cross a big muskeg. So when he hit a muskeg on the way out, he was relieved. Then, he started looking around more carefully and realized he didn't recognize any of it. There are a lot of muskegs in the Susitna Valley and this was clearly the wrong muskeg.
"I've been doing this for almost 50 years now," Marsh said.
Experience now was telling him the obvious. He was nicely lost.
About 10:30 p.m., he accepted that and called a friend. "He offered to send someone to find my truck and honk," Marsh said. Marsh thought about it, but finally decided he was so far from his truck he wasn't going to hear the horn. He thought about what to do next. The temperature was falling into the 40s. He was lightly dressed and soaked with sweat. He had no way to start a fire. He'd likely survive the night, but it wouldn't be comfortable.
He remembers thinking that "this was an after work lark that was really stupid," and "I'm either going to spend the night out here or call for help now."
Marsh called for help.
Alaska State Troopers noted his location and first sent a patrol car out to make some noise Marsh might be able to follow to the nearest road. "They ran their sirens," Marsh said. "I was too far away. I couldn't hear them."
So sometime after midnight, troopers called in Helo 1. Marsh waited, worrying about his phone battery running out and avoiding the calls from his worried girlfriend. About 1:30 a.m. he quit worrying when the helicopter finally arrived to pick him up and delivered him to his truck.
"The troopers were real nice," Marsh said. "I was farther lost than I even thought I was. I'd been going the complete opposite direction."
The next day Marsh returned to pack out his moose. He says he learned a lesson — even several of them.
"There was a lot of prevention that could have happened," he said. He notes a personal sense of complacency. "It wasn't a conscious thing," he said. "Hopefully I'd have been better prepared, but I didn't go into the field thinking I'd actually get a moose this time."
He expected he'd just sit in the woods looking for moose until shortly before dark and then amble back to the truck in the last of the daylight. Shooting the moose changed the timeline, and when the timeline changed, everything changed.
"I'll take the jacket and the lighter" next time, Marsh said. "This was just a real good reminder. It's nice to be able to laugh now … but I don't think everyone knows yet. I'm not advertising this."
It's embarrassing to get rescued, and maybe it should be in an age when it's so easy to call for help. Embarrassment might be the only thing preventing people from calling for rescues at first discomfort because technology has made it really easy to place a call.
That said, Marsh added, technology might also help make it unnecessary to place a call. He's looking at new 4G smartphone with built in GPS and an electronic compass. It's hard to imagine getting lost when assisted by those navigational aides, he said. Or at least it's hard for Marsh to imagine getting lost with those navigational aides.
Troopers note there are plenty of people out there clueless as to how to use the GPS in their phones.Sep 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm #1785305
When a group of teenage outdoor students attacked by a grizzly bear in the Alaska wilderness on July 23 hit the button on their emergency locator device, a government satellite circling 22,300 miles above the northern portion of the globe almost immediately picked up the signal and shot an alert to a control center in Maryland.
Eight minutes later, with the signal properly processed and evaluated, the coordinates of the SOS were redirected to the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, an Air National Guard unit at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson. The time, according to logs kept by the RCC, was 9:05 p.m.
It took a few more seconds and several more transmissions to pin down the details, but emergency response staff soon knew that the personal locator beacon going off about 30 miles east of Talkeetna was registered to the National Outdoor Leadership School, one of the country's most prestigious youth training programs.
It is not an organization known for crying wolf. Still it would be nearly six hours before the first rescuers reached the scene and a full nine hours before all seven backpackers — two of whom suffered life-threatening injuries in the bear attack — were finally evacuated.
The back story of how the rescue played out raises some questions about whether a different response was called for or whether different communication devices should have been available to the students in the field. And it might encourage policy makers to re-examine how search-and-rescue missions — so-called SAR operations — are now conducted and funded in the 49th state.
A huge swath of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle is covered by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue, which keeps two helicopters at ready in Barrow. But primary responsibility for much of the rest of the state falls to the Alaska State Troopers, who fly only one high-performance rescue helicopter.
Troopers assigned the task of investigating the NOLS emergency beacon had to come from Fairbanks, about a two-hour flight north of Talkeetna. The agency's main helicopter was there instead of at its home base in Anchorage because it had been called to help on another search operation.
The only available trooper pilot, a civilian, had already flown a full day on that search near the community of Anderson and, with little sleep, had to climb back in and make a long night flight to reach the youth group.
After the bear attack, the NOLS group was able to punch a button on a personal locator beacon (PLB) that sent an immediate call for help with their location coordinates. But the signal didn't tell anyone the nature of the emergency. Rescuers had no way of knowing the group had at least two critically injured people. If rescuers had known that information, they might have immediately sent to the scene a fully equipped Alaska National Guard medical team, only 35 flight minutes away in Anchorage, troopers said. And that crew would eventually be called to the scene, but not until eight hours after the PLB button was punched.
Why doesn’t the school, which charges $4,100 per student for the 30-day Alaska trek, give students a satellite phone? Or at least the kind of emergency locator that is capable of sending a pre-programmed message saying medical help is needed? Cost is one consideration, NOLS officials say, but they add that there are other important factors involved, too, including training philosophy and how easy it is to use the devices in an emergency.
NOLS says it "greatly appreciates" the way troopers handled the search and rescue operation. And troopers say the NOLS kids did everything they could to provide first aid to the injured and manage the situation after a bear attack that brought terror and tragedy. No one is pointing any fingers over this particular mission. But as always in search and rescue operations, there are questions — including within the response groups and NOLS — about what, if anything, might have been done differently.
Here then is a look at the rescue effort based on interviews with troopers, RCC officials and the NOLS risk management director, along with their thoughts on why the rescue unfolded the way it did and what might have been done differently — perhaps even better — to rescue seven teenagers in trouble in a remote, inaccessible patch of wilderness far from any road.
A grizzly mauls 4 teens
The bear attack occurred about 8:30 p.m. and immediately afterward, the students have said, they concentrated first on setting up a camp and tending to the wounded. Then they hit the button on the PLB they had been told never to use unless in a life-threatening situation. The whole point of NOLS training, the organization's leaders say, is to teach young participants to learn to rely on themselves when they're lost or in any other sort of trouble. Only in the direst circumstances is it considered acceptable to call for help.
After the students activated their PLB, it took a few brief seconds for the signal to be spotted by a geostationary satellite maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A European satellite flying at a lower altitude than NOAA's GOES-11 then pinpointed the exact location of the teens. The satellites beamed this information to the SARSAT Mission Control Center based at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Maryland. The signal was in turn relayed to the RCC in Anchorage, an action that took about eight minutes, RCC officials said.
By 9:05 p.m. Alaska time, the RCC knew there was a problem in the Talkeetna Mountains and that it was a NOLS group that appeared to be in trouble.
Kalei Rupp, a spokeswoman for RCC, said logs kept by the on-duty crew show that within a minute of identifying the registered owner of the PLB, RCC called the NOLS contact list and put a NOLS official on a teleconference with Alaska State Troopers. NOLS was able to quickly figure out which group of students was carrying the PLB in question, tell troopers its policy on PLB use and infrom everyone the group was on its own without adult instructors.
"It's then up to troopers to decide what course of action to take," Rupp said. The troopers are legally responsible for overseeing search and rescue operations in Alaska except on certain federal lands and off shore, said Capt. Jeff Laughlin of the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Troopers can hand SAR operations off to others, but they are the go-to agency when an emergency signal goes off. Often, as in this case, the agency is called into action with scant information.
The tough decisions on how to respond
"All we had was an alert from the personal locator, and we didn't know there was a mauling," Laughlin said. He said troopers get quite a few alerts this time of year and that many of them are false alarms. A beacon might go off accidentally in someone's backpack. Sometimes they're activated by people too tired to hike the rest of the way out of the wilderness. Often, NOAA records indicate, they are turned on by Alaskans with snowmachines or four-wheelers broken down or stuck.
Only the day before the NOLS incident, the SARSAT system had picked up a signal coming from tundra 14 miles southeast of Barrow. It turned out to be from a man who'd stuck his snowmachine in mud. The North Slope Borough flew a helicopter out to pick him up. It was a not uncommon sort of rescue.
With little known about the particulars of the NOLS situation, the case was assigned to a trooper at the Talkeetna post, the closest to where the signal originated, at about 9:30 p.m., Laughlin said.
NOLS director of risk management, Drew Leemon, said once the signal goes out NOLS has no choice but to let authorities do their jobs. He's appreciative of the way the troopers handled this rescue and pointed out that getting everyone safe in nine hours is actually pretty remarkable. Some people wait days for rescue, he noted.
Still, he said, NOLS students are instructed the PLBs are strictly for life-threatening situations. Rescuers could have safely assumed medical help was needed if the NOLS group was signaling for help, he said.
"It's not a question that it is a medical emergency or life-threatening," Leemon said. "It should be received in that regard."
He sympathizes, however, with rescuers nationwide who are wrestling with a growing number of false alarms. That has dulled what should otherwise be a sharp response. People who use PLBs unnecessarily are creating a serious problem for others, Leemon said.
Sometimes the 'emergency' is merely a tow call
"What's happening is people are triggering their (PLB) because their vehicle is stuck or they forgot their tent or whatever," Leemon said. "It's watering down their response. It’s a lot like crying wolf."
"Our belief when we purchased (the PLBs) is that when the agency received the signal they would treat it like a life or death situation," he said.
NOLS students carry a device called a McMurdo FastFind. Leemon said NOLS decided to purchase the devices about two years ago after evaluating available technology and taking into consideration other issues. The school tested another popular communications device called SPOT that allows owners to pre-program several messages, including one that can be sent regularly just to let family and friends know the hiker is all right. The SPOT can send the message as an email or a text to a phone and can also send an SOS. Like the FastFind PLB, the device emits a signal that includes location coordinates so rescuers can quickly find the person in trouble. School officials preferred the FastFind, however, because they appeared more reliable in the places NOLS operates its courses, he said. The position of the SPOT-tracking satellites is known to create some areas of weak or non-existent coverage in Alaska.
The FastFinds, Leemon said, also fit better with NOLS' notion of how to best teach students self reliance and independent travel in the outdoors. Leemon said one of the drawbacks of the SPOT was its ability to send out a message that students might find too easy to fall back on.
"We didn’t want them sending out a message like, 'Oh, we made a wrong turn can you come get us,'" he said. "And we didn’t want them to accidentally activate the SOS function.
"SPOTS are really good for some people but we decided that, when compared with the SARSAT system, that would be a system that required the students to really think that this is a life threatening situation and I am going to have to activate this," he said.
There's also a question of cost. Although FastFind PLBs cost more initially than SPOT units, they are cheaper in the long run because SPOT requires a monthly or annual monitoring fee. Leemon said NOLS has a need for between 250 and 300 emergency communications devices in the field. "One of the things we have to think about as a school and as a business is what can we realistically and pragmatically put into the field," he said. The same goes for satellite phones, which are expensive to purchase and operate.
Technology is great, but costly
"A satellite phone might be the ultimate device because it gives you two-way communication but you have to consider the cost," Leemon said. NOLS does have satellite phones. One goes with the instructors of every class in the field, Leemon said. In this case, however, the instructors were not with the class. The students had been judged competent and allowed to go off on their own to finish the last days of a 30-day trek. Every group of students in this situation carries one PLB, Leemon said.
Laughlin and Lt. Kat Peterson, who handles many search and rescue operations for the troopers, suggested the ideal situation is to carry both an emergency locator device, such as a PLB that broadcasts your location, and a two-way communications device, like a satellite phone or the text-messaging locator.
"The more sophisticated equipment you bring with you in the field the better for us," Laughlin said. Peterson said being able to engage in a conversation with the person in trouble is a big help in deciding what resources to deploy. No matter the situation, she added, the more information rescuers have the better.
Given the significant number of calls for help troopers now get from standard cell phones in the less remote parts of Alaska, she suggested people learn to read the GPS signal available to many of those devices so they can tell rescuers their exact location. Most phones have some type of mapping system that can be helpful yet, "it's amazing the number of people who don’t know how to get to it," she said.
"I don’t know that there's a panacea out there for every situation," Laughlin added. "These guys (the NOLS group) had more than many have. And that's a good thing."
A search-and-rescue launched with little known
But on July 23, with the only information in hand the fact that an emergency signal had been sent from the rough terrain in the Talkeetna area, troopers had to make a crucial decision on how to respond. The state has only one helicopter, known as Helo 1, equipped for search and rescue missions. And even then it's not suitable to respond to a full medical emergency, as turned out to be the case in the NOLS operation.
Summer is a busy time for search crews, too, so it wasn't unusual that Helo 1 and its veteran pilot, a civilian named Mel Nading, were already tied up on a search in the Interior. On July 22, troopers had received a report that 43-year-old Edward Neeley of Anderson was missing. His vehicle was found along the Nenana River and ground searchers along with fixed-wing aircraft had failed to turn up any sign of him in the surrounding area.
Nading and Helo 1 were called in on the second day of that search. They found nothing either, and Neeley remains missing.
After a day of searching for Neeley, Nading flew to Fairbanks to spend the night, expecting to refuel the helicopter and resume the Anderson search the next day. "He'd parked the aircraft, shut everything down and gone to his hotel room for the night," Laughlin said.
Nading went to sleep early, pooped from his day of flying. But he was soon called back to work on the NOLS rescue. Nading is one of two pilots certified to fly the Helo 1 used on rescue missions, and he was the only one available in the Fairbanks area.
Laughlin said the department is concerned about the safety of its pilots and cognizant of the need for sleep. "Some of these guys would work around the clock if they felt like they were needed," he said.
So calling a pilot back before he gets a full rest is carefully considered. Nading’s flight required approval from the director's office, Laughlin said.
Roused from his sleep, Nading had to ready both himself and the helicopter for the new operation. Laughlin didn’t know precisely how long it took Nading to get up and back in the air, but the RCC log shows troopers notified the Elmendorf center that their aircraft had departed Fairbanks at 11:48 p.m., nearly three hours after the PLB signal had first been received.
Launching rescues in Alaska takes time
Laughlin said that's not an inordinate amount of time to have passed, considering Nading had been sound asleep when he got the call. "Unlike the military that has pilots hot-bunking and ready to jump out and into the aircraft, our pilot is literally in bed and he's put the aircraft to bed for the night," he said.
Besides weather checks and pre-flighting the helicopter, Nading also had to refuel the aircraft, Laughlin said.
Fuel is heavy and the helicopter is normally not filled until officials can assess the resources needed for the next mission and figure out how much weight, including rescuers and equipment, the aircraft might need to carry.
Once Nading left Fairbanks, he stopped for fuel about 45 minutes later near the Parks Highway village of McKinley Park and then headed for Talkeetna, about an hour away. Once there, Nading spent about 15 to 20 minutes on the ground picking up Trooper Michael Shelley, the officer who would be flown to the NOLS camp site.
Shelley was ready and waiting when Nading arrived, Laughlin said. The flight to the search area took the pair only another 15 minutes or so.
RCC logs show a call at 2:51 a.m. on July 24 from troopers reporting they'd found a party of seven, four of whom had been attacked by a bear. The troopers reported the injuries were beyond their capabilities to address and requested assistance, according to Kalei Rupp, the spokeswoman for the RCC.
Now it was the Alaska Air Guard’s turn to roust crews out of bed and get them moving toward the camp where two seriously injured teenagers were being tended by Shelley and an EMT-trained NOLS student named Samuel Boas, a 16-year-old from Westport, Conn. He is credited with helping keep alive the most seriously injured.
While the RCC was working to get the Guard in Anchorage into the air, Nading and Shelley were loading the four least injured NOLS students into the trooper helicopter. Nading took them to Anchorage while Shelley remained behind on guard against the possible return of the bear and to help Boas with the critically injured teens.
Second rescue helicopter launched
At 2:58 a.m., RCC "tasked" the Air Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron, Rupp said. The squadron flies the HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter and carries medically trained pararescue jumpers who are part of what is called a Guardian Angel team. The rescue squadron crews are trained to find and rescue badly injured pilots in war zones. In this case, two PJs and four air crew members were needed to carry out the civilian mission.
It took them until 4:20 a.m. to get airborne. The RCC always has a crew on alert, so it's never a question of having to find a pilot and crew. But in the middle of the night, even the RCC has to summon on-call crew members from their homes and get them to the base.
Rupp said the crews allow a three-hour window for response. That covers the time needed to wake people, get everyone to the base, load the gear appropriate for the mission and get the aircraft ready to fly. The response time of an hour and 20 minutes on July 24 was "pretty quick," she said.
And only 30 minutes after launching from Elmendorf, the RCC crew reported they were five minutes from "the target" and in touch with the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. There is a helipad at the hospital where the Guard can land to drop off the badly injured. By 5:40 a.m., the RCC crew had the survivors aboard and was en route to Providence where they landed at 6:10 a.m., RCC logs show.
A successful rescue
Laughlin said he considers the rescue effort a success and the length of time it took to reach the kids and get them to safety not overly long, given the circumstances.
"From our vantage point, we were pretty happy with it," he said. As is often the case, it wasn't until the trooper got to the site that it was clear what had happened and what sort of stepped-up response was then needed, he said. "We generally don’t know what we have until we get there," Laughlin said. "My impression of this whole thing was that it was handled very well by everybody involved."
Alaska Dispatch writer Craig Medred contributed to this story.Sep 30, 2011 at 3:16 pm #1785309
Technology is a marvelous crutch. Sums it all up right there.Sep 30, 2011 at 3:35 pm #1785313
So much for the true news stories. Still, what is the solution?
Does the Alaska state government just need to increase its budget for rescue, or does something need to change to avoid the call-outs at all?
I think it would be reasonable to have the rescued party pay some cost. It doesn't have to be the entire cost of the rescue, but it should be enough to make them think twice before they go out, then think twice again before somebody calls for a rescue.
If you are bleeding to death from a bear attack and if your buddy "presses the button" and you get rescued, then paying a $1000 rescue bill seems reasonable.
–B.G.–Sep 30, 2011 at 3:38 pm #1785314
@hikin_jimLocale: Orange County, CA, USA
Good posts; thanks. Makes one think twice about calling SAR, which I think is a good thing.
HJSep 30, 2011 at 4:11 pm #1785325
"If you are bleeding to death from a bear attack and if your buddy "presses the button" and you get rescued, then paying a $1000 rescue bill seems reasonable."
In the SAR incidents I have been involved with, the rescued have always donated something
out of gratitude to the search teams. Sometimes it is only a $100 bucks annually, sometimes it is stocks amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. In the end, they give
more than they take.
And many searchers were first the rescued who then later got involved in helping others.Sep 30, 2011 at 4:30 pm #1785329
Many, many years ago, I was involved in a caving search and rescue operation. Since I was just a teenager, I was enlisted into the outlying search teams, and there were professionals from all around the state in the core search teams. In fact, search teams with dogs were flown in by federal aircraft from across the country. Back then, there weren't so many really highly-trained search teams like there are today. Instead, they were mostly National Guard troops, sheriff's deputies, and police auxiliary. The lost souls were never found. After a few weeks, the national networks and wire services recalled their reporters, and the whole operation folded up. The families of the lost souls were too poor to donate anything, and it just left everybody involved with a sense of failure. Even if the same thing were to happen now, a PLB wouldn't help since it's underground.
–B.G.–Sep 30, 2011 at 4:36 pm #1785332
When I was a kid, some unscrupulous commercial fishing and shrimping boats would go out and fish/shrimp, up to 100 miles offshore, until they ran out of fuel. Then they would call the Coast Guard to come get them. This blatant abuse saved them a lot of fuel(= $$$) by getting a free tow in.
That is why today, the Coast Guard basically only reponds to vessels in immediate peril. And not even always them. Anything else and you are referred to a commercial towing/salvage operator like Seatow or BoatUS. OR the Coasties will try to hail a good samaritan tow for you, but they are generally not coming to help you.
This privatization eliminated the abuses that were occurring, as it ALWAYS does. Public pockets are always considered bottomless.
Many (most) US ski areas today prohibit backcountry access from the resort. The reasons are 1)liability and 2) high SAR cost impact on the small local communities. In Canada and Europe, things are a bit looser. If you want to go into the backcountry thru a marked gate, you can. You are freely allowed to go kill yourself if you are stupid. You also will pay for your own rescue, and we are not talking about a token amount.
We do not allow that here in the US because….we have too many scumbag lawyers(its never the idiots fault), and the average intelligence level of americans is painfully low. Most americans largely expect safe, packaged recreation, and someone else to always take the blame and pay for them when something goes wrong. We have short-circuited the natural selection process.
If you need to be rescued, you should pay. Period. Not a token $1000 but much of the real costs. I have hears of simple backcountry SAR;s where the cost ran as much as $50,000. You have absolutely no right to expect others to pay for your own stupidity, poor planning, and risk taking.
Its another topic, but expecting others to always pay for you is why the US is bankrupt and in the sorry state it is in today.Sep 30, 2011 at 4:47 pm #1785335
"Many (most) US ski areas today prohibit backcountry access from the resort."
How do they stop backcountry access?
I'm a cross-country skier. Many downhill ski resorts are on national forest land. We can ski freely on the national forest land, and to some extent we can ski on the ski resort hills. If somebody has a bad accident and the ski patrol shows up, the first thing they want to see is a lift ticket. If you have one, they will get you a first-class evacuation. If you don't have one, they will get you what is convenient to them, maybe, since it isn't so much of their responsibility. I've skied into and out of downhill ski resorts for decades. Once in a great while, some ski patrolman will come up and ask us where we are going. As long as everything seems rational, they let us go.
–B.G.–Sep 30, 2011 at 4:54 pm #1785338
"You have absolutely no right to expect others to pay for your own stupidity, poor planning, and risk taking."
Amen to that brotherSep 30, 2011 at 4:57 pm #1785339
@christownsendLocale: Cairngorms National Park
I don't know about Canada but in all the European resorts I've been to three isn't even a marked gate. The resports are not fenced. So going off-piste is easy. Mountain rescue differs from country to country in Europe. In the UK it is carried out by volunteer mountain rescue teams, often backed up by the Royal Air Force rescue helicopters, and is free.
The question of technology is a difficult one. Rescue teams in the UK regularly criticise people for venturing into the hills with just phones with road maps or GPS units they don't know how to use properly yet at the same time say that phones are useful aids in calling for help and in locating people.Sep 30, 2011 at 5:02 pm #1785341
yes they stop it. If allowed at all it is only allowed thru control gates. We are talking about National Forest land, etc. Private lands may be prohibited by virtue of trespassing.
If you duck a rope to gain access to backcountry you can be arrested. At the very least if caught, your lift ticket/pass will be taken and you will be banned from the ski area.
Many ski areas operate by permit on national forest land, but you still dont have the right to do whatever you want. The boundary ropes are in place to control the movement of persons so that the patrollers can sweep the mountain, and locate lost or injured persons in a methodical manner.
Access to backcountry in alpine terrain is usually prohibited except thru control gates, if even allowed then. In some cases you must show the ski patrol you have the necessary equipment (shovel, probes, avalanche beacons,) and ski with a buddy to be allowed to pass thru the gate. They are given the authority and responsibility under their operating permit to control access to dangerous terrain.
The difference is that without the ski area lifts, unqualified people would not have access to that terrain, it would be hours worth of climbing/skinning/hiking etc if it was even accessible then. By installing the ski area lifts, it becomes accessible to the massive population of idiots.
And the reasons are simple, to keep idiots from killing themselves and tieing up SAR teams (not to mention causing rescuers to risk THEIR lives) and costing small mountain communities $$$ that they cant afford.Sep 30, 2011 at 5:05 pm #1785342
@hknewmanLocale: Western US
Some states (in the US) offer SAR free as they feel the bad publicity may hinder outdoors tourism, while others publicize that they will charge the full amount of any rescue (New Hampshire comes to mind).
One important factor is how much outside tourism money businesses get (also consider hunters, day-hikers, horse riders, etc… based out of hotels, lodges, and "dude ranches") vs. the rare rescue effort.
Tourism can be some pretty good money for a locality or a state as the workweek infrastructure can be used during the weekend/holidays for luring outside cash.Sep 30, 2011 at 5:16 pm #1785345
Hell in europe you can EASILY die inbounds at some ski resorts. In some places you need to hire a guide if you arent familiar with terrain to avoid skiing over a cliff or even into a crevasse. No worries though, wine and cheese for lunch.Sep 30, 2011 at 5:26 pm #1785350
Martin, your situation there must be quite a bit different from what I've experienced in California.
Of course the downhill skiers buy a lift ticket and ride the lifts to the top of the mountain. We cross-country skiers do not buy lift tickets, so we spend the first two hours of the morning just skiing _up_ to the top. Then we just casually ski over to the rope boundary, step under it, and continue on our way. That would be out-of-bounds to the downhill skiers, but we were never paying visitors in-bounds, so nobody says much to us. At the most, a ski patrolman comes over to ask us where we are going, and if we tell him exactly where, then he says "Have a nice day" and that is the end of it. If a downhill skier started to cross under the same rope, the ski patrolman would have a different discussion. Mainly, there isn't any way back for a downhill skier and the top of the mountain has two sides of avalanche terrain. We cross-country skiers are smart enough to go up one safe side and go down the other safe side.
–B.G.–Sep 30, 2011 at 6:52 pm #1785371
@hknewmanLocale: Western US
At the most, a ski patrolman comes over to ask us where we are going, and if we tell him exactly where, then he says "Have a nice day" and that is the end of it. If a downhill skier started to cross under the same rope, the ski patrolman would have a different discussion
Same with backcountry snow travel near Ski Santa Fe, except all I got was a mean glareSep 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm #1785383
delSep 30, 2011 at 9:48 pm #1785403
"Some states (in the US) offer SAR free as they feel the bad publicity may hinder outdoors tourism, while others publicize that they will charge the full amount of any rescue (New Hampshire comes to mind)."
To the best of my knowledge, this statement is incorrect. I believe that a rescued person in NH can billed if their actions are "negligent."Sep 30, 2011 at 10:14 pm #1785410
I would have to check again to see if this is still true, but Yosemite National Park used to have a policy about rescues. If you were completely legal, had the right wilderness permit in a place where you were allowed to be, and you weren't doing anything illegal, immoral, or unethical…and if you got hurt or had to be rescued, then they would get the U.S. Navy helicopter out of Lemoore to do it as a training mission for free. However, if you were not completely legal or were doing something bad, then the rescued person ended up paying the bill, which is enormous for typical helicopter rides.
Maybe somebody knows if this is still true. Budgets have changed.
I prefer not to be in a rescuee position to know, one way or the other.
–B.G.–Sep 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm #1785430
@dirk9827Locale: Pacific Northwest
Personal responsibility is important, but bad things do happen to good people. It's easy to point out glaring cases of poor judgement. But is going out in the woods without a map and gets lost much different than the guy who doesn't tell anyone where he is going or when he will be back? Or how about the person who scrambles off trail, falls and busts an ankle? All three need to be rescued. There are differing degrees of poor judgement, but assessing the degree of culpability is problematic at best. It's similar to a ski run – depending on the conditions that same run can be relatively easy or fraught with danger. All activities carry inherent risk, but there are degrees of risk involved. I presume rock climbing is more dangerous than say, hiking; should there be greater cost assessed for SAR based upon the activity?
Is the solution buying SAR insurance? Is it assessing a SAR fee on a yearly basis on top of other permits?
It seems to me that technology and equipment allow us to stretch our limits, sometimes well beyond our ability to recover.
I am interested in hearing all of your thoughts.
DirkOct 1, 2011 at 2:08 am #1785450
rock climbers can require stupid rescues as much as anyone else
2 examples from this year alone come to mind where i met people who know the rescued
1. 2 people run up yak peak which is a 14 pitch climb … one person is a mid 20s man, another a 16-17 year old girl with limited experience … basically i heard that they had a single rope (you require 2 to bail off the climb) and were moving slow enough to get benighted … as they did not bring enough warm gear in an alpine environment, they use the cell to call SAR who sent out a comorant heli to rescue em … better than running outta gas excuse untill you need a rescue ;) … its an alpine peak, they should have been prepared, carry a second rope unless yr really confident of moving fast, and carry some warm gear
2. two people went up the easy 5.9 route on the squamish chief … they were real slow i heard … night falls and they cant find the trail down in the summer … they call sar … by the time they wake all the sar staff and get to them its almost morning … a warm dry summer night on the chief doesnt warrant a rescue IMO if yr not injured … people panic and call SAR
there are valid rescues like anything else in life … and then there are ones where people just dont know what they are doing and press the big red button … i suspect that it has always been like this … but it more compounded now by the instant gratification of cell phones and other electronic aids
climbing IMO has a particular problem in that quite a few people fresh out of climbing gyms go out and do bigger/harder climbs without the proper skills or gear … many get through fine, some have epics, and a few call "mommy"
the golden rule is that getting up is optional, getting down is not …
as to climbing vs hiking … the stats from national parks ive seen show that hikers (including day hikes) and watersports constitute the largest rescued groups … climbing is less than either … now we dont know what % of climbers require rescue vs day hikers or boaters … but in general climbing seems to be a lesser category in terms of sheer numbers
keep in mind that the largest and most expensive rescue op in BC was some solo hiker who decided to do a tough 4 day hike with minimal gear, and no defined itinerary … the same hike 3 people needed to get rescued off this year as well …Oct 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm #1786642
In western states many searchers are volunteer. Most cases they are coordinated by paid Sheriff (county) employees and supported by Military, private for profit, or civil air
Much of the cost of searches is thus born by volunteers or already paid for in military
budgets as part of their training.
If you get a copter ride by a private ambulance service be prepared to pay,just as if
you took a private ambulance auto ride. Which 'copter service you get is luck of the
draw or which helicopter is most suited for the rescue.
The rest of the costs are small potatoes compared to other things we fund for the
general good of everyone through taxes.
There are many unintended consequences of fining people for rescue.
Many volunteers don't want any part of that, they are in it for the good feelings they get
for helping others. Some have told me they day they start charging for rescue is the
day they quit SAR.
The lost have been known to hide from searchers because they don't want the embarassement. In some cases they have perished. Imagine what will happen
if the lost worry about a fine for $50,000. Even if you are cold hearted enough to
say they deserve what they get, you have still the issue of hugely expanded searches
to look for those hiding and the costs and risk to SAR folks.Oct 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm #1786650
I think much of this issue is going to be mute soon. These rescue beacons, cell phones, sat phones etc. are constantly being improved to the point where better triage of rescue
will be happening. Beacons will send information about the relative urgency of a
situation, phones transmit location.
One search I went on was a person lost due to darkness. As soon as he called in, he
realized his cell phone made a passable flashlight and he was able to read a map, trail
signs, and get himself out.
Even then, he was so embarrassed he tried to had out $20 bills to all the searchers at
the trail head.
The deputy was already on duty for the coordination. Volunteers used donated trucks
and gas. Extra cost to the taxpayer– $0.Oct 4, 2011 at 1:55 pm #1786666
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
When I started backpacking there were no hi tech gadgets. If you needed help, it was pretty much that someone would report you missing if you did not come home on time. And hopefully you left an itinerary. Expectations for rescues were days, not hours.
Is it reasonable to expect public or volunteer agencies to provide rescue service within hours? After all we are engaging in activities that entail some amount of risk.
Perhaps if ill-prepared people knew that rescue was not immediate, it would change how well they prepare?
Maybe "Enter at your own risk" signs would work better?
Might even reduce the back-country population?
… not a bad thing from my perspective.Oct 4, 2011 at 4:12 pm #1786744
@hikinggrannyLocale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
Weather and other conditions can still put rescue several days away, even with all the modern technology.
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