Lost and Found in New Mexico

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Where is Johnny? (continued)

When I last wrote, little 8 year old Johnny was still missing at 2200 hours - going on at least 5-6 hours since the last time anyone remembers seeing him. There are 2 teams in the field looking for him or any signs of which direction he might have gone. One team is an ATV team. They are cutting ahead to the East to see if they can locate any fresh tracks. The tracks in the camp area are impossible to decipher from others tracks but if any are found further away from camp and are about the right size for an 8 year old, we'll know we are going the right direction. The other team, groundpounders, are bushwhacking down to the south. Every 10 minutes they stop, blow their whistles and call Johnny's name. Then they listen for any sound; a whimper, crying, someone calling for help. The IC is at base camp working with the communications team who have just arrived. Because the area has weak to no cell phone signals, the Coms team is linking Ham repeaters in this location to locations all the way to Albuquerque, about 2 hours away. The team is also in constant contact with the teams in the field. They have been advised to check in every 30 minutes unless they locate something. All communications are logged down. Sometimes this is done by hand, but this trailer is equipped with a computer and a program that logs down everything and includes a mapping program so that the areas searched can be marked. There is a public relations person working with the State Police to keep the media and lookie loos away from the area. The PR person will give reports to the media every couple of hours or sooner if there is news. It is now dark, with little moonlight and the teams in the fields are using helmets with headlamps and base camp is set up with electrical lights powered by a generator from the communications trailer. The IC has planned a course of action through the early morning hours. The Area Commander was called and will be trying to get a helicopter or CAP plane at first light. The Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES) team in Albuquerque is calling out more teams. They've radioed in that a K-9 team should be arriving around 0300. Other groundpounder teams will be arriving between 0400 and 0700. Several of the operation team members have gone into town to get extra water, food, coffee, etc.
The IC has visited with the family several times, trying to reassure them that everything that can be done is being done. The IC continues to question the family and friends as occasionally new information will surface. One of the children who had been playing with Johnny wears the same brand of shoe and a friend brought the shoes to base camp so that the tread can be seen by the searchers. A picture was sketched of the tread and the field teams have it with them along with the information the parents have given us on Johnny. He has on blue shorts, a red t-shirt, a blue basecall cap, white socks and the tennis shoes. He had a jacket but it was found on the picnic table. It is unknown if he is carrying any food or water. He has no medical conditions and is a normal, young boy with a little fear of the dark but not to easily scared. Base camp has been set up where the family was picnicking in case Johnny should find his way back this direction. Base camps are usually set up at the PLS (Place last seen) unless it is too small or dangerous to remain in the area overnight. There are EMT's at base camp and if Johnny is located and needs medical assistance they will go to him. If he is located and uninjured, he will be brought back to base camp and checked out by the EMT's. An ambulance is on standby about 15 miles from here in the closest town.

Around 2330, Team 1, the groundpounders, radioed that they had found 2 Bubble Yum gum wrappers. The parents were questioned if Johnny had this type of gum and the answer was yes. They had bought some at the store on the way to the picnic. The location of the gum wrappers is given in UTM coordinates from a GPS that the team is carrying. This marks the exact location of the wrappers and if the search goes on a long time and new teams come in they can go right to that location using the coordinates. Because of this information, we feel we have a pretty good sense of the direction he is travelling. Everyone is excited and much more hopeful than a couple of hours ago. To be continued...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Where is Johnny?

Pyramid Peak ( In Red Rock State Park) - Gallup, New Mexico

Scenario: You and your extended family are enjoying a picnic in the forest on the 4th of July. Everyone is relaxed, there's plenty of food and drinks and the kids are having a blast running through the trees. There is a great sense of freedom at being outdoors on a beautiful summer day. The forest is a familiar one, close to town and most of you have been here several times. The altitude starts at about 7000' and rises to 10,000' in some places. There are a few small ponds and a couple of little streams but no huge rushing river. There are ridges rising all around you and canyons off in the distance. Altogether a spectacular view!
Around 1800 hours the sun is starting to fade so everyone starts packing up and rounding up kids. By 1830, someone notices that little Johnny isn't anywhere to be found. You check the cars, the bathrooms and talk to the other kids about where they last saw him. You call his name and honk your car horns with no luck. It's slowly getting darker and a little colder as the sun goes down. Johnny's mother is starting to panic, everyone is milling around looking for him and no one knows what to do next. A couple of men decide to drive down the roads that wind around the area. Still no luck! Finally, someone decides they need to call for help. You find a cell phone signal and call 911. They hook you up to State Police and soon an Officer arrives. He takes down your information and information on Johnny. How old is he, what's he wearing, did he have a jacket, hat, water? It's now almost 2000 hours. The officer tells you that he will be calling out Search and Rescue. Some of the adults take the other children home and the waiting begins.
About 2130, the Incident Commander arrives with a Hasty team of searchers. Some are on foot, others have ATV's that can go down the smaller trails. The IC talks to the family, gets more information and the search begins. Using natural boundaries that would be difficult to walk over or get through, we call this containment, the searchers are sent in 2 different directions. Although Mantrackers are there, the number of children who had been playing makes it difficult to rule out Johnny's footprints from the others, making it almost impossible to get a direction of travel. One of the searchers ask for a scent item from Johnny (a pair of socks, a blanket, a hat, etc.) which is carefully bagged without touching it to preserve the scent if dog teams are called in. Although it is summer it's getting colder and people start to don jackets. One of the volunteers builds a fire and the family fearfully settles in for what hopefully is a short night of searching for 8 year old Johnny...to be continued!

So what is Search and Rescue?

Search and Rescue groups exists all over the world. Each group is unique in the skills and capabilites they have to look for and rescue lost or hurt people. There are Urban SAR groups who train, many with dogs and high tech electronic equipment, to go into collapsed buildings after natural disasters and more recently terrorist attacks. Wilderness SAR groups are trained to do a variety of jobs and different types of teams are called dependent on the circumstances. Each state in the US has a different way Search and Rescue missions are handled. Most states still use the County Sheriff's departments to draw the boundry lines over who will handle the initial investigation and then the search. This is a good system but occasionally causes territorial issues when the search extends over several counties or teams from different counties need to be called out.
In New Mexico we use the ICS system under the NM State Police. When a person is reported missing to the SP, a SP mission initiator interviews the reporting party and decides if it is a legitimate search. There are districts established around NM with an Incident Commander (also called Field Coordinator)in each district taking call for a week, 24/7 (usually there are several IC's in each district) and that person is called by the SP. There is also an Area Commander who takes call for a week for the entire state, keeping track of ongoing missions and teams being used. Being under the State Police eliminates the territorial issues and allows us more freedom to call out the kinds of teams we need. With everyone trained in the Incident Command System it allows for quicker response and provides many well trained people for a mission.
Many people wonder if you have to be strong, able to hike long distances or know how to rappel etc. to be able to join a SAR team. The answer is NO! Teams are formed with the intention of doing special skills. There are Mountain Rescue teams, Dog teams, Horse teams, Groundpounders, All Terrain Vehicle teams, Communications-this is a biggie and many other types! We frequently use Amateur Radio Operators to provide communications in areas where cell phones and even police radios don't work. Amateur Radio Relay Leagues and Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams provide valuble assistance, some come out to the actual search site with elaborate Communication trailers while others sit in their homes hundreds of miles away relaying messages and helping to locate addtional resources. Because of the vast, sometimes inaccessable terrain we frequently use aircraft. The Civil Air Patrol can provide communication links as well as using spotters to look for lost subjects. The State Police and the National Guard both have helicopters that can be used to look for subjects, land and pick them up if found or if necessary hoist a missing person out of a remote area. So anyone who is willing to volunteer their time can help in some way. Oh, did I forget the volunteer part. Yes, SAR is a volunteer, nonprofit organization. You can get reimbursed for gas for your vehicle and sometimes the American Red Cross or other volunteers will come out and feed us, but everyone who belongs to a SAR team wants to help people and they aren't expecting to get paid for it. If you are interested in joining a SAR team, check with your Sheriff's Dept., State Police or look on the internet. Many teams now have websites. We'd love to have your help!!!

A new blog...

This is my second blog. My other blog Traces of Time is a personal, journal type blog. I hope for this one to be a teaching tool for parents and others who spend time in the wilderness. I thought of it because of the recent events in the news particularly those related to lost children. As an Incident Commander in New Mexico for Search and Rescue, I felt that even my somewhat limited knowledge might help prevent a tragedy.