“My husband didn’t come home from his hunting trip this weekend. Can you go look for him?” said the anxious wife into the unmonitored SAR voice mailbox.
The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” but credible SAR units only respond at the direction of law enforcement. The anxious wife should have called 9-1-1 as soon as it became clear her husband was grossly overdue. Likewise, I have personally taken calls from distraught families who wanted my team to search for their teenage runaway. I know they felt let down when I had to tell them to call the police.
In Washington and most states, law enforcement is by law in charge of ground-based search and rescue missions. It makes sense- sometimes the most benign SAR mission can turn out to be a homicide.
Credible SAR teams affiliate with a county, and sheriff’s deputies filter missing person reports. They decide when SAR teams, and which types, should be called in to search.
Watching Facebook and other sources around the country I see what appear to be freelance SAR teams. Worse, they’re occasionally making what appear to be inflated claims about their success rate. I’ve even heard of, but not personally verified, that some try to charge families or offer contracts at the time of searching. That’s a longer topic for another post but there is opposition among most SAR teams to charging for a search. (If a family wants to offer a donation, they’ll take it. But they don’t ask at a time when a family might be emotionally vulnerable.)
If you know of someone who isn’t where they’re supposed to be, the correct next step is to call 9-1-1. The deputy or officer will call out only those resources that make sense. They probably won’t call mountain rescue for someone overdue after a whitewater rafting trip.
Likewise if you’re in the unenviable position of reporting a loved one missing, be very skeptical of a freelance team that contacts you after hearing news reports. Before signing a contract or agreeing to pay up front for services, ask the deputy handling your case why that team isn’t on the county’s roster of official responders.
And after all that, let me say with all my heart that I hope we never meet under such circumstances.
Depending on your locale, there are a few weeks each year when you have to be very careful about overheating your dog. Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is a limited period of really hot weather, so neither the dogs nor human handlers really have time to acclimate. But there are lots of other skills that K9 handlers must acquire or maintain. Hot weather weeks can be a great time to polish up other skills, and let the dogs take it easy. Here are a few ideas.
GPS training. You can probably break this down into several training days. How to find a waypoint. How to verbally transmit (say) a waypoint over the radio. How to change coordinate systems (UTM to Lat/Long). How to rename a GPS track so it’s unique to you, so that the Ops Leader can find it among all the other downloaded tracks. Do you know how to change batteries, how to change the map chip under the battery, and how to tell when the chip has slipped loose?
Radio procedure and field radio maintenance. How to change batteries or replace a broken antenna. Some radios have “banks” of frequencies, and changing banks frequently involves odd buttons, a medicine man, and a full moon. Do you know how to take the microphone off your walkie-talkie in case the cord splits? How radio waves work? Oh, and what the heck is a CTCSS tone?
K9 First Aid. I hate these classes, but they’re necessary. I can watch a TV show where a human gets a chest tube without anesthesia, but a dog with a broken toenail turns me to jelly. You can probably find a vet who will teach the class at little or no cost. Some military bases have vets or vet techs and will loan them as a benefit to the community.
Pack pack, what’s in your pack?! Sit around and share ideas for what you carry and how you organize your pack. For example, I’ve stopped carrying a stove and dehydrated food. I carry MREs and heaters. An MRE can be eaten cold and right now, while a dehydrated meal takes hot water and ten minutes to prepare. Yes, MREs are heavier than dehydrated meals, but I can carry less water and don’t need a stove or fuel at all. Along with being very light, the MRE heaters are paper thin which saves space in my pack.
Incident Command System. This is more than a dry on-line class from FEMA. It’s a really good way to manage both searches and routine workouts. Executed correctly it keeps things organized and everybody knowing what they’re doing. You can probably get a free class from your local fire department, to include a tabletop exercise for practice.
Who’s checked out and qualified to drive your communications van? Your insurance provider might be interested in this one.
And if you’re in a climate where it gets super cold some weeks of the year, flip this schedule around. Do the classes inside if being outside would risk frost nip for you or the dogs.