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Staying Safe and How Not to Become A SAR Statistic in the National Park System


Yosemite National Park is kept busy with search-and-rescue operations. David Pope photo via Friends of Yosemite Search and Rescue.

If you subconsciously want to become a search-and-rescue statistic in the National Park System, your best chance would be in either Grand Canyon National Park, Gateway National Recreation Area, or Yosemite National Park.

Of course, no one wants to become the focus of a SAR mission. But it happens. Between 1992 and 2007 the National Park Service launched 65,439 SAR missions to look for 78,488 individuals. From those missions there were 2,659 fatalities and 24,288 ill or injured park visitors. Another 13,212 lives most likely would have been lost had it not been for the men and women who go in search of people who've gone missing.

Those figures are laid out in Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in U.S. National Parks. Compiled by Dr. Travis W. Heggie and Michael E. Amundson at the University of North Dakota, the paper presents perhaps the most comprehensive, publicly available, analysis of SAR in the parks yet compiled.

“Nobody knows the story. This is the first time you’re going to see these search-and-rescue costs ever released to the public," said Dr. Heggie, who was the Park Service's first public risk management program director before entering academics. "Nobody’s seen this kind of data before, and nobody knows what’s going on. We can talk about individual search-and-rescue operations, but hey, we need to start looking at a bigger picture."

That "bigger picture" shows that in 2005 Grand Canyon led the park system in SARs with 307, or 13 percent of the system's total that year, while Gateway NRA reported 293 (12 percent) and Yosemite 231 (10 percent). Additionally, in 2005 five parks -- Grand Canyon, Gateway, Yosemite, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and Denali National Park and Preserve -- accounted for half of the 2,420 SAR missions conducted across the then-391 unit park system.

Yosemite accounted for one-quarter of all SAR dollars spent in 2005 by the Park Service, $1.2 million out of the $4.99 million spent that year. Of course, Yosemite has high SAR costs in general due to its reputation as a climbing mecca, it has swift, dangerous waters during spring runoff, and it has an incredibly rugged backcountry. In 2005, as well, it had one search for a missing hiker, 51-year-old Mike Ficery, that ran a $452,000 tab with no resolution.

"Five parks account for 50 percent of the fatalities, or eight parks account for 73 percent of the total costs," pointed out Dr. Heggie, "and what are we doing about it? Nothing. Nothing. And that’s the thing. The Park Service historically has been a reactive agency rather than a preventative agency."

"Yosemite itself has a different organizational culture than a lot of the other National Park Service units," he added during a telephone interview. "They were in existence as a state park before Yellowstone ever came about, they were the first, they have this YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) team out there at Yosemite. I’m going to tell you this straight up: the people who do these search-and-rescue operations, they’re the best people in the world, they’re the people you’re going to want on your side, so I don’t want to come across as slamming them, because I support all of them.

"But if we actually worked to do a little more preventive work (rather) than just be the jarheads, over-testosteronized type people – that’s their whole mindset out there, 'we’re the jocks, we’re jumping from SAR to SAR and boy we don’t even have time to finish this one before we have to go save someone else' -- it’s like their line for bragging," said Dr. Heggie. "And yet, when you start looking at the cost of these things, then wow, we could be saving a lot of money if we just did a little of what we call PSAR, the Preventive Search and Rescue.”

National park landscapes can be ruggedly demanding and quick to snuff out lives. Denali's Mount McKinley is ready proof of that, as is Yosemite's Half Dome, which in the course of a handful of months back in late 2006 and early 2007 recorded two fatalities.

These landscapes are not city parks, and some visitors tend to forget that. With hopes of instilling visitors with more respect -- not fear, but respect -- for their surroundings, the Park Service has been working to better educate visitors to the dangers in the parks they're entering. Too, they're also trying to better understand the thinking of visitors.

Part of the education program is internal, as well, to get SAR crews to accept that they're not immortal and that they constantly have to be assessing their own safety during missions.

“In the past the culture was ‘mission at all costs.’ You do the mission," explained Dr. Sara Newman, the Park Service's current risk management program director. "And part of our culture of rescue, of 'get out there and do whatever it takes for a mission,' is part of what results in accidents, and this attitude of 'we are rewarded for being heroes.'”

Dr. Newman, who specializes in injury epidemiology -- understanding how we become injured -- soon hopes to have a new tool to drive that safety message not just through SAR crew members but throughout the ranks of the Park Service. Termed "operational leadership," the approach has been approved by the agency's National Leadership Council, which in turn has created a Safety Leadership Council.

"That Safety Leadership Council has taken on a new effort that entails operational risk management, which is a military approach to addressing missions and balancing risk," said Dr. Newman, now in her third year directing the risk management program. "It’s a new cultural shift, really, in how we look at all the activities we do, not just search and rescue. It’s anything, whether it’s going up a ladder and fixing something or deciding whether or not, after hiking 10 miles to get somewhere and you’ve forgotten your PPE (personal protective equipment), your eye gear or your gloves, do you still do the job, or do you walk back and say 'I couldn’t do it today'?"

This approach entails more than simply writing down a series of safety checks NPS employees must run through before they embark on the task at hand. Part employs the "GAR" system -- green, amber or red -- that helps guide decisions. At the same time, the Park Service is working to better understand its visitors and why they do the things they do.

“One of the essential parts of our program is to educate the public about the fact that the responsibility for a lot of their safety really lies with them," Dr. Newman said. ‘I found a woman walking up Mount Rainier in high-heeled shoes. I think she felt she’d get a better grip on the snow. Or somebody at Haleakula at the top, it’s 30 degrees, in flip-flops and shorts. I asked her if she knew it’d be that cold and she said, 'Well, I was in Hawaii, I thought it’d be warm.’ People don’t necessarily prepare.”

With hopes of better understanding park visitors, Dr. Newman is enlisting members of the Student Conservation Association to go out into the parks to watch visitors and talk to them.

“The Student Conservation Association has a lot of experience in placing student interns throughout our park system doing conservation projects. They also heavily emphasize risk management, and have a lot of experience and interest and involvement in the wilderness risk management community," she said. "So we’ve partnered with them to do a program for students, graduate and under-graduate, to do prevention projects throughout our parks.

“This summer we have 16 parks that will have an intern doing a wide variety of risk management projects. For example, at Mount Rainier we’re having a student from Cornell doing a study on risk communication," said Dr. Newman. “This will basically be doing an evaluation, a study of risk communication. This could be useful in any of our parks. The idea is to look at what are the ways in which our rangers communicate risk, formally and informally, and how do the visitors perceive those risks? And how they best learn about risks.”

Some parks already are working hard to see that visitors are well-prepared for their visits. When he worked at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Dr. Heggie was involved with making sure visitors knew what to expect even before they reached the park.

“I call it the continuum of travel medicine, where we get people safety messages before they even leave their house," he said. "Someone who is planning their trips these days, what are they doing? Usually getting on the Internet to plan it. And I say, 'Get your safety messages up there on the Internet so when they’re planning their trips, they read it.'

"We don’t put it in angry messages, 'don’t do this' or 'don’t do that' or come off as an angry ranger," added Dr. Heggie. "Just say, 'Hey, we want you to come, have a good experience, but by the way these are some of the things you need to be aware of before you even show up.'”

Through a series of educational tips, some delivered via the Internet, some via a telephone hotline visitors can call once they reach Hawaii, some at visitor centers, visitors are given a wealth of safety-related information.

“Hopefully, by the time they get down there they’ve had the safety message four times, and we have found that that has significantly reduced the number of severe and minor injuries by 80 percent,” he said.

At Sequoia National Park, officials learned from analyzing a half-century of data that most of their fatalities came from river drownings. Crunching the data further, they were able to narrow down the time of year most drownings occurred, where they occurred, even the time of day. As a result the park launched its "river rover" program that utilizes volunteers to patrol those dangerous river sections during peak periods.

"They now have volunteers who at very specific times of day, on weekends because that’s when the high fatality rate was, roving and providing information, education to visitors who were right there at the key points," noted Dr. Newman. "And since 2005 when they implemented this, they were having two deaths a year, and since they implemented the program they’ve had none. …What they do feel confident about is that they’re educating people. They’re finding that people were very surprised to learn how dangerous that river was. It doesn’t look it.”

Yosemite officials also have been working in recent years to ingrain safety into their visitors, according to Roger Farmer, the park's safety and occupational health officer.

“We don’t want to inundate them at the entrance stations with all these safety requirements, and we don’t want to inundate them with signs along the trail," said Mr. Farmer. "We want the wilderness experience to be that, a wilderness experience. But every way we can to educate -- using podcasts and using unique things that actually speak to the youth of today, we’re in a little different generation where the iPod is something we need to take advantage of for educating."

Too, Yosemite officials often station their SAR bus near the Happy Isles Trailhead -- a key intersection in summer for folks heading up to the Little Yosemite Valley or Half Dome -- as well as at other busy trailheads so rangers can explain search-and-rescue techniques and safety lessons. They also have on regular patrol in and outside the Yosemite Valley rangers whose mission is to explain risks to visitors, answer questions, and, if necessary, respond to emergencies.

Unfortunately, not everyone is open to hearing about safety issues before they venture down the trail.

"It’s pretty predictable who will get injured with that kind of attitude, and it is the young males (who will) probably be focused on the task at hand rather than taking a little bit of time to prepare better," said Mr. Farmer. "Most folks, most visitors will be open to the idea of gaining a little bit more knowledge about something they’re going to do, particularly hiking. You’ll see some people just kind of shrug. They’re wearing flip-flops and they’re carrying one bottle of water and they’re taking off to go to Half Dome. You kind of question them and they’re, 'Oh, whatever.'"

One such case, he said, was one of the women who died in a fall from Half Dome a couple of years ago.

"People, you’ll see that a lot, they get to the base of Half Dome and it's really too late then (too urge them not to go up) if it’s lightning or there’s a storm on the horizon. ‘I hiked here, I came here to do this.’ That was the attitude of one of the ladies that died," he said. "There was a group of four and the clouds parted for just a bit, but it was still wet and the cables were down, and they went up and one of them slipped and died coming down. And it kind of that attitude, ‘Hey we’re here, this was our goal.' That’s what we’re trying to figure out with the social science stuff, is why people take those risks."

National Park Service units with highest occurrence of SARs in 2005

1. Grand Canyon National Park, 307
2. Gateway National Recreation Area, 293
3. Yosemite National Park, 231
4. Lake Mead National Recreation ARea, 197
5. Rocky Mountain National Park, 168
6. Grand Teton National Park, 90
7. Cape Ced National Seashore, 79
8. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, 79
9. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 78
10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, 77

National Park Service units with highest SAR costs in 2005
1. Yosemite National Park, $1.23 million
2. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, $476,159
3. Rocky Mountain National Park, $416,260
4. Grand Canyon National Park, $400,629
5. Denali National Park and Preserve, $348,565
6. Yellowstone National Park, $280,757
7. Mount Rainier National Park, $236,606
8. Zion National Park, $139,869
9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, $132,943
10. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, $117,238

* Dollars not adjusted for inflation

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Most of the SAR missions at Gateway NRA are related to their lifeguarded beachs and high urban visitation.....

As a frequent visitor to the more rugged parks - often as a solo wilderness traveler (and previously as a climber in Yosemite many times), I might be considered at greater risk to need a SAR by some. But I am also hyper-prepared, informed, and ready to turn back and change my plans if things are going right. Being out there is more important than any particular goal. It probably also helps that since I go a lot, I'll have other chances to accomplish a goal,though I don't frequently do repeat visits except for the closest places.

Dean -

You've hit on some of the keys to greatly reducing the chances of becoming a SAR statistic: "hyper-prepared, informed, and ready to turn back and change my plans if things aren't going right."

With over 25 years of backcountry experience in the Sierras and Cascades I have been fortunate to never need any help despite taking many long solo trips in all types of terrain and weather conditions. I feel many SAR rescues could be prevented by simply having knowledgeable people with backcountry experience issue wilderness permits at Ranger Stations or as they say in Yosemite - Information Stations. Many of the Rangers are little more than campground cops and are totally clueless when it come to giving advise on important things like the danger present at creek crossings and the navigational skills required to "do your route" above the snow line. Hopefully some of the additional money going to the the National Parks system will be spent on educating the park employees.

Uneducated recreators and high risk takers not only put their lives in jeopardy but also put the lives of rescuers at risk. I have worked as a park ranger and an emergency medical technician and sometimes cannot beleive how unprepared people can be when venturing outdoors. Many people are simply uninformed about the potential dangers. It makes sense to warn people about the hazards before so they do not become statistics.

Those 2005 SAR costs seem very reasonable to me. The dollars are worth it. It is the lives lost or bodies injured in the process of rescuing someone that are not.

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