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The realities of rural search and rescue

Plumas County is known for its broad expanses of forest, rugged mountains and canyons, scenic drives, four distinct seasons, sparse population and generally relaxed pace. It’s rural America in the best sense of the term, attractive to many, but it’s not free of hazards.

You don’t have to be here for very long before you hear of examples of people finding themselves in distress: a child wanders off, someone is overdue on an outing, a hiker is injured in a fall, a car goes over the side of a canyon road. The next thing you know, Plumas County Search & Rescue is on the way to provide aid to the parties involved. Once in a while there might be an article in the local news about a major incident, but more often there’s just a few words posted in the Sheriff’s Blotter.

Now, the Search & Rescue (SAR) team members are a fairly quiet bunch who aren’t looking for publicity. They do what they do to be of help to others, not for self-promotion. But there are some basic things about rural search & rescue that the public really should know, and that’s what this discussion is all about.

Full disclosure:  I’m not a SAR team member, but I’m married to one. She’s subject to call, 24/7, any day of the year. That’s because emergencies don’t occur on a convenient schedule. The do occur in every season of the year, which means that the team has to be prepared to respond in any kind of weather.

Plumas County SAR is part of our Sheriff’s Office organization. With the exception of the team leader, a senior deputy, all of the SAR team members are unpaid volunteers. In 2018 they interrupted their lives to respond to more than 100 dispatched calls for help. That averages to about two calls each week.

Even though the staffing is volunteer, the SAR team does need a variety of physical things to function: vehicles, radios, navigation gear, medical items, rope systems, safety gear, etc. These are largely acquired and maintained using donated funds and grants. (Now you know the reason for those annual funding drives.)

There is no “usual” or “normal” SAR call. Every one of them has some different combination of location, victim situation, weather, time of day, etc. But there do seem to be a few common issues:

– The circumstances are seldom easy (if they were, you wouldn’t need the SAR team);

– There usually is an element of risk, to the victim, the team or both;

– Special skills are often required (which leads to specialty training);

– Many of the responses occur during the hours of darkness.

The matter of call timing can be a sore point with volunteers. There often is a considerable delay between the moment that someone recognizes a problem and the moment that a 911 call is placed. That delay might be the result of friend or family member attempts to deal with the situation, confusion, uncertainty or whatever. The impact of a delay in calling 911 is that the SAR operation is also delayed, often leading to an operation taking place in darkness that might otherwise have been expedited during daylight.

The public also needs to be aware of the fact that the small handful of SAR team volunteers are spread out across the county, from Portola to Chester. Most of the vehicles and specialty equipment is centrally stored in Quincy, which means that assembling the team for a response usually requires time for the volunteers to drop what they are doing at the moment, suit up and get to the Quincy site. Then they can proceed to the incident location, which can also take considerable time if the location is off the beaten track.

Sadly, not every SAR incident has a happy outcome. Sometimes rescue becomes recovery, when a deceased victim is retrieved. In a few ongoing cases, the missing party has yet to be found in spite of many days of searching. There simply are no guarantees in this serious endeavor.

Each of us can take some steps to minimize our need to call Search & Rescue, or at least to improve our odds of being rescued. First is the matter of letting a responsible party know where we are going on an outing, our route, and when we expect to return. That way, the reporting party can advise the 911 dispatcher of some important details if we fail to return.

Second is the matter of behavior. A lot of outdoor emergencies originate in unsafe or foolish behavior. Pushing beyond reasonable limits to your or your vehicle’s capabilities is simply a recipe for trouble, as is ignoring unfavorable conditions, the weather or posted warning signs.

Then there is the matter of modern technology, as in cell phones and GPS sets. This is marvelous stuff, providing lots of help and convenience. It can also get inexperienced people into difficulty. Be aware that cell phone coverage is very spotty in much of Plumas County, so you may not have a connection when you need one. If you absolutely must have cell service to conduct your outing, you probably shouldn’t be off the paved highway. And the phrase “death by GPS” is not a joke; total reliance on GPS directions has led many a traveler into dire circumstances. If the GPS directions send you to an uncomfortable road, turn around. A map and an understanding of navigation basics will help prevent a lot of these kinds of problems.

Checking the weather forecast for acceptable conditions, dressing accordingly and taking along some water and food are all advisable preparations for an outing. Finally, if you find yourself in distress, please don’t wait until sunset to make that call to 911. You and the SAR team will both be happier dealing with the situation before it gets dark.

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