Here is another one of my Western Hunter Magazine Articles. This one is on the subject of signaling for help in a backcountry emergency from the perspective of a rescuer. Wade Nelson Sorting through the fads and fashion of the outdoor equipment industry to identify and promote the very best wilderness gear for high end recreational users, backcountry professionals and government agencies. Hardcore Outdoor is dedicated to those who won’t or can’t turn back.
CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?
By Wade Nelson
My last four years with the Sheriff’s Office were spent as the Airborne SAR Tech-EMT assigned to the Aviation Division. I was the emergency medical and technical rescue element of a three man helicopter crew. As far as single engine, light helicopters go our Bell 407 was a nice one, especially for me because there was plenty of room in the aft passenger cabin to stretch out and carry my gear. On search missions I could easily go from one side of the aircraft to the other looking out the big bay style windows for whatever it was we were supposed to be searching for.
If you have never had to do it, it is not nearly as easy to spot something from the air as you might think. When you are on the ground it seems so simple. You can see the helicopter so naturally you assume “it” can see you. In reality you are just one small piece of a 360 degree mosaic the guys in the bird can look at, but to be effective as a searcher they have to concentrate on one piece of ground at a time and scan it for something that sticks out. In that respect, it is sort of like glassing for Coues deer. Scan too quickly or broadly and you miss it because the brain is overwhelmed by the expanse of terrain the eyes are taking in and it fills in or glosses over some of the fine detail.
Let’s not forget that there is also a lot going on inside that aircraft. Flying a helicopter has been described as rubbing your belly and patting your head while riding a unicycle. It is not easy. Add in a big panel of gauges to watch, multiple radios to monitor, constantly looking out for things not to run in to and maybe a chatty left seater that is feeling the effects of yesterdays big burrito dinner and you start to understand what I am talking about. The fact is, many times even a competent, fresh crew can fly right over or past something as big as a car and miss it. The trick is, if you are the guy on the ground wanting to be found, be as conspicuous as possible. To me, as long as someone is looking for you, survival is about making yourself stand out from your surroundings as much as possible. It’s about getting found.
As the third crew member in the back of the aircraft, I didn’t have much to do while we were flying. I monitored several radio frequencies, watched for hazards and tried to track our position on the map. However, on search missions I had a very important job. I would sit sideways and devote 98% of my attention to scanning everything out one side of the aircraft or the other. Whether it was during the day with the naked eye or after dark with night vision equipment my being on board had a dramatic effect on success rates and time on station which is one way we justified my addition to the family. My lieutenant was so happy with the results that he called me his side scanning WADAR (WADE+RADAR =WADAR). See, searching effectively from a helicopter means slowing way down and getting close to the ground. Low and slow, as it is called, burns a lot of fuel and is dangerous because if something bad happens mechanically you have neither the forward air speed nor the altitude to do anything but fall out of the sky. It also puts a lot of stress on the crew. So, long story short, the faster they find people the better. Savvy?
Let me drive the point home with a true story of a hunter that helped himself by helping us find him. This particular mission began as most do. Somebody called 911 or the Sheriff’s main switchboard downtown and said that somebody else didn’t check in or come home when they were supposed to (remember in last month’s article I talked about filing a “flight plan” with a responsible person?). The information was passed along the chain until another somebody decided that the best way to deal with it was to send the helicopter out to take a look. That decision led to a ringing phone at our hangar, scribblings on a Post-it Note, a loud “clear” shouted at no one in particular and the distinctive smell of jet engine exhaust.
Anyway, the overdue somebody this time had left several days earlier to hunt bear. He was riding horseback and leading a string of mules in the rugged Mazatzal Wilderness Northeast of Phoenix. It had been a wet winter and the spring growth was green and heavy. We flew a number of high probability routes with no success. We were a little higher and faster than standard search mode since we were looking for a pretty good sized target and we were trying to cover as much ground as possible before the sun went down. We were humming right along when I caught a glimpse of something white. White, I mean white white, is not common in the desert and it usually turns out to be either trash or Quartz but I didn’t get a good look at it so I asked Mikey to flip a bitch and take another look. It wasn’t one white thing; it was several strips of white draped across a big Creosote bush. It was toilet paper. Somebody had gone to the trouble of TeePeeing a large Creosote bush at the bottom of a draw in the middle of nowhere. That somebody was the somebody we were looking for and he was curled up at the base of the bush. All he could manage, as we eased in and hovered above him, was a lame wave with one hand.
Apparently on his way up the mountain his horse boogered, slid off the trail and rolled downhill about 30 yards crushing him during the trip. The horse and the string were nowhere to be found but some of his gear was strewn across the hillside. Problem was he had a broken pelvis and a hurt back so he couldn’t get to any of it. They only thing within reach was a full roll of toilet paper that had been ejected from one of his saddle bags. This poor guy had spent two days unraveling a bunch of paper and then throwing the roll over the top of the tree. He would crawl over to where it landed and do it again until the roll ran out. I gave him an A++ for ingenuity.
Fact is, a ground team would not have gotten to that area for a day or two and we or the Department of Public Safety helicopter would not have covered that area again until the next day at the earliest. If he hadn’t been so resourceful or stubborn or whatever it was that kept him going we would not have found him alive. When I got to the guy he asked me if I would do him a favor and find that damn horse and shoot it. I told him I had already reached my quota for the month and it was too much paperwork anyway.
What is the take away message here? First, for the riders in the audience, don’t keep your most important survival gear in a saddle or cantle bag because if you are somehow separated from your mount, you are S.O.L. Second, the ability to signal your location to searchers is critical. I have answered the question a thousand times the same way. Assuming that you are properly clothed, shod and have enough water the most important piece of gear I carry is a signaling device. Here are a few suggestions of the best ones, based on my experience.
The easiest and most readily available signaling device is a good flashlight with fresh batteries. This is a no brainer because all of you should carry at least one with you all the time and I recommend a second one as a backup. I like the modern LE
D headlamps with adjustable brightness and a strobe feature. Chances are that the search for you won’t get going until after the sun goes down which is just fine with me because a bright light against a dark landscape is exactly the kind of signal that attracts search teams and aircraft.
Even better than a flashlight, in my opinion, is a purpose built strobe light like military pilots use. They are extremely durable and use a specially designed omni-directional flash that pierces the darkness and punches through tree cover. If a SAR guys see a strobe in their search area they make a beeline for it because they know that it has only one function and that is to attract attention. Turn it on and let it do its thing.
Fire is, of course, a tried and true signal from way back but it can be problematic. First, you have to be able to start one and then you have to manage it so it is big enough to be seen but not so big that it gets out of control and burns a forest down. A fire is also pretty good for daytime signaling if you can find a fuel source that creates smoke that will contrast against the landscape.
Signal mirrors are a popular device and very effective for daytime use. I carry one but the truth is they require practice and a fair amount of luck. The sun has to be in the right place relative to your target and somebody has to be looking in the right direction at the right time to see the flash.
I prefer a high visibility panel or streamer. I have used them many times and found that they work very well as a passive signaling device for daytime use. The one I have is international orange, about 20 feet long, floats, and rolls up to a package the size of a sleeve of golf balls. It sticks out like a sore thumb and is especially good for water and snow environments.
I always carry a good whistle on a lanyard around my neck. The sound of a whistle carries better than the human voice, especially in the wind, and it does not go hoarse from overuse.
Satellite messengers and Personal Locator Beacons or PLBs are hi-tech communications/signaling devices that send an emergency distress signal and GPS coordinates to an emergency communications center via satellite. I do not leave the truck without mine.
Finally, reflective trim, piping, logos, zipper pulls or tape all work nicely for passive nighttime signaling. I know, you would think that such a little thing would be insignificant but you would be wrong if the helicopter crew that is searching for you is using night vision goggles. I have been on many search missions where the person, a body or an important piece of evidence was spotted because of a spot light or even the position marker lights reflecting off of a small bit of reflective material. It’s great stuff.
That’s all for now. Take care and be safe out there.
EDITORS NOTE – Here are my specific product recommendations for the signaling devices lised above in bold.
Flashlight – Petzl e+Lite, Petzl Tikka 2 Plus
Strobe light – ACR Firefly 3
Fire – My own home made kit is still the best I have seen
Signal mirror – Rescue Reflectors 2×3 plastic
High visability panel – RescueStreamer
Whistle – Storm
Satellite device – SPOT Satellite Messenger
Sorting through the fads and fashion of the outdoor equipment industry to identify and promote the very best wilderness gear for high end recreational users, backcountry professionals and government agencies.
Hardcore Outdoor is dedicated to those who won’t or can’t turn back.