Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out of the Comfort Zone

"What's a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?"
- Gene Wilder (as Jim) to Cleavon Little (as Bart) in Blazing Saddles (1974)
I wanted stay up late this past Sunday night and post something else, but the Search and Rescue pager beckoned in the early evening with a request for communications personnel to assist with a search for three missing hunters in the Flat Tops area of Garfield County. As it was going to be my day off, I made myself available, and at 5:00 Monday morning my fellow volunteer Bill and I were headed toward Rifle.

It turned out to be just a little bit more than a day operation.

We left Garfield County SAR headquarters near the Rifle Airport at about 6:30. After driving through Glenwood Canyon, we started uphill from just north of the Dotsero exit of I-70. As we started up the narrow switchbacks of Coffee Pot Road, the weather and road conditions changed dramatically.

The snow conditions made it necessary to stage snowmobile and ATV trail
ers about 20 miles away from the command post location, which was a couple of miles from where the hunters' truck was located. The picture on the left shows the easy part. Open, flat terrain followed, with considerable drifting of snow across the roadway.

We noticed numerous hunting camps on the way up, and with the snow we saw numerous hunters packing up and trying to get back down. The Sheriff's Deputy in our little convoy helped to winch out one group in a pickup pulling a pop-up camper. The going w
as slow, and we arrived at the command post location about 5 1/2 hours after leaving Rifle.

The command p
ost was in a US Forest Service cabin near White Owl Lake, roughly 13 miles as the crow flies due north of Glenwood Springs. There was propane to provide some heat and the capability for cooking and small lighting. There was wood to stoke a large wood stove in the main living area. We used a small gasoline-powered generator to provide AC power to our laptop computer with topo map software, as well as a charger for portable radio batteries.

There were 2 bedrooms on the first floor, and a loft on the second level which wound up being much war
mer than below. There was an outhouse about 25 feet from the cabin, which while
convenient still required slogging through high wind and drifting snow to reach. 18 people stayed in this cabin on Monday night.

As several media reports have already made clear, the search efforts for the first t
wo days were significantly impacted by high winds and blowing snow. Our primary job was to maintain communications with the teams of snowmobilers and ground searchers, note their locations and progress, and manage the coordination and allocation of radio frequencies and equipment.

There was no cell phone coverage in the search area or at the command post. The only resources available for co
mmunication with the outside world were the State Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS) and a satellite phone. The DTRS was an impressive, invaluable resource for the purposes of this exercise; it allowed us to
communicate with our field teams, Garfield County dispatchers and emergency management, and our Mission Coordinator in Fruita. All with the same portable radio. The photo above shows the work area for the Incident Commander and communications support.

Both Bill and I had to come back down on Tuesday evening. A Garfield County road grader made the road back down much easier to navigate, and it took considerably less time to get down than it did to get up. I did wake up the next morning in time to hear the missing hunters get found, alive, cold, and hungry, by a National Guard helicopter. After they were successfully evacuated to the hospital, the search teams were engaged in at least four additional rescues of hunters stuck at campsites or other locations in this area.

I joined Search and Rescue in part to be able to keep my skills as a communications professional sharp, but also to learn more about rural, wilderness, and specialized operations that I really didn't have much of a clue about. You see, I'm a city dweller; as interesting as this mission was, I was not adequately prepared for it from both a practical and conceptual standpoint. I kept focus on the task at hand, and learned a lot. One thing that I learned was that I would prefer not to have to do this again, at least not without some sort of extra provisions. Food for thought...

Another thing I learned was how an incident involving multiple jurisdictions, severe to extreme operational conditions, and significant logistical challenges can be effectively coordinated by experienced personnel using established incident management techniques such as the Incident Command System. Still another was the extreme expertise and dedication of volunteers, without whom county Sheriffs would be hard pressed to address the sometimes daunting nature of their statutory responsibility for search and rescue.

It was a pleasure to work alongside Lanny Grant of Garfield County SAR, as well as others who donate the considerable benefit of their expertise to help people in need, often at considerable personal expense and largely without regard for the imaginary lines that identify jurisdictional boundaries and political subdivisions.

These sentiments are amplified by my position as someone with a lot of relevant experience who is still a neophyte when it comes to this sort of thing, along with the culmination of this incident as a successful rescue. As the Sentinel pointed out in their outstanding coverage of the incident yesterday, as well as an editorial in today's paper, the missing hunters deserve as much credit for this as anyone else.

Have a good weekend.

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