With wealthy adventurer Steve Fossett still missing after days of searching in the mountains and deserts of Nevada, hope wanes. Fossett is no stranger to risk. In 1998 his hot air balloon attempt to circumnavigate the globe failed after crashing into the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia.
Those who search for missing like Fossett are special. I’m proud to call one a good friend. I’ve known George White for 20 years. He’s one of the most creative men I know and also one of the most capable. George can fix a PC before you know it, and I know it first hand, he’s helped my PC more than once.
I caught up with George to ask about working with the King County Explorer Search and Rescue Team in Seattle, Washington.
Did you hesitate before joining SAR?
Yes, as I hesitated before joining ARES. (Amateur Radio Emergency Services). After all, I didn’t know what I was getting into, so research was in order. I like electronics and computers, so becoming a ham seemed like a logical thing to do. I could have passed it up, but for what I do for SAR, I pretty much do with ham radio anyway. The only difference between being a ham, and a ham in ARES/RACES and SAR, is training.
Describe the first few weeks on the team.
Usually, things are pretty quiet. Once pagers go off, things can get hectic quickly. Voice mail is checked, rosters drawn up, searchers must be organized, it’s quite an undertaking, a lot of people don’t realize the logistics that go into putting a search together. Those first few missions, I had to train “on the job” so naturally there were some bumps and bruises.
What’s the most emotional incident involving you with SAR?
Well, I can’t speak for myself, but one mission that ended up being a suicide had people quite emotional. Lots of crying from the family naturally, and searchers as well. As for me, I had a job to do, paperwork to fill out, searchers and equipment to keep track of. When you’re busy like that, I’ve found it best to not let yourself get over-emotional. I was in the comm van doing what I was trained to do, because that is what was expected of me.
Has the team discussed Steve Fossett? What are his chances of still being found alive in your opinion?
No, I rarely have contact with other team members when not on a mission. This doesn’t mean none have become friends. I’ve chosen to distance myself from people when on a mission in general though, Makes things easier for me. As for my opinion, I can point to fact. We had a plane go missing here, back in August. It was found three weeks later with its occupant deceased by some hunters. No flight plan was filed indicating direction or destination. I don’t know if Mr. Fossett filed a flight plan, but I think it would be foolish to fly without one. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, anyone can fall and break a leg. I doubt gravity and what the person breaks their leg on will conference and say, “Gee, well, this person has lots of experience, we’d better not break their leg”. Nothing beats good preparation. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention. If Fossett or the other plane I spoke of earlier had ELT devices, they would have been found much quicker, but even technology fails.
Technology. What’s the impact for you guys and for hikers, campers and those who may utilize it to make your job easier. GPS? Flares? Homing Becons?
There’s a lot of technology out there, but some of it can be rendered useless. A GPS for instance can fail to get a satellite lock in an area with heavy foliage. A GPS is a secondary device; all team members are required to have Map & Compass training. Skiers and hikers can have portable beacons to help locate them, but really hilly terrain can block signals unless you’re close.
I recall an incident where a gentleman in Oregon bought a new plasma TV. It must have been the right combination of defects in the set, but he ended up having Search & Rescue show up on his doorstep. Turns out the TV’s electronics were sending out a signal precisely on the aircraft emergency beacon frequency of 121.5 mhz. The signal was picked up by satellite, relayed to West Virginia where they watch for such things, and the search for the downed aircraft was on. Needless to say, once found, the gentleman was told to leave the TV off or he’d be fined quite heavily. Now you know why I don’t rely on electronics much. He DID end up getting a new TV from the manufacturer, so I guess it turned out well in the end. (You’re SURE this plane isn’t here somewhere? Check the linen closet!)
You have a great love of Star Trek. In Captain Kirk and Mister Spock’s world, sensors, transporters and tractor beams make rescue easy. How if any as Star Trek impacted your thoughts on SAR?
Bring on tricorders, transporters and shuttlecraft! Phasers, let’s not forget the phasers. Nothing like a good Type II set to disintegrate to get rid of those damned blackberry bushes and sticklers we always walk through! Sure, a transporter would make it easier to get injured out of the field, but according to the book “The Physics Of Star Trek” the energy required would reduce a person to ashes. No thanks, I’ll walk. On second thought, give me a shuttlecraft with sensors!
What’s the hardest part of the job for you?
Getting to some missions when I’m not doing in-town comm duty. I don’t drive so I have to rely on a team member to pick me up if they’re going through the area. Once there, the hardest part is first steps towards mission organization. Once that’s done though, and training kicks in, the searchers fall into line. It’s like going to school and getting out for the summer. Over the summer you might forget a bit of what you learned, and your body is not back on the rigid schedule required of school, so the first week or two of returning can be quite an adjustment.
Same thing on a SAR mission, when you arrive, you’re not in that “mode”. You’re just getting to search base, and things haven’t gotten started yet, but once things start, everyone’s training kicks in, and it gets easier.
Give campers and hikers some tips about not getting lost. What are some common mistakes people make that get them in trouble?
NEVER go alone, always let someone know where you and your party are going and where you’ll be. Get a map and say, “I’ll be here” or “in this area.” This not only cuts down search area should you get into trouble, but also search time. If you don’t have a cellphone or don’t want to pay for one, pick up a used one and don’t activate it. Even a deactivated cellphone can dial 911. Have a good map and a good compass and know how to use them. In some areas the cell may not work, but sometimes in the mountains, if you fall and get hurt, you just might get lucky and be able to hit a cell tower.
Thomas Guide maps are designed so they’re broken up into pages and grids. If you give a copy of your map to someone, and say “I’ll be here”, when searchers look on their maps, they know what grid you’re in, and have a good idea of where to look. It greatly improves your chances.
Can anyone get involved in search & rescue?
Sure. Most agencies prefer you don’t have a criminal record or anything like that. They also want people in good physical condition. Being a ham radio operator is a plus too. There’s also training at the federal level that most agencies prefer you have as well.
In addition to training, do you think the sport of Geocaching has helped you and improved your search abilities?
Definitely! You never know when you will go searching in the woods for a hot wheels car collection! They could rust before long! Seriously, the sport of geocaching is: someone puts items in a box (usually a small tupperware container or ammo box) finds a place in a park or wooded area and hides it. They map coordinates of the hiding place with GPS, and publish them on the net.
You’ll find thousands online at www.geocaching.com. People take GPS units, locate the coordinates to look for your cache. If they find it, they sign the log book, and log it on the site. In SAR, sometimes a cell company can give you rough coordinates of towers(s) that picked up the 911 call. Then searchers using Thomas Guide maps have a very LARGE area in which to search. We look at a large area and say, we have this trail here, and a lake here, and a trail over here, and slowly, we break down the area into smaller and smaller areas until we find the person.