While most of us hope we never have to meet Rocky Mountain National Park's rangers as the subject of Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts, sometimes accidents happen. In 2004 there were 190 Search and Rescue incidents in the park, a very small number considering there were about 3 million visitors to the park in that same time period.
While search and rescue are usually lumped together, they are really two different activities. Rescues usually involve knowing where the victim is and often what types of injuries he has (69% of the Search and Rescue subjects in 2004 were male). The challenge is to get the subject safely out of his predicament and to provide immediate medical attention if it is warranted. Usually a small group of highly trained specialists perform the rescue. Rescues are often necessitated by falls, auto accidents, avalanches, lightning strikes, weather events, and snow play activities that go awry.
Searches are more challenging in many ways because rangers don't know where the subject is. The first task is to find out the last known location of the subject and surround an area where the subject is likely to be. Quick and accurate reporting of a lost person is extremely helpful because it keeps the search area small. For every hour that passes from the time a person is lost, the search area must increase dramatically because the person could have traveled farther in an unknown direction. It is also critically important to block the subject's route to high hazard areas such as cliffs and fast moving rivers, especially if he is a child or has impaired cognitive abilities. It is important for the searchers not to be so focused on searching in the logical places that they overlook illogical ones. When lost, people sometimes use a different logic than they might use in less stressful times.
Usually there are many searchers involved because of the large area they need to cover. They often search in a fairly spread out fashion, and yell or blow whistles to get the attention of the person who is lost. They assume the subject is alert, wants to be found, and will respond when he hears the search. This is not always the case with children who fear they may be in trouble for getting lost, and who hear the searchers yelling. If this type of search fails, a grid search is instituted. This is very labor intensive, and happens if, for some reason, the person is not able to respond.
So please be careful when you visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Be prepared for changes in weather. Keep in close contact with your group. If you get lost, stay put so you can be easily found. And remember, if you need them, our rangers are here to help.