When the rescuers need support
Mental Health and Support, Part Six
It doesn’t happen everywhere, but the wide-open spaces of the Upper Peninsula mean that search and rescue operations are a common occurrence locally. Hikers and hunters get lost, snowmobiles take wrong turns, elderly dementia patients can walk away from home, and youth will run. Every situation is as different as the subject of the search and the terrain that they’re lost in, and time is always against the search party.
In addition to first responders like the police, firefighters, and EMTs, the Keweenaw area is fortunate to have a team of trained volunteers that is available to assist with these search and rescue events.
Chris VanArsdale is the full-time emergency management coordinator for Houghton and Keweenaw Counties. So during any emergency, he helps relay messages between different agencies and levels of government about who needs what to work effectively. Between emergencies, he works to keep his resource and contact list up to date and familiarizes himself with the processes important for different disasters and getting emergency assistance and funding -- whether that assistance comes from a neighboring county, the state or federal level, or even a neighboring state.
VanArsdale is also the president of Superior Search and Rescue, an independent, non-profit search and rescue (SAR) team that assists law enforcement by request. They can supplement things like communication and logistics, and even have a specialized drone available.
“It all kind of depends on the situation,” VanArsdale said. “And it depends on the law enforcement on scene and what they think they might need.”
One of the keys to finding a person is narrowing down the search area. One important way of doing this is knowing about the behavior of the lost person. Law enforcement will usually try and contact family and friends to get a history. Have they done this before? Do they have any health conditions? Do they like to walk? Do they tend to leave the trail or road, or stay on it?
“And based on that, you kind of start to build a mental model of what this person is like,” VanArsdale said. “It sounds a little strange, but if we’re lucky, they have a history…”
A history with a pattern means there’s a good chance they’ll find them quickly at or near where they’ve been found in the past. VanArsdale said people with Alzheimer’s or dementia will often go back to places they previously worked or former homes. But even if they have no history available, there are statistical tools that can be put to use to narrow the search field.
“Lost Person Behavior” by Robert J. Koester contains compiled statistics from search and rescue operations around the country, and using those SAR teams can help predict where a subject is more likely to be found. It includes cross-referencing for weather and terrain conditions, age, mobility, and mental health disorders like Alzheimer’s, autism, dementia, and schizophrenia, and more.
“Really, searching boils down to numbers,” VanArsdale said. “We can guess on motivations and things like that but at the end of the day it’s really a statistics game.”
For instance, if you use math to calculate how far into a trail system someone might have walked or run, you might estimate 6 miles per hour as their speed, and over three or four hours they may have traveled 18 to 24 miles.
“But this says, actually, they should be within eight miles 95% of the time,” VanArsdale said.
So without a more specific history to work from, they start with what has the highest probability of locating the person and move as quickly as safely possible through the scenarios. The book has also been built into a smartphone app with extra step-by-step guides.
When SAR personnel do find someone, they’ll talk or call out to the person to see if they are who they’re searching for and if they’re okay, but they radio for law enforcement to come and pick the person up.
“Most of the time, people seem to be happy that they are found,” VanArsdale said. “I can’t think of an instance where they haven’t been okay with being found.”
He said sometimes the subject of a search doesn’t realize they had been lost, or at least don’t communicate it. Law enforcement conducts manhunts and searches for other potentially dangerous persons without the help of volunteer SAR workers.
Darian Reed is a Michigan Tech student, local bus driver, and has been volunteering with SAR teams for nearly four years now.
He said he’s been a part of more than a dozen searches and likes working on the logistical side of things where the moving parts of people, equipment, and resources create a puzzle.
“You have 50 volunteers,” Reed said. “You need to get them food, you need to get them water, you need to get them bathrooms… I’m focused on that kind of stuff.”
That means that during an active search, he’s often in or near the command center, close to the heart of the operation. He said that the emotions of seeing worried and distraught family members can be stressful and make focusing on important operational tasks difficult. The desire to give comfort to the distressed person, or at least to avoid increasing their discomfort by saying something blunt or inconsiderate, creates an internal tug of war between the SAR work and the emotional distress. Even more conflicting for the volunteers, sometimes a family member may disagree with decisions SAR personnel are making based on their training.
One thing Superior Search and Rescue does to help defray the stress on their volunteers is to keep them working in rotating shifts.
“We don’t want them to be consistently out, getting tired out,” Reed said.
The last thing a SAR operation should end in is with more people being lost or injured, and exhaustion, working in the dark or rain, and other harsh weather increases the likelihood of an incident with a searcher. Exhaustion also increases the chances of a mistake or an emotional outburst.
Nonetheless, during one search this year, Reed spent 56 hours of the 72-hour search in the field. He said that a volunteer like him has to care pretty deeply about what they’re doing to do it at all, but also needs to maintain professionalism to do it effectively.
“And sometimes you can go too far on one side or the other,” Reed said.
And not every search ends without tragedy. While a search is only technically a failure if they don’t recover the subject at all, the obvious goal is to recover them alive. Unfortunately, there is always the chance that won’t happen.
Reed said after one subject was found already deceased, he and his roommate, another volunteer, drove for about twenty minutes in silence on their way home before either of them could begin to talk about it. While law enforcement deals with the scene where the deceased is found, Reed is often dealing with volunteers. He said one experience with a volunteer coordinating food for others still sticks with him.
“She was talking to me about her plan, she said she had staffing for the next three days…” Reed said. “And I was completely zoned out. In one ear out the other.”
Reed had already been informed the search was complete, albeit not happily, and was trying to keep it quiet until law enforcement could make an official announcement. After about two hours, he finally broke down and quietly told the woman the bad news, and the sudden change in her expression still sticks with him, months later. Memories of the family during the search do, too. So do memories of heckling and bad-faith comments from bystanders after the search.
When an incident like this impacts first responders and volunteers in a negative way, there are places in the community they can turn to for support.
“All these incidents really do take a toll,” Reed said. “And I pretend that I’m okay… but you know, there is something to be said about asking for help.”
For those like police, firefighters, nurses, and SAR workers, who might need to confidentially share their experiences among a group, the Critical Incident Stress Management team can come together, and did after that particular event.
“I think it was really helpful for those that were in the command post, which included myself and a few other individuals,” Reed said.
Pastor Bucky Beach from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is one of the coordinators of the CISM team. The team responds to help responder groups that have trauma they may need to work through. It could be a car accident on the street, suicide in a community, shooting at a home, or mortality at the hospital.
“So we might not deal with the immediate family who has a suicide or something like that,” Beach said. “We’ll deal with the people that responded to it and were called out to deal with it.”
The team works with the group following the Mitchell Model.
Confidentiality, mutual trust and respect, and attentiveness are prioritized during the meeting. The group works through the events that happened, the thoughts they’ve had about it, their emotional reactions, and physical signs of distress. Then they learn about what it will take to move beyond those reactions and symptoms before being sent home with advice both for them and their family and friends.
They’re advised to maintain their regular schedules, spend time with others, and understand that their difficulties are normal. The people around them can help by spending time with them, offering to listen but giving them space, and helping with everyday tasks.
For volunteers or members of the public that don’t have access to a CISM group meeting, or for those not comfortable speaking in a group, public services like Dial Help are available.
Rebecca Crane has been executive director of the organization for 12 years now.
“I just wanted to point out that our crisis line turned 50 years old in August,” she said with a hint of pride.
The crisis line is available 24-hours, 7 days a week. Someone working through any issue, including a difficult search and rescue outcome, can call whenever they’re ready.
“Our crisis specialists are trained to talk people through issues like that, even if someone just needs to talk,” Crane said.
If their needs go beyond a phone conversation, they can be moved into Dial Help’s safety net program which includes some more proactive support from Dial Help’s volunteers like scheduled calls and assistance finding more long-term supports.
“Basically, the person will kind of follow them along until they start getting more of the supports, or the initial crisis or the multitude of crises have subsided a little bit,” Crane said.
Crane said needing an extra source of support doesn’t mean someone is broken or crazy.
“We have callers from all different backgrounds, all different income levels, everything you can think of,” Crane said. “I think sometimes people just need to talk to someone who’s trained, who might be like, not a member of their family for some reason.”