Search and Rescue (SAR) operations are very organized endeavors, and are executed with many moving parts, thereby requiring a constant shifting of priorities of work and focus. Survival for an isolated SAR team member should be thought of in much the same way. In the last installation of this series, resilience and the psychology of survival were discussed. Without a survival mentality and the heart to endure the rigors of a survival situation, no amount of training, equipment, or preparation will allow a person to survive. However, if a survival mentality is something that has been developed and honed by the isolated SAR team member, the skill of triage can be applied to a survival situation to good effect. Wilderness survival is all about continuously prioritizing activities and balancing cost and benefit of action versus inaction. In this installation, the fundamental priorities of wilderness survival will be discussed. There are many self-proclaimed survival experts that argue one method over another, this set of steps rather than this other, and so on. The fact is that no two survival situations are exactly alike, so rapid and effective analysis of needs and adaptation is key. In general, the priorities of survival are to first accept the circumstances of isolation to enable appropriate action, survive the isolating event and signal for emergency assistance. Then one must find or create shelter, acquire and prepare water for consumption, and finally consider fire making and food acquisition options. In short, the process can be simplified to “Don’t die. Signal your emergency, then find shelter, water, fire, and food.”
Recognition of a survival situation may not be as easy as some might think. If two SAR team members are hiking in an isolated area with limited communications effectiveness, a simple sprained ankle may be life threatening. Thus, it is important to recognize and accept the survival situation early so as to decrease inappropriate action, and enable effective decision making. For example, if a SAR team member with a sprained ankle tries to hobble back to a trailhead rather than bivy down for the night and wait for assistance, the situation could worsen with aggravation of injury and lack of preparation for an overnight stay in the backcountry. In general, SAR teams should be trained on how to act when plans are disrupted by injury, illness, getting lost, or simple lack of communications with command. Establishing emergency action plans (EAP) or standard operating procedures (SOP), rally points for injured, and communications check-in windows help to standardize response to the unexpected. This enables the SAR team to better anticipate the actions and decision making of the isolated team member, while also increasing the isolated team member’s confidence in being found. Overall, this reduces wasteful efforts and increases the effectiveness and deliberateness of rescue operations, resulting in overall better outcomes.