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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.

Surviving the isolating event requires the aforementioned recognition of the situation as grave, as well as a comfort in basic wilderness first aid. A simple fall down a hill could result in fractured bones, ruptured ligaments, or maybe even life-threatening bleeding. Without skill and training in how to manage these common backcountry injuries, the likelihood of death is much greater. Thoughtful preparation, awareness of injury prevention tactics, and medical training and experience may make the difference between life and death.

Source: Survival Evasion Resistance Escapte (SERE) Operations

Signaling that an emergency has occurred, as well as reporting location and condition, is important in a survival situation. All SAR team members should have some means to communicate an emergency to their command structure. Once immediate safety needs are satisfied, signaling becomes the primary priority. Without this, rescue will be delayed or worse, and thus the likelihood of a positive outcome is greatly reduced. Signaling methods in SAR situations will likely be through radio or satellite communications. 

Source: Survival Evasion Resistance Escapte (SERE) Operations

However, all SAR teams should train to a common standard on how to signal an emergency without their telecommunications equipment. This is often called emergency signaling and is frequently accomplished through ground to air signaling (GTAS). There is a body of knowledge on this topic, but basically SAR teams should be trained on means to use signals of great size, with contrast to their background, and to incorporate movement if possible. Large plumes of dark smoke often work well, as well as large, high-visibility flags or designs created within clearnings.

An assessment of inventory, both in terms of equipment and personnel, is an important next step. In order to inform the next action, one must know what tools are available and what the current survival priority is. In other words, if a SAR team member has a tent in their pack, they know they have a solid shelter, which removes shelter building as an immediate priority. Hopefully, the equipment available is all selected intelligently for the possibility of isolation, and has been used before in training.

Source: Aerie Backcountry Medicine

This will increase the utility of those tools, and the confidence of the isolated SAR team member. Specific equipment lists will be unique to the operational area as well as the training and experience level of the individual SAR team member. However, all SAR team packs should include - as a minimum - some basic elements for first aid, shelter building, water purification, fire creation, and food. The benefit of some of these basic tools is their utility in many situations apart from survival. 

Other than the isolating event causing a life-threatening injury, the most likely thing to cause rapid deterioration and death is prolonged and unprotected exposure to the elements. Even if rescue is expected in hours rather than days, weather extremes can kill quickly. Thus, environment & situation specific shelter building is the next priority. In order to generalize the important aspects of shelter building it is important to know the methods of body heat loss to the environment. These include conduction, convection, radiation, and evaporation. In the picture above, a group of students created a shelter that was protected from wind, was insulated on the ground and within the shelter by dried grass and leaves, and shed rain to keep the occupants dry. Therefore, after only a brief lecture on the topic, these students created a shelter that protected from all means of heat loss in less than 60 minutes, without the aid of any survival equipment. 

As my golden retriever is demonstrating, hydration is imperative for survival. During SAR operations, search teams can consume enormous amounts of water due to the rigors of searching in rough terrain. As a result, dehydration is common. If an already dehydrated SAR team member becomes isolated, water procurement and purification is vital. All SAR teams should train on various ways to find water within or draw water out of their environments. Furthermore, all teams should have multiple means of purifying water for drinking via addition of chlorine or iodine tablets, boiling, filtration, or with a UV light pen.

The “rule of threes” states that a person will die without air in 3 minutes, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food, etc. These time frames are variable of course, but are useful in that they help with prioritization, which is a critical survival skill. In the next installation of this series, we will tackle fire creation, food acquisition, and the debate over when to stay at the point of isolation or when to effect self-rescue. 

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