Missing in Idaho – A lost hiker training scenario

Story by Master Sgt. Becky Vanshur
124th Fighter Wing

CASCADE, Idaho – Imagine there is a missing hiker in the snow-covered mountains. The Idaho Air National Guard’s 124th Air Support Operations Squadron is called for assistance with local northern Idaho search and rescue teams. This is the second year of this specific training with state authorities for possible rescue missions involving the IDANG here on March 7-9, 2019.

Friday, March 7 at 11:32 a.m.

The call comes in. Idaho Emergency Dispatchers notify the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, the single agency responsible for coordinating federal search and rescue activities, with a request deemed necessary for military assistance. A missing hiker is reported to possibly be lost in the mountains near Horse Thief Reservoir. The hiker was due home by 11:00 p.m. that previous night and all communication was lost as of 8:00 p.m., Thursday evening, three hours earlier. The incident was reported the following morning.

Time is of the essence.

It is just minutes past noon. The Airmen from the 124th ASOS’s Tactical Air Control Party have gathered their response team and their equipment. A convoy of their vehicles leave the gates of Gowen Field to begin the two hour drive north to assist with the search mission.

2:00 p.m.

With the weather calm and clear, a surveillance search and rescue aircraft has been called and is circling the area with specialized thermal imaging systems, equipped with GPS and laser rangefinder to enable precise geolocation.

A large parking lot near Horse Thief Reservoir quickly becomes the search and rescue incident response center. The Idaho TACPs have set up their communications vehicle with an elevated antenna mast for air-to-ground and ground-to-ground radio communications. A TACP makes contact with the aircraft. “The missing person is a 48-year-old male wearing a gray sweatshirt. Last known whereabouts were hiking in the hills south of Horse Thief Reservoir roughly 18 hours ago.”

The Valley County Search and Rescue’s team leader describes the area he wants searched. The air controller wastes no time translating to the aircraft. “Condor, this is Vandal. At grid November-Kilo-271356 you should see a hilltop, with a 30 meter clearing, no trees. From this hilltop, perform a circular search pattern in a 500-meter radius, working outward.”

The aircraft is equipped with a specialized system, Remotely Operated Video Enhancer Receiver (ROVER), which transmits the digital video feed down to the TACP’s tablet. The aircraft will switch between a television camera picture and thermal infrared radiation picture, which detects longer wavelengths of thermal energy invisible to the human eye. Condor’s search is on, while the ground teams watch the video and further direct the camera.

3:07 p.m.

The ROVER video has found a thermal spot similar to that of a person’s size. The aircraft calls it in. “I have a heat signature under some trees, no movement, possible shape and size of a person.” A precise grid location immediately follows and the radio chatter between ground stations begins.

Already standing by, the initial search team heads out. Two individuals from Valley County Search and Rescue, and two from the 124th ASOS use snowmobiles and tracked all-terrain vehicles to make their way up the mountain. The TACPs utilize GPS receivers with paper and digital maps essential for navigating this mountainous terrain.

3:40 p.m.

Team 2 remains at the Horse Thief Reservoir incident response center, anticipating possible extraction scenarios and preparing appropriate equipment. Communication continues back and forth between the aircraft, the incident response cell and the initial search team. The initial search team is close, but the terrain has required them to proceed on foot down a near-vertical cliff face. Minutes continue to pass, hands clenching tightly to the radios.

3:49 p.m.

The initial search team has located the missing hiker, and team 2 is mobilized over the radio. “Copy. The individual has been found. One male, gray sweatshirt, around 48-years-old and is unresponsive, could have a possible head injury. Requesting team 2 for extraction, bring the hoist stretcher, SKED and ropes systems. Bring medical assistance.” The initial search team is accessing the individual but has requested the additional medic.

Every minute counts.

Team 2 sets out on foot. Valley County Search and Rescue’s search dog is sniffing the ground and air, determined. The snowshoes of two ski patrollers and the team of six TACPs trekking at a very fast pace, hauling the requested equipment and making their way straight to the location of the initial search team. They continue off road, hiking straight up steep terrain, cutting valuable minutes off the clock.

4:00 p.m.

Team 2 arrives, the medic assesses the patient while the TACPs locate a suitable helicopter landing zone. He needs immediate medical assistance at the nearest hospital. The request for a rescue helicopter is made. The two teams, working quickly together to load and strap the patient to a backboard-SKED combination, while others build a pulley system used to haul the patient up a 25-foot cliff face to an open patch of ground suitable for a landing zone. The extra military manpower has saved precious time. The patient is handed off to the rescue snowmobile team, heading toward the landing zone for Life Flight Network assistance.

In this scenario, the local Life Flight helicopter would respond, but if a special extraction hoist is necessary for extreme terrain, the Idaho Army National Guard’s UH-72 Lakota Rescue Helicopter could be called and ready to respond within hours to transport a patient.

4:27 p.m.

With the help of the Idaho Air National Guard’s 124th ASOS, in this training scenario, the lost hiker was successfully found, rescued and a life was saved.

Local civilian search and rescue teams present for this joint training included Valley County Search and Rescue, Cascade Fire Department, McCall Fire Department, Tamarack Ski Patrol and Bogus Basin Ski Patrol.

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