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Oregon searches point out wide divergence in capabilities


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Associated Press
December 23, 2006

Three high-profile searches in Oregon — climbers stuck in a blizzard on Mount Hood, a family stranded in their car on a remote logging road, and a boy lost on foot in Crater Lake National Park — show that where people get lost has a lot to do with the nature of searches to find them.

But even highly organized searches don't guarantee happy endings.

In each search — one run by county sheriff's departments, one that mixed efforts by city and state police, counties, and the victims' families, and one run by a top National Park Service crisis management team — people died or were never found.

The search effort that has drawn the most scrutiny, for the family of James Kim deep in a national forest near the Oregon coast, has prompted calls for better information management by searchers and coordination among state and county agencies.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said he wants to look at reviews of the recent searches to see where the state can offer help, particularly on funding.

The vast majority of search and rescue missions end successfully, and do not draw public notice. Only when things go awry or people die do people start to question the system.

"It's kind of like a seat belt. It doesn't come into the public's eye until you need it," said John Miller, search and rescue coordinator for Lane County, which conducted 115 of the 996 search and rescue missions in Oregon last year — the most of any county in Oregon.

Few last more than a day, Miller said. "Those are the ones you have the least opportunity to participate in and you probably have the least experience dealing with because they are so infrequent. Consequently, those are the ones with the most potential for loss of life, too."

Miller feels training and funding around the state are inconsistent, and could be improved.

That view is not fully embraced by state search and rescue coordinator Georges Kleinbaum.

"Those of us at the state don't feel there is any lack of competence," Kleinbaum said. "I know we've got three high-profile missions very recently. There are still another 800 or 900 this year alone that weren't high profile."

The state offers advanced training but does not require it for coordinators, who usually have other duties to juggle, Kleinbaum said. His office requires volunteers and coordinators to go through a basic training course, which includes map reading, survival skills and the structure of the incident command system that is now standard for wildfires and emergencies. But the agency does not keep track of what training each county coordinator has, figuring someone with experience but no training is better than no one at all.

The situation varies from state to state in the West, and from county to county within many states.

Throughout the West, county sheriffs traditionally have jurisdiction over search and rescue operations, except in national parks, and the priority each sheriff gives search and rescue funding, training, equipment and personnel ultimately determines how good they are.

In Oregon, state law put sheriffs in charge, and they often delegate the responsibility to a search and rescue coordinator, who may also be a deputy or emergency services director. Many rural counties are strapped financially, looking at cutting sheriff's patrols, closing libraries and reducing road maintenance. Federal timber payments have helped them build up search and rescue equipment, but expired this year, leaving funding in doubt. Search programs are almost exclusively staffed by volunteers.

"The trick is, if you want to get lost in a state that uses a sheriff's coordinator, you want to pick your county to get lost in," said Rick Goodman, the retired head of search and rescue for New Mexico state police and a training consultant. "Some counties are up to the state of the art. Other counties don't have a lot of missions and could use some expertise."

After problems with some searches, New Mexico took authority away from county sheriffs in 1978.

"Everywhere I go, almost, I think, 'Boy if I wanted my kids to get lost, I'd have them do it in New Mexico,' " said Goodman, who helped write the law.

In New Mexico, searches on the scale of the three recent high-profile Oregon cases would have required what is called Type I management, run by an experienced and highly trained team vetted by state police.

A search and rescue advisory board reviews searches, and in cases involving injury or death sends its findings to the attorney general. State police can require coordinators to get more training, or pull their certification.

"Somewhere there needs to be a body that can review these things and make some findings of fact and recommend or mandate that changes are made so you have better coordination, better resources allocation," said Goodman.

In Oregon, state officials can review the conduct of a search, but have no enforcement power if they find negligence or incompetence.

The three recent searches in Oregon are marked by differences.

The most recent one, for three out-of-state climbers lost on Mount Hood, was run by the Hood River County sheriff's department, which conducts 10 to 20 per year on the state's highest peak.

Hood River and neighboring Clackamas County, which cover Mount Hood, have developed a "playbook" based on the many searches, and when they were notified three climbers were missing earlier this month, they went right to the book, said Hood River Sheriff Joe Wampler.

"Between them and us we opened that book, and page by page went down through there. It makes us feel good that all that practice and planning works," said Wampler, himself an experienced climber and licensed pilot.

Wampler's department was able to call on mountain rescue teams from Portland, Eugene and Corvallis, and Army National Guard helicopters. The mountain rescue teams are volunteers. The National Guard does not charge for flight time, writing it off as training.

Despite high levels of training and experience and a good idea where the climbers were, rescuers were kept off the mountain for days by howling storms. They found one climber dead, and have yet to find the other two.

The search for San Francisco online editor James Kim and his family has raised different kinds of questions. A series of articles by The Oregonian suggested officials in Josephine County, where the Kims eventually were found, did not have an efficient means of tracking information, including tips on what road they might have taken, or the point of origin of signals sent by Kim's cell phone.

Ultimately, a local helicopter pilot not connected to the search and acting on a hunch found Kati Kim and her daughters on a remote logging road that was supposed to be locked shut in the winter. It was not. James Kim was found days later, dead of exposure in a stream well away from the logging road.

Josephine County Sheriff Dave Daniel defended the training, experience and performance of his search and rescue team, adding that ultimate responsibility must fall on the Kims, who passed four signs warning snow could block the road ahead.

"My heart goes out to the Kim family and the families of the men up on Mount Hood," Daniel said. "But the truth of the matter is in the past eight years I've been sheriff, we've done 34 search and rescue operations in wintertime up there on Bear Camp Road. In the majority of these cases, they are people that lack common sense. They are driving into snow in passenger vehicles on what is at best a two-lane road and sometimes a one-lane road."

Unlike the hunt for the Kims, conducted by a variety of state and county agencies, the search for 8-year-old Sammy Boelke, who ran away from his father last October in Crater Lake National Park, was coordinated by crisis management experts.

Denny Ziemann, chief ranger at Mojave National Preserve in California, was called in with his incident management team, which had experience from forest fires, searches and Hurricane Katrina. Besides his management team, which includes chiefs of operations, logistics, planning and finance, he called in hundreds of searchers, including elite wildland firefighters known as hotshots, who did intense grid searches.

But they could not find the boy.

"We felt very comfortable with everything we did, the tactics we used, and felt like we were looking in the right places in the right ways," Ziemann said. "Sometimes that just doesn't work."


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