The next time you decide to get lost in the Maine woods, let someone know where you plan to do so.
That way, searchers will have a good PLS — Place Last Seen — when they start looking for you.
“We average 485 searches a year” said Lt. Kevin Adam, head of Maine Warden Service Region D in Strong. He also is the coordinator for the Incident Management Team, which oversees many search missions across the state.
According to Adam, searches range from the high profile — such as the recent successful search for 12-year-old Micah Thomas in Dresden — to a missing hunter to an overdue boater to an elderly person who wandered away from home. Many searches end positively; some do not.
Staffed by some 15 members drawn from all over the state, the Incident Management Team gives structure to managing situations that range from searches to natural disasters, Adam said. Assigned to different sections — logistics, planning, operations, etc. — team members coordinate the activities necessary for resolving incidents that can be very large or very small, he said.
The Incident Management Team handles 15-20 searches a year.
“We direct the resources where to search,” he said. “We’re like the football coach; we call the play, and they (searchers) execute the play.”
Various factors affect when the IMT responds to a missing-person report.
“The local police department could be called if it’s a missing person,” Adam explained. “If the person is clearly in the woods, we [Maine Warden Service] are called right away.”
He may immediately call out a partial or full Incident Management Team for searches involving a missing child or elderly person, or if there’s bad weather that endangers the missing person’s life. The Incident Management Team supports the local wardens and depends on other teams within the Warden Service to assist in the search, Adam said, referring to the canine team, which he oversees.
A search can involve many disciplines, including the IMT, local police, wardens, divers, and dogs and their handlers, he said. Depending on the weather conditions, aircraft, ATVs, boats, and helicopters also may be used.
According to Adam, IMT members utilize a vast database to determine where to search. The starting point is the Place Last Seen, the site where the missing individual was last seen alive.
“We look at the terrain, come up with a plan, segment the terrain, and assign search teams,” Adam said. The search teams, which belong to the Maine Association of Search and Rescue, consist of professional volunteers who are certified and trained in search-and-rescue techniques, he said.
Wardens enter the search information on a search team’s GPS. After the team completes a grid search, they download the data into their mapping software. Incident Management Team members use this data to map the progress of a search.
A grid search involves 10-12 people, lined up shoulder to shoulder about 5 yards apart to search GPS-defined grids in quarter-mile increments. Searchers run a compass bearing and stay aligned while looking for the missing person or for clues as to which direction that person might have traveled. Such clues include footprints, tobacco products, and abandoned food and clothing items.
If searchers have a good PLS, there’s an increased chance of finding the missing person sooner, Adam said.
“Any time we have a search where we don’t have a good PLS, we aren’t certain as to where we should start looking,” he said.
Today, elderly people are often healthier than in the past and go walking further, Adam noted. Someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia may wander from a normal route.
“At that point, it’s tough to find that turn-out point where the person left a trail or a road,” Adam said.
The use of cell phones also helps in finding many people who suddenly realize they are lost, he said. A cell phone provider can conduct a Phase 2 hit to place the location of a caller close to where that person is standing.
The following are steps that outdoor enthusiasts can take to help searchers:
• Let a friend or relative know where you are going, what you plan to do, and when you plan to return.
“Have a plan and stick to it, even if you’re fishing,” Adam said. “Call if you change your plans. Make sure someone knows where you’re going to be.”
• Be prepared for the unexpected. “Carry some light food, a space blanket, matches,” he said.
• Don’t overdo it. “Don’t [try to] do more than what you can physically do,” Adam said.
• Think safety. Adam noted that hikers shouldn’t take shortcuts.
• “Wear a life jacket when you’re in a boat,” he said. “It only takes a second, a rough wave hitting the boat, and someone is tossed overboard. A life jacket will keep you afloat.”
• Carry a whistle. “It’s a great sound attractant. You can hear it a long ways,” Adam said.
• “If you think you’re lost, find as open a space as you can, build a shelter, and stay put,” he stressed. “We will come looking for you. Make our work easier by staying in one place.”
• If lost, call 9-1-1. “People don’t. They call a family member first,” Adam said. “If you don’t know where you are, call 9-1-1. It may require only a warden with your [cell phone-provided] GPS coordinates to walk in and find you.”