We see stories of lost people in the news from time to time: potentially injured hikers disappearing from the trail, lost hunters, frightening cases of missing people who may be the victims of crimes, or the very old and the very young wandering away from home.
We also read about the efforts to locate those folks, and we might ask, “Who is searching? Should I go out and help?”
When local authorities get the call that somebody is missing, they contact the game wardens, and the effort expands from there. Former Chief Warden Pilot Roger Wolverton, who has flown hundreds of search missions for that agency, explains that, “By law, the Maine Warden Service is responsible for all ground searches in the state of Maine.”
Game wardens are the first searchers; if necessary they will request additional assistance such as dog handlers, aircraft, or volunteer search and rescue groups.
The warden service decides how and where to conduct the search. They compile and analyze data and information brought in by searchers to refine the process. Maine’s game wardens respond to far more “missing persons” calls than we hear in the news because sometimes they are able to locate the individual quickly.
When the search grows to require more than a few people or a few hours, the wardens set up a command base from which to manage a process that can become very complex and involve specialized assistance. In some cases the Maine State Police, the Marine Patrol, or the U.S. Coast Guard will be the primary agency, but the wardens are Maine’s search and rescue experts.
Yes, you can help — but not right away! The last thing game wardens and experienced searchers need is a bunch of disorganized, unprepared and potentially careless people stomping around in the woods getting lost themselves or accidentally destroying clues to the missing person’s whereabouts.
Search and rescue volunteers are trained in specific procedures for their own safety but also to make efficient and intelligent use of their time and effort when every minute might count. Rarely, the call will go out for help from the general public. Last spring’s search for Nichole Cable of Glenburn was such a case, but, even then, untrained searchers were given very specific instructions by wardens.
Who can be a search and rescue volunteer? Volunteers need not be hawk-eyed, buckskinned frontiersmen, or extreme mountaineers who can sleep in the snow with nothing but a Swiss Army knife and granola bar.
They do need to be individuals fit enough to walk for hours, willing to go out in all sorts of weather, who will follow directions and work together, and who have enough comfort in the woods (or whatever the likely terrain) to be able to look for the missing person or evidence rather than just the next footstep.
According to Jim Bridge, longtime searcher and member of the board of directors of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue, “Only the most basic training is required to become certified.”
Training addresses outdoor safety and search techniques, but searchers also have to think about what they should do if they find somebody or something. How does one best respond to a lost toddler, or a badly injured person, or someone with advanced Alzheimer’s, or evidence of a crime — or worse?
The safety of the searchers, both professionals and volunteers, is of primary importance. Jody Dinsmore of Mid-Coast Search and Rescue recalled her first search: “There was a lost gentleman up on Katahdin. It was gorgeous but not exactly easy walking.”
Dinsmore is an emergency medical technician, and she described being called to assist one of the other searchers who had injured her knee during the search and could no longer walk. The injured volunteer was eventually airlifted off the mountain, and the missing hiker was located.
If you are interested in finding out more about becoming a search and rescue volunteer, the Maine Association for Search and Rescue website — http://emainehosting.com/masar — lists the volunteer groups in Maine. Search volunteer Brian Mayhew finds the well-known lines by poet Robert Frost an apt analogy: “The road less traveled is the one you choose when you join a search and rescue team.”
Eva Murray of Matinicus is a member of Midcoast Search and Rescue. She is also an emergency medical technician and wilderness first responder.