Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in National Parks
On average, 11 search and rescue (SAR) efforts are conducted in National Park Service (NPS) units every day, and young male hikers, age 20-29 years, are most likely to require those SAR efforts. Errors in judgment, fatigue and physical conditions, and insufficient equipment, clothing, and experience are the most common contributing factors.
In 2005, half of those NPS incidents occurred in just five NPS units, according to “Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in U.S. National Parks,” a study of search and rescue efforts in all National Park Service units from 1992 to 2007, and published in the September 2009 issue of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine (Volume 20, Number 3).
The objective of the authors, Travis W. Heggie, PhD, and Michael E. Amundson, BS, was to identify search and rescue trends in U.S. National Park Service units. The authors retrospectively reviewed the U.S. National Park Service Annual Search and Rescue Reports from 1992 to 2007 and the SAR statistics for all NPS units in 2005.
Some of the findings and results, from the study's Abstract:
- From 1992 to 2007 there were 78,488 individuals involved in 65,439 SAR incidents. These incidents ended with 2,659 fatalities, 24,288 ill or injured individuals, and 13,212 saves.
- On average there were 11.2 SAR incidents each day at an average cost of $895 per operation. Total SAR costs from 1992 to 2007 were $58,572,164.
- In 2005, 50 percent of the 2,430 SAR operations occurred in just five NPS units. Grand Canyon National Park (307) and Gateway National Recreation Area (293) reported the most SAR operations, followed by Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
- Yosemite National Park accounted for 25 percent of the total NPS SAR costs ($1.2 million).
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve ($29,310) and Denali National Park and Preserve ($18,345) had the highest average SAR costs.
- Hiking (48%) and boating (21%) were the most common activities requiring SAR assistance.
- Hiking (22.8%), suicides (12.1%), swimming (10.1%), and boating (10.1%) activities were the most common activities resulting in fatalities.
Study Conclusions: Without the presence of NPS personnel responding to SAR incidents, 1 in 5 (20%) of those requesting SAR assistance would be a fatality. Future research and the development of any prevention efforts should focus on the 5 NPS units where 50 percent of all SAR incidents are occurring.
In a related study by Heggie, “Search and rescue trends associated with recreational travel in US national parks,” NPS SAR reports for the years 2003 to 2006 were reviewed. Findings include:
- Almost half (40%) of the operations occurred on Saturday and Sunday, and visitors aged 20 to 29 years were involved in 23 percent of the incidents.
- Males accounted for 66.3 percent of the visitors requiring SAR assistance.
- Day hiking, motorized boating, swimming, overnight hiking, and non-motorized boating were the participant activities resulting in the most SAR operations.
- The vast majority of visitors requiring SAR assistance were located within a 24-hour period, and the most common rescue environments were mountain areas between 1,524 and 4,572 m, lakes, rivers, oceans, and coastal areas.
- An error in judgment, fatigue and physical conditions, and insufficient equipment, clothing, and experience were the most common contributing factors.
Study Conclusions: SAR incidents can be expensive and end with severe health consequences. NPS management should develop education and preventive efforts focused on hikers, boaters, and swimmers who are males and aged 20 to 29 years, addressing issues of adequate judgment, preparation, and experience.
(The full text of “Dead Men Walking” is available online to Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal subscribers.)