PROBLEMATIC BEHAVIOR OR ACTIVITY
It became evident in recent years that the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) Patrol Unit’s response to service calls in the Columbia River Gorge and other wilderness locations was lacking. MCSO has had several law enforcement–related calls in recreational areas where the response of our normal Search & Rescue (SAR) resources should not be called upon as a primary responder (though perhaps to assist with some calls). Incidents have included people who are suicidal, particularly in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, and escapees or other suspects who enter wilderness areas and present a potential threat to the recreational community. (A number of suspects with felony warrants run from deputies into wilderness areas and SAR volunteers have encountered wanted subjects, as well as marijuana grows.).
This program was also created in response to an assessment of searches for lost persons in the gorge. This assessment established that MCSO spends between $70,000 and $100,000 per year managing the SAR program. What’s more, the response times to citizens missing or lost in wilderness areas can be significant. Volunteer search and rescue teams can require two to three hours in preparation, which includes acquiring gear and traveling to search locations.
IMPACT ON THE COMMUNITY
For missing or lost persons in wilderness areas, time without shelter, food, and water jeopardizes their survival and may result in serious physical injury. Finding these subjects swiftly, especially before the onset of darkness, greatly increases survival. The ability to respond to emergency law-enforcement incidents in wilderness areas provides safety of life and property and enhances feelings of safety for citizens.
The Green Hornet Wilderness Law Enforcement Services are a search team that can be deployed quickly in order to enhance law enforcement’s ability to detect and apprehend suspects and missing persons in wilderness areas or locations where there is no road access. Members are selected based on an initial letter of interest, interview and assessment of qualifications relative to aerobic athleticism, experience in the outdoors, and the ability to complete a 10-kilometer trail run in a specific time.
Once a call is received, team members are immediately dispatched by an on-duty patrol sergeant or SAR coordinator. Hornet members may immediately respond to an incident once hearing a call on the radio. The protocol establishes a communications plan whereby at least two Hornet team members respond to a search location after being briefed by a sergeant or SAR coordinator. The Hornet team gathers as much information as possible to relay to the SAR coordinator before beginning a search. The SAR coordinator then approves an initial search and communications plan, which involves Hornet team members having a direct point of contact at the trailhead, using VHF and/or 800mhz radios. The team provides its point of contact with periodic updates on locations, conditions, and other information that is later relayed to the SAR coordinator. Hornet team members continue searching until normal MCSO SAR Unit resources arrive and begin their deployment in the field. In most situations, Hornet team members return to the command post at this time unless directed otherwise by the SAR coordinator.
BASED ON RESEARCH
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved an annual operating budget of approximately $20,000. This amount provides funding for an eight-member team’s gear, response to incident callouts, and trainings every other month.
The Green Hornet Wilderness Law Enforcement Services and Search and Rescue Team responds to approximately 25-30 incidents per year and locates missing persons in more than 90 percent of all callouts. This search team reduces cost by quickly finding missing or lost subjects in wilderness areas before darkness (when searches slow and the ability to locate missing persons becomes restrictive due to hazards presented in dark, remote, and rugged locations). When this team locates a missing person before darkness, the agency saves approximately $2,000 in personnel costs (overtime for SAR coordinators) and $500 in materials/supplies, depending upon the scope of the operation. Roughly 12 responses to incidents per year succeed in locating a missing person(s) before dark, averting $30,000 in costs.
CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS
This program requires law enforcement members who are in excellent physical condition. The Hornet team members practice an outdoor lifestyle and many are active hikers. The team has one member who was a collegiate 10-kilometer runner, one who has run multiple marathons, and one who has run multiple marathons and trail ultra-marathons. The team was provided state-certified search and rescue training from the MCSO Search & Rescue lead trainers.
The team’s success depends on members who are in excellent physical condition and are committed to maintaining a healthy, physically fit lifestyle during their service. It is important to establish program buy-in from volunteer Search & Rescue resources and from local fire/medical first responders. Training is needed at least every other month to stay fresh on map/compass/GPS navigation and medical skills, as well as trail familiarity. A training and equipment budget is necessary and it is recommended that members be required to run at least a 10-kilometer trail run in a designated amount of time. The work involves a team dynamic and some risk of injury due to working in inclement weather and potentially hazardous wilderness areas. The team should share a text notification program to coordinate responses and update information relative to searches, availability of responding members, and other important information.