In April of 2014, Alpine Rescue Team was notified of a missing father and son in the Mount Evans area.  Various clues, including cell phone forensics reported by the AFRCC, led the mission coordinators to believe they had been attempting to hike Mount Goliath with no snow travel gear or even boots before they were reported missing by their family four days after parking their car at the Echo Lake parking area.  

During the three days after their departure, the area received over 30 inches of snow. Alpine Rescue Team, neighboring SAR teams and dog teams, the Colorado National Guard  and Flight For Life expended nearly 1400 person hours over four days before deciding they needed to suspend the search until snow had melted. At that point, the subjects had been missing for eight days and the mission coordinators  reasoned that all areas in which the subjects were likely to have taken shelter and survived had already been covered.  

Family had flown in from the U.K. and Minnesota and a victim’s advocate had been assigned to them.  When the decision was made to suspend the search and communicated by the advocate to the wife/mother and daughter/twin sister of the subjects, their reaction was gut-wrenching for all within earshot.  

Between April and July, when the bodies were finally found, over 5000 hours of effort had gone into this search including from dog teams, law enforcement, Flight For Life, neighboring SAR teams and the Colorado National Guard.  

Alpine Rescue Team reports managing or being involved in (as a mutual aid team) a total of 37 Colorado backcountry searches since 2009 in which the subjects were found weeks, months or years after a suspension — or in some cases, not found at all. Suspending a search and informing the friends and family is one of the most difficult, distressing things a backcountry search and rescue team has to do.  What can we learn from previous searches about doing it well?

Pat Caulfield, a CSAR state SAR coordinator and board member and a mission coordinator with Fremont Search and Rescue, comments, “There isn’t a set way to suspend a search.  It’s a little different each time, but there are guidelines we can follow.”

Those guidelines begin with ensuring we conduct an extended search in such a way that when the decision to suspend is made, there is no question all efforts have been made.  Some key points:

  • Embrace the community. Ron Corkish, CSAR’s treasurer and president of La Plata County Search and Rescue, advises, “The community wants to help.  You may worry, and rightfully so, about ending up with an incident within an incident, but keeping the community engaged is important.  In a recent search for a missing ultrarunner in our county we recruited members of the Durango Running Club as searchers and created an interview process to make sure they were qualified for the terrain and fully informed of the risks.”
  • Consider whether posting search coverage maps publicly might be a good idea.  For example, during the recent La Plata search missing person flyers and search maps were posted at the trailheads in La Plata Canyon so hunters in the area might keep an eye out.
  • Always reach out to the city/county/state to ask what resources might be available to help. There may be resources you hadn’t even considered asking about.
  • Always ask, at the end of every day, “What’s next?”  But balance that question with respect for team members and look for signs of stress and exhaustion.
  • CSAR state SAR coordinator and Summit County Rescue Group team leader John Reller comments, “Listen to and consider ideas from all the resources you have at your disposal, including search team members, other search coordinators, family and friends of the subject, and outside parties that are not as emotionally involved as you are.  It may be challenging for your ego to reach out to external parties and ask them what you might be missing, but it’s important; they may have fresh ideas when you are starting to feel exhausted.”
  • Activate a PIO(s), whether team, county or SO, early in the process and keep them informed.  You may find the media to be an annoying distraction or intrusion, but reporters are going to go after what they need to report on a story, with or without you.  A good PIO can keep them out of your way, help control the message, enlist public assistance with information, discourage freelance searchers, help build a public case for county/state/military resource requests, help maintain public trust in the search effort, and monitor media reports and social media for useful intel or misinformation that needs to be corrected.  If you don’t have a PIO available, or your PIO becomes overwhelmed, CSAR has a team of PIOs that can help.
  • Make sure all searchers know where media inquiries should be directed.  Make policies regarding media and social media usage clear.

When is it time to suspend a search?
Making that initial decision to announce a suspension can be agonizing for the personnel involved.  Some keys points to consider:

  • First, it is generally going to be the county sheriff’s decision to suspend a search.  Most county sheriffs will make the decision based on the recommendation of the mission coordinator, however.  When the SO starts saying things like, “What more do you think we can do?” or “Where do we go next?” it may be an indication that it’s time to make the recommendation.
  • Mission coordinators should never feel they have to make the recommendation/decision alone.  They should be reaching out to other mission coordinators within the team, on other neighboring SAR teams, and with CSAR.  
  • A good mission coordinator will cue in to signals from the team that they are starting to burn out on this search.  These signals might include low response on a particular search day, signs of general exhaustion or frustration, and members beginning to question search assignments or complain about factors beyond the team’s control, like weather and rough terrain.  The chance of injuries and accidents will start to increase along with the potential for burnout.
  • Another indicator that it may be time is that you have begun to search areas already covered.  Ask yourself the question, have I done all I can with the resources available to me?

How do we deal with the family?
Informing the friends and family of a suspension is obviously the most emotionally difficult part of the job.  Doing it well starts with what you do long before the suspension decision is made.  Here are some guidelines:

  • Involve the friends and family as early in the process as you can.  Include them in briefings if appropriate or deliver daily briefings separately if the team briefings are too sensitive.  Make sure they are fully aware of all steps being taken, the extent of resources applied to the search, and hindering factors such as snow, low temperatures, technical terrain and avalanche danger.  Show them visuals such as search maps to convey the level of effort and bring person hours statistics to life.  Ask them to contribute intel about the subject that might aid the search. 
  • Jim Donovan, CSAR state SAR coordinator and board member and the San Juan County emergency manager, comments, “Always have a designated family liaison, and try to have other consistent team members present at family briefings.  Familiar faces will help inspire confidence in the team for family members.”
  • Find a non-hazardous job for family members to keep them occupied and feeling useful, such as creating and distributing flyers with photos of the subject.  This may be key to ensuring they don’t “go freelance” and try to find their loved one themselves.  Get creative with this – during the 2022 La Plata search, family members created a feather flag with a QR code that pulled up the search flyer and map, and the subject’s mother served soup to searchers every day.
  • Encourage the family to stay off social media.  Explain that a great deal of misinformation and rumor mongering tends to happen on social media platforms.  Emphasize that family members have access to team briefings that give them a much more in-depth understanding of the search than what they can get from well-meaning but uninformed social media commenters.
  • As the decision point nears, ask the family questions such as, “What more do you believe we should be doing?  Is there something you see that we haven’t done?”
  • Put yourself in family members’ shoes and try to anticipate what else they might ask of the team and other search resources, and what questions they might have.  
  • Woody Woodward, CSAR’s president and a mission coordinator with Alpine Rescue Team, advises, “Tell the family the day before or even two days before you call off the search, not the day of.  They need to hear it from you before they hear it from the media or other unofficial sources, and they need time to digest it.”
  • Do everything you can to ensure that when you finally do break the news of a suspension, it is not a surprise to the family. They should be coming to the conclusion at the same time as you, if you’ve done your job well.  You may need to meet with the family many times to make sure this happens.  
  • Reach out to the county for resources for the family, such as victim’s advocate counselors. 
  • Consider whether there are language or cultural barriers.  Do you need to get a translator for family members, and if so, do they have friends or family that can help?  Do they understand the ruggedness of Colorado mountain terrain, and if not, can you show them visuals?
  • Emphasize that it is just a suspension and not a cancellation of the search.  A good way to word it might be,”Until new evidence presents itself, we’ve exhausted all current options.”  Let them know the decision factors involved in when the team will go back to search again.  Will it be after temperatures warm?  Avalanche danger is low or non-existent?  Snow is completely melted?

After the suspension
Maintaining regular contact with the family after search suspension is key.  At this point, without regular contact with the team, they may succumb to the temptation to read social media rumors, join social media groups, follow false leads and organize freelance searches. It is also important to alert the family that they will likely be approached by various characters (some, but not all, with good intentions) who say they can find their loved one. Some will ask for money, some will seek publicity, and nearly all of them will disparage the efforts of the local SAR team and sheriff.

It may be helpful to share another piece of information about the future that families of missing loved ones will find hard to hear.  Dale Atkins of Alpine Rescue Team comments, “There are those rare situations in which nothing new is learned and years pass. Over time, our memories will fade and even the story of the mission will eventually disappear from a BSAR team’s consciousness. The family of the missing person, however, will live with the hope that one day their loved one will be found. It’s a hope that may never be realized. We cannot take away their pain, but we can prepare them for this possibility.”

Equally important is considering the emotional and psychological impact on the rescue team members.  Does your team have a process for checking in with each other and watching for signs of stress injury?  Do you have a resilience committee or similar structure that can help follow up with team members?

An unresolved search hinders the opportunity to move on and heal, which is the natural progression of grief, and this is not limited to family. Coral Smith, community outreach team leader for La Plata County Search and Rescue says, “Recognizing it as an opportunity to lift each other up with compassion and empathy takes open, honest dialogue and a focus on strengthening team relationships. The road to acceptance will vary but the goal is one and the same – a shared understanding that everything  possible has been done.”