The Anatomy of a Mission

How a Search & Rescue Mission Begins in New Mexico.

Report of a Missing Person

New Mexico Search and Rescue (NMSAR) activities are shaped and regulated by the New Mexico’s Search and Rescue Act of 1978. This New Mexico law states that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) is the “control agency”, for search and rescue (SAR) activities in the State of New Mexico. The New Mexico State Police (NMSP) division of DPS has been tasked with the management and administration of SAR operations.

A SAR mission in New Mexico often begins when family or friends determine that someone is missing or overdue from an outing and have reason to believe that the person is in need of help. They contact the nearest law enforcement agency or call 9-1-1 and report the incident. In doing so, they become the “Reporting Party.” (RP). This may be a family member or friend who reports that a person – known in SAR terminology as “the subject” – is missing. (NMSAR does not typically handle urban missing person incidents). The other source may be contact directly from the subject, through the use of a personal locator beacon (PLB), satellite messenger or by using a cell phone.

Assessment by a Mission Initiator

Once the he 9-1-1 operator determines this is a SAR issue they transfer the call to the New Mexico State Police (NMSP) Dispatch Center. A State Police Officer, trained in assessing potential SAR situations, is then assigned to assess the situation. This officer is known as the “Mission Initiator” (MI). Typically, the MI travels to the scene and interviews the RP. The MI then determines if the available information warrants a SAR mission, or if, instead, the matter is a police investigation instead of a SAR mission.

Initiating a Mission

If the MI determines that the facts of the case call for a SAR mission, he or she will contact either the Field Coordinator (FC) who is on call at that time or the NMSP District Dispatcher, who will make the call to the FC. In either case, the NMSP must assign a mission number before a SAR mission may be undertaken. The mission number – 15-01-01, for example – is read from left to right: the first number is the year, the second is the NMSP district in which the situation has arisen, and the third number refers to the sequence of missions that have occurred in that year and in that district. Thus, our 15-01-01 example would be the first mission that has occurred in NMSP District 1 in 2015. By law, NMSAR teams must have a mission number before they can respond to a SAR incident in New Mexico.

Enter the Incident Command Staff

After a Mission Number is assigned, the Dispatch Center or the MI will call an on-duty Field Coordinator (FC) listed on a duty roster to take charge and run the mission as an Incident Commander (IC). From that point on the IC is in charge of the mission until the subject is found or the IC is relieved by another IC who will be in charge.

Call-Out for Resources

The IC calls individuals to make up the “Command Staff,” which is composed of a Safety Officer, an Information Officer and a Liaison Officer. They report directly to the Incident Commander. A General Staff is assembled which is composed of a Logistics Section Chief (LOGS SC), an Operations Section Chief (OPS SC) and a Planning Section Chief (PLANS SC). The LOGS SC notifies SAR teams to supply the appropriate personnel who deploy to the field searching for the missing subject. An in-town base may be authorized and notifies SAR teams to supply the appropriate personnel who deploy to the field searching for the missing subject.

The IC has several options available to call out resources, including members of the Incident Management Team (IMT), searchers who will cover the search area on foot (known as ground pounders), dog teams, horse teams, etc. The first option is to call an Ordering Manager (ORDM) or a Logistics Section Chief (LOGS SC) and tell that person what type of resources or specific teams the IC wants called out. The IC can also have the ORDM or LOGS SC call the individuals who will make up the IMT as the Command and General Staff. The Command Staff is composed of the Safety Officer, Public Information Officer (PIO), and a Liaison Officer. The General Staff is composed of an Operations Section Chief (OPS SC), a Planning Section Chief (PLANS SC), and a Logistics Section Chief (LOGS SC). The individuals in each of these positions report directly to the IC.

The other option is for the IC to call the resources directly. No matter which option the IC selects, the IC will provide general information about the subject, weather for the next 12-24 hours, where Incident Base (IB) will be set up, and what radio frequencies will be used.

When team resources are requested, the ORDM or LOGS SC will call the individual team’s duty officer. The team’s duty officer will then initiate the team’s call out procedures. (These vary from one team to another.)

From the time the FC/IC receives the mission number and until he or she is relieved by an incoming IC, this phase of a SAR Mission is called the first operational period. Generally during the first operational period, the IC will have a Safety Officer as well as a PLANS SC and an OPS SC. The PLANS SC is responsible for developing the strategy to be implemented by the teams. The PLANS SC studies a map of the area and all of the information about the subject obtained by the MI and the IC from interviewing the RP and anyone else that might have information about the subject. He or she will then determine the most likely search areas and create task assignments for the teams. The OPS SC takes the task assignments and determines the tactics to be used. The OPS SC briefs the teams being deployed into the field about the assigned tasks, and remains responsible for the teams from that point until they are debriefed upon their return to IB.

Setting up an Incident Base (IB)

The Incident Commander travels to the scene, makes contact with the MI and is briefed. The IC then interviews the RP and sets up IB. As resources start to arrive on the scene they must sign in on a check-in sheet. When the OPS and PLANS SCs arrive, the IC will brief them on the information obtained. Among the specialized resources available are communications teams who assume responsibility for all radio traffic during the mission. The Communication Team (COMMS) will maintain a log of radio calls made to and from IB.

A Safety Officer is appointed to monitor safety issues. The Safety Officer will brief the teams being deployed into the field. If a Public Information Officer is available, he or she is responsible for keeping family and friends informed as well as for any communication with the media. The IC works with the PIO and determines what information is available to be released.

The Benefit of the Incident Command System

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a managerial tool that was developed in the 1970s by the federal government in response to the need for an on-the-scene disaster management system, particularly when multiple agencies are involved, and has been applied in many different contexts. For example, response to the Oklahoma City bombing incident was run in accordance with the ICS. Under the authority of the 1978 law, various governors of New Mexico have mandated that all emergencies, such as Haz-Mat spills, prison riots, and SAR missions, are to be handled in accordance with the ICS.

If the incident goes on longer than eight hours, the people arriving to relieve the previous shift will most likely be from out of the area, and many may not have worked with one another before. One of the reasons ICS is effective is that it is designed just for this type of circumstance. As long as all of the responders have been trained in ICS operations, they can work together smoothly, with a common working vocabulary and common operating procedures.

The Ground Pounders

The Santa Fe Search and Rescue Group include members with expertise in a wide variety of SAR-related skills, but is composed primarily of volunteers who search on foot.

The size of a SAR ground pounding team varies, according to the circumstances. Normally, a team consists of at least three people, but may be as large as six or seven. Sometimes a team may consist of only two, but this is rare. The team will have a team leader who will assign various roles, typically including navigation, communications, and medical. Incident Base (IB) will want at least the team leader to be briefed on the assignment. The team leader may want the navigation and communication person present. Many times the entire the team will attend the briefing.

IB personnel, usually the OPS SC, will give the team leader a description of the subject so far as it is known, including, for example, age, height, weight, clothes and equipment being carried, medical condition, and so on. The OPS SC goes over the mission with the team leader, describing where to search, map coordinates (usually, UTMS or Universal Transverse Mercator a map coordinate system), type of search, sound sweeps, Point Last Seen (PLS), and often other details. Further, the OPS SC will tell the team leader what map datum and radio frequency will be used.

Before a team leaves IB, the team leader will ensure that all Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are on the correct map datum. Also before leaving IB, the communication person (COMMS) will do a radio check to make sure that the team’s radios are working properly.

When a subject is found the team’s medical person is usually the first to approach. COMMS will notify IB and give UTM coordinates. After a suitable time for assessment by the team’s medical member, the team leader reports the situation to IB, and the IC decides what to do next. If the subject is able to walk, the team simply walks him or her back to IB. If the subject cannot walk, the IC may call for a helicopter, if the circumstances allow it, to pick the subject up and fly him or her back to IB. In other cases, IB may send a horse team, ATVs or possibly additional ground pounders with a litter. Carrying the subject out on a litter is an arduous, difficult task, and requires somewhere around 25 to 30 people, depending on the terrain and other circumstances.

If after completing their assignment and the team has not found the subject, they return to IB for a debriefing. Depending on time, circumstances and exhaustion a team may be sent back into the field with another assignment.

The Santa Fe Search and Rescue volunteers are well-trained and highly-motivated to find their subject. They have an extremely good track record for successful finds. They go out as a team, work as a team, and come back as a team.

This article was inspired by an article originally written by former Area Commander Beck Atkinson (NMSAR) and updated by Field Coordinator Richard Goldstein (SFSAR) and Team Leader Tom Merchat (SFSAR) in March 2015. Additional information prepared by Gary Cascio.