Take Away Lessons from my Experience with the Jerold Williams Search
I’m a bit heartbroken as day five in the search for five year old Jerold Williams comes to a close, his body was recovered just hours ago.
I spent a good part of days three and four looking for him, and headed home as storms again moved into the area and made the already slim chances of finding the five year old alive, even slimmer. As I was out alone in the dense forest searching for this child, I gave a lot of thought to what could have been done better in his search (and what I would do if this were my child). I think the number one take home point was mobilize as many volunteers as quickly as possible, and do not let anyone under 16 be alone anywhere in the deep woods–always use a buddy system. Nine year old David Gonzales who went missing in Big Bear California was a grisly reminder to how predators can silently steal away a child without any sound, less than 50 yards from watching parents. (His remains were finally discovered almost a year later, less than a mile from where he went missing in an assumed mountain lion predation). Twelve year old Garrett Bardsley who went missing the same summer in the Uinta Mountains, likewise teaches us that not even older boys are immune from getting lost and never being found in cold, wet weather.
A few of the mistakes I consider in retrospect.
Because of legal and bureaucratic considerations, as well as worries that volunteer efforts would interfere with dog searches and air support, volunteers were not called for, and actually turned away in the early stages of this search. Because it rained the evening this boy went missing– this was a huge mistake. All scents were destroyed and air support was stifled by inclement weather. Thick forest cover also made air support & thermal imaging useless in many areas. Volunteer and search mobilization was very slow, and because of the rain, may have been the difference between life and death in this event.
Hundreds of volunteers came from the boys Colorado City community by late day two & three, but nearly all of them congregated at the base camp. It became muddy, overly congested and may have made things more difficult for search agencies. No perimeter camps were set up, and very few ventured more than a mile away from the congested base camp. Really, no-one camped away from base camp.
It was easy to be overly optimistic in the first day or two of the search. Because of an optimistic feeling that he would be found, I believe searching was not as thorough, and volunteers were not properly dispersed or valued.
I saw no visible central command tent. Because of this it was hard to tell who was in charge, or where to get the most up to date and reliable information. There was also no real central media outlet for updates, and no human connection to inspire volunteerism outside of the Colorado City community. Because of this only 200-400 searchers participated, when 2,000-3,000 would have been far more effective.
Suggestions for possible future searches.
-Seek help as soon as possible. But don’t let search agencies completely take over the search. They have legal considerations (especially with liability for searcher they call/control) and bureaucratic considerations which dictate their actions (especially in calling for volunteers and setting up dispersed camps). Go to the media and call for volunteers, and lead the effort which coordinates volunteer efforts with the efforts of the search agencies involved. Law enforcement understandingly often dissuades volunteerism because it distracts from their important efforts. A Father, brother or family friend MUST step up and direct/coordinate all volunteer efforts. He needs to set up a command booth and get volunteers directed & dispersed. There needs to be two heads who work side by side; one for law enforcement and search agencies and one for excess volunteers (those above and beyond what search agencies need or are legally willing to be responsible for). If law enforcement insists that volunteers stay out of the initial search perimeter, they should be directed to search just outside of it. Remember Brennan Hawkins of Bountiful who was found after 4 days by one of nearly 3,000 volunteers in the Uintas. (Garrett Bardsley’s disappearance the year before played a big part in inspiring the huge community outreach– mobilized largely by the Garrett Bardsley Foundation). At the same time an uncoordinated free-for-all such as the famous Dennis Martin case, needs to be avoided.
-Search and Rescue will typically set up a 2-5 mile radius parameter. But the volunteer effort should focus on manning the outskirts of the perimeter with volunteer campers by the first night. Search parties tend to all congregate at the base camp (usually the place child was last seen). This creates congestion and complicates the efforts of search agencies. If possible the perimeter should consist of forest roads, cliffs, rivers or fences. Send 20-50 volunteers to set up camp all along this perimeter and remain as long as needed. Noisy generators and lights should be encouraged. Also (if it can be negotiated with S&R), send volunteers strategically into the search area (as soon as possible) to set up small dispersed backpacking camps (with fires at night if permitted by forest service regulations). Have them set up their tents and lay out sleeping bags before doing any searching. These not only will give the child a greater chance of finding searchers, but will also serve to scare off opportunistic predators such as bears and mountain lions. With any luck they might come back from a search to find the missing child in one of their sleeping bags. Be sure each site is manned by 2-4 people, encourage volunteers to always use the buddy system and always leave some people at the camp area while sending others back to base camp for periodic updates.
-I have yet to read an account of a ‘lost in the forest’ Utah child who was found dead or alive by dogs or thermal imaging equipment. These tools may be useful but they should not preclude the use and placement of volunteers within the search area. Do not allow search agencies to restrict volunteer efforts on account of these tools. Family must press law enforcement to allow them to do this (if not the first night then the second or third after dogs have been through the area). If dogs or trackers can’t find him in the first day, don’t place much faith in them. I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I’ve yet to see any solid research showing that search dogs are more than 10% effective, and that thus it’s a fruitful practice to keep volunteers out of the search area for fear they might interfere with the search dogs job.
-Ask for trail runner volunteers the first day. Find very fit teams who can jog the most likely routes from the center point (point of last contact) to the search perimeter. (Make sure they have whistles and bear mace) These runners could also travel between the dispersed camps to carry news.
-The one who goes for help needs to help create Google Map marked with base camp and a designated search perimeter to be given to the media. They should immediately create a webpage or Facebook page with maps, and accurate up-to-date information. (Use a digital map with offline capability like ArcGis?) The mom or close friend should be encouraged to talk to the media quickly and often–as the more human connection you can make with people the more volunteers you will get. Someone also need to make a few hundred copies of the map with search parameters and bring it back to base camp to distribute to volunteers. Some volunteers can be urged by the media to ride ATV’s on trails outside of the search perimeter, in the unlikely event that the child hiked farther away from base camp than anyone suspects. Supply line volunteers can also be asked for to provide food and water to search personnel. An update should be passed two or three times daily from the field search leads to the home media and website contacts. The more information you can get people, the more volunteers you can get—and the more effective they will be. Have someone post links to the search website/facebook page on media article and law enforcement pages.
-Helpful details to get from the family and provide to possible volunteers via the webpage media. What direction did they most likely head (where they playing north, south, east or west of camp previous to going missing). Has the child been taught what to do when getting lost and what is their disposition (are they more likely to stay put or try and find their way out)? How fit is the child (is it common for them to hike several miles or are they more likely to slowly saunter in circles)?
-if no helicopters are available, use drones if possible?
-A printout should be provided for volunteers from the webpage or Facebook page and base camp with some guidelines. It should include 1) Coordinates to base camp and where to go for instruction. 2) A list of oft-overlooked things to bring such as bear spray/mace, whistle or blow horn, flashlight, first-aid kit, compass.
-Once volunteers are mobilized the trick is getting them organized. Search agencies will want two to four large search lines (with 20-30 people each) who will sweep out from the point of last contact and thoroughly comb the designated areas within a mile or two of base camp. But someone needs to organize smaller search groups (3-6 people) who hike the backcountry and do quick sweeps of the more remote regions sweeping in from the parameter camps.
-Speed is of the essence! By day two cold conditions and hypothermia can bring loss of consciousness or make lost people do irrational things. Resist the urge to be optimistic to the point where things that could have been done, aren’t done.
-By day three or four volunteers need to be told to look in trees with large branches and under pine bows and other cover where predators are likely to stash or bury their prey.
-It is important for well thought-out checklists of things to do to be created, before an emergency like this. As illustrated in Atul Gawande’s book “The Checklist Manifesto”, professionals such as airplane pilots and surgeons have been found inevitably to make mistakes in high stress situations unless a checklist exists which can help them remember and practice what they already know. Gawande’s research team has taken this idea, and developed a safe surgery checklist, and applied it around the world, with staggering success.
-I need to create a mockup web page, map and hand-out with step by step instructions that could be used as a template for a search situation. This boy may had lived had he been found earlier. With the skyrocketing increase in tourism of Southwestern Utah’s forests this situations may become more prevalent. Perhaps it would be helpful to create a few brochures, training curriculum or even some training videos to pitch to the dept of public safety or the FCAOG (Five County Association of Governments for Southwest Utah), who work to coordinate resources for local sheriff’s offices.
-When possible, equip even young children with survival items in a back-pack, when hiking in the woods. Including a laser pointer or small LED light, a whistle, a thin poncho or garbage bag with a hole cut in it. Teach them the two essentials, stay warm and stay put. Teach them they should only move if it is needed to stay warm. If they must move to find shelter in order to stay warm (ie. from rain), they need to build arrows to show where they went.
See also What Was I Thinking?! :( Thoughts on Inspiration and Intuition from the ill fated Search for Jerold Williams