Search and Rescue Primer

The death of James Kim, whose body was found Wednesday in the snowy Oregon mountains, four days after he left his stranded family in their car to go for help, was a tragic ending to a story that gripped many.

It has touched everyone involved, not just Kim's family and friends, but even the rescue workers who faced a monumental and, in the end, futile battle against time and the elements.

Imagine looking for a missing person. Your search area is several thousand acres in size and your clues are likely as small as a twig or a gum wrapper. The temperatures are subfreezing and time is definitely not on your side. Those were the conditions faced by officials looking for the Kim family.

Those are often the conditions search and rescue teams find themselves under -- and yet they persevere. "People are very driven. When the mission is on, they will do whatever they have to do," according to Lt. Todd Bogardus, the New Hampshire search and rescue coordinator.

Kati Kim and her daughters, 4-year-old Penelope and 7-month-old Sabine, were found Monday afternoon after they were stranded for more than a week.

As the public watched the search unfold in the media, there is plenty they did not see, going on behind the scenes.

When the first emergency call comes in, a lot of things happen almost simultaneously, experts say. First, an investigation begins and a team is formed. In search and rescue circles, the search is called a "mission" and the team leader a "manager."

The team begins to gather information and ask questions. Was there a vehicle involved, as there was in the Kim case? Were the people walking? What is their PLS or Point Last Seen? The investigation continues throughout the entire mission.

Randy Servis, president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, likens it to a classic mystery. "You're grabbing what clues you have, linking them together to save individuals or a family … and the clock is ticking."

Servis said psychology also comes into play. "We profile the people who are lost. Are they quitters? Are they fighters? What are they likely to do -- walk or stay put?" The manager assigns the search an urgency number on a scale from 7 to 21, with 7 being the most urgent.

In this case, Kim chose to walk, with ultimately tragic results. Although officials were quick to point out that the tracks Kim left in the snow when he left his car, helped point rescuers to his family, saving their lives.

In most rescue missions, as more information comes in in the first few hours, a command post is set up. A decision is made about what kind of resources to deploy immediately. The range of options is staggering.

"We can draw on aircraft, helicopters, canine units, mounted horse units, line searching teams and more," said Bogardus. And there are more than nine local, state and federal agencies that can also aid in a search -- from the state police to the Army National Guard.

There are also professional volunteer teams and specialized units like a high alpine unit to aid in mountain rescues. Typically, manpower can be up and running in under an hour. The Kim family even pitched in hiring a helicopter to help in the search.

But it's where those resources are deployed that can be just as critical to a search.

Managers often draw on math and probability theory to determine where to start looking. For instance, according to Servis, a helicopter looking for an individual in the desert has a 10 percent chance of finding the person in one pass. A search dog looking for someone in the forest might have a 60 percent chance of success.

All those factors come into play -- and quickly -- before the teams are deployed. "I've drawn on specialists in math, computers, psychologists, you name it," said Servis.

Technology is also key. GPS, night-vision technology and satellites are all part of a search-and-rescue team's modern arsenal. "Infrared is a godsend when you're dealing with clear country and cold temperatures … and we're also now using radar -- vegetation-penetrating radar -- to find people," according to Servis.

In recent years, rescuers have added a new tool: searching for cell phone signals from missing people. In Kim's case, officials were able to zeroed in on a search area after detecting a tell-tale "ping" from Kim's cell phone.

As the search continues, most teams follow a 12-to-24-hour planning cycle, although the process is fluid. "People need to keep in mind that a search is a constant, evolving event, and management is constantly changing and re-evaluating the scene as they go through the day," said Bogardus.

And one of the things they continually evaluate is whether or not they should suspend the search or keep going. Although, it's not always that clear-cut. "I know of someone who has been missing for eight years; we've suspended the mission but we're still looking for him," said Servis.

There's always the possibility, too, that any mission can have an entirely different conclusion.

"In this business, we call it successful because we find what we're looking for," said Bogardus. "Unfortunately, the end result may not be happy."

Never more true then in the bittersweet story of the Kim family, as technology and perserverance helped rescuers find most, but tragically not all, of the Kim family alive.