Fred in the Forest

In the parallel universe of mountain search and rescue (SAR), some stuff grosses everyone out. An upcoming MG story, for example, describes a state police dive team that often has to search for drowning victims via tactile means, SAR Braille if you will. In fact, almost anyone who heads out on a SAR mission can end up as a PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) victim him or herself. But the SAR community is just beginning to recognize the need for counseling by responders to wilderness incidents involving fatalities.

Outside magazine writer Hampton Sides, in a 2010 NPR interview, commented that “It’s only recently become apparent that PTSD is rampant among the community of first responders. I think the last community that has come to recognize this has been these mountain communities. These people essentially get to do what they love to do, and yet they come across this trauma. They see these horrible things — often people they know.”

Some extremes go WAY over my personal redline. At a K9 Human Remains Detection (HRD) training a couple of years ago, the state medical investigator’s office simulated a light plane crash for us on the top of a wooded ridge. The fine spray of body parts, we learned, often rises increasingly higher into the trees as the slope drops downhill. Holy shit!!!

We hear similar gory stories of fallen climbers, of rockslide victims, of mountain adventurers who return home in body bags that weigh less that 20-pounds. But, “It is,” as some mountain town deep thinker once said, “what it is.”

SAR volunteers often refer to death with euphemisms — often irreverent, smart-ass ones. First responders of all kinds probably do this — a kind of preemptive defense mechanism against the emotional trauma of dealing with death. CTD, to some grizzled SAR cognoscenti, is recognized as “Circling the Drain.” ART means “Arriving at Room Temperature.”

You’ll never overhear these on a team radio during a search. In New Mexico, every team leaving Incident Base knows the “death code” — a term to be used in radio coms to describe a search subject who is deceased when found. Often it’s something like “Red Bandana” or “Black Bear” or “Cowboy Boot.” If no phrase is assigned, searchers are taught to use a standard military code term, “Alpha Delta.”

The deception, presumably initiated to disguise the message from media, the subject’s family members or others who might be monitoring radio traffic, seems pretty thin. Still, it may avert unwelcome inquiries at a time that is, at best, fraught with big questions.

When a dead person is found in the wilderness, the mission changes immediately from one of rescue to one of recovery. When the death code call comes in from the field, the remains become property of the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI). The rescuer’s role changes to one of security guard, because every wilderness cadaver find is designated as a crime scene.

The urgencies of time, first aid and evacuation give way to sometimes hours of waiting while “preserving” the scene (mostly meaning keeping everyone away) until a medical investigator arrives. At the time of the “find,” little additional information is usually available, even if Incident Commanders wanted to talk to observers. Which they most assuredly do not, unless you’re a searcher with new information.

On searches, the only term I ever use for human remains is “Fred.” When I send my border collie out with a command to “Suche (German for “search”) Fred,” he knows we’re not looking for a grateful subject who’s gonna’ shower him with hugs and praise. Some of my SAR team’s K9 handlers use commands like “Ciao,” “Adios,” “Search Sam” or similar. It doesn’t matter what term is used — “Find us some disarticulated body parts, please,” would work, as long as the handler and K9 both know what it means. With observers often present, the euphemisms probably work better than saying, “Find the croaker!”

The code words hopefully shield non-searchers from traumatic and disagreeable facts around wilderness fatalities. The dark humor of euphemisms used in private probably serves to insulate SAR responders from their more intimate experiences with those same facts. Maybe a little mock bravado expressed through the jokes helps buffer searchers’ emotional distance from the nightmarish possibilities that might be as close as the next bend of the trail.

In sporadic bouts of what I would like to think is insouciant irreverence, I joke about it. I threatened to name our search team’s 14-foot jon boat the USS Fredette. I entered Mountain Gazette’s bumpersticker contest last year with this: “My search dog can find your honor student when he’s Fred in the Forest.” The editor probably didn’t think it was very funny. Come to think of it, Freddy, neither do I.

SAY IT GENTLY

  • Bought a Yugo
  • Decay Buffet
  • Just Add Maggots (JAM)
  • Horizontal Hilton
  • Kicked the Oxygen Habit
  • Korked It
  • Left the Building
  • Living Impaired
  • Maggot Munchkin Land
  • Marble Ranch
  • Moved Into Upper Management
  • Needin’ a Nap
  • People Landfill
  • Reformatted by God (RBG)
  • Roadkill
  • Sleepin’ Single
  • Takin’ a Dirt Nap
  • Total Relaxation
  • Was Beamed Up