On posting rewards

For the past month or so most SAR people in Canada have probably taken note of a missing Canadian man in the mount Kosciuszko region of AustraliaPrabhdeep Srawn. He went for a hike in the area on May 13 and has not been heard from since.

His family have been very vocal about continuing the search effort, but like a lot of cases here in British Columbia, after about 10 days of searching with no evidence, most organized professional SAR groups tend to scale back the effort in order to reduce risk for the possibility of decreasing returns.

As I’ve written before, and based on my own experiences being part of several searches of this magnitude, calling off the search is one of the hardest things a SAR group has to do, and in most cases it is not taken lightly.

The other factor, which this blog exists to talk about, is that searching is not easy despite what many people may think. It’s simple for someone to believe that putting a group of people into the bush to look for someone is just the same as those people going for a hike anyway. This is not the case.

The lost person is not on a trail, and neither are they in a clearing or in a clearly visible location; if they were then they would have been found. This was the case for the search for David Koch on Grouse Mountain in 2005 when he went missing on a very short , 2.9km long trail. Comments on blogs at the time seemed to insist that it was just a matter of getting out there and looking harder.

The lost person clearly came to some grief which either injured, or killed them. In either case, they are considered unresponsive, which means we will not be seeing them waving, building fires, setting off flares or anything else. They are silent, and almost impossible to locate.

In fact, searchers spend 99% of the time off trail, approaching hazards which are likely to have caused the subject’s injury or death. In BC these include steep terrain covered in ice, snow or loose rock, cliffs, gorges, raging streams, lakes and even wild animals. The searchers are exposed to a lot more hazard than a hiker or mountaineer because they are deliberately looking in areas the average person would avoid.

The Reward

I am going to save some effort and write about how members of the public showing up on a search changes things at some future date. For now I want to concentrate on the issue of the reward.

The family of Prabhdeep Srawn have posted a $100,000 reward for his discovery, alive or dead.

I can only shudder to think of the kind of havoc this is creating for the SAR groups who have to respond to the area he was reported lost in.

Most SAR people I have met are highly trained people, selected from a pool of applicants. Do you know one of the things we select them for? The ability to work as part of a team of other, highly trained people. It is only by working as part of team that SAR people maintain standard procedures and training that keeps them, and their fellow rescuers, safe.

You know the other secret about being a SAR person? Most of the first aid and rescue training we do is for ourselves. Sure we do first aid and practice rescue, packaging and transport, but a large portion of our training is designed to keep our own team members safe. The motto, which any SAR person will tell you, is Self, Team, Bystanders, Subject. That’s the priority.

So how is a bunch of hikers motivated by a reward going to perform?

Wrap your mind around this.

In one case, a group of Canadian soldiers who have no knowledge of the terrain, flora or fauna are flying to Australia to help. In the other case, locals from all over the region are converging on what is clearly a hazardous area. There is no central coordination, there is no communications network. There’s no air support. There’s no way to tell what level of skill they have. These are amateurs, some well meaning and others motivated by money.

It’s a worst case scenario of untrained people attempting to do what the experts have deemed to be too difficult.

Regardless of whether this group of people actually find anything, it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

Posting the reward has only done one thing; it has ensured that other families like those of Prabhdeep Srawn are facing the possibility of a lost or deceased loved one.

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9 comments on “On posting rewards
  1. JHaack says:

    Interesting assumpiton on the risk propensity of untrained searches. Are they really that irresponsible? I would suggest that you’re generalizing as they are not part of a formal ‘organized’ and trained search group. IMHO the hikers, motivated by the $100K, would be unlikley to take on signifigant additional risk to their lives as it would be hard to spend if you were dead… Really whats wrong with the reward for finding or providing information to locate a missing person? The RCMP and other international police forces use them all the time for missing persons.

    • It’s not that they take on more risk it’s that they may not even understand the risk they are under. Certainly you’d agree that organized searchers have at the very least a rapid response team to access them and evacuate in case of injury, whereas un-organized one won’t. Even the industrial communications equipment we use is a huge improvement, as is having a safety officer and a manager tracking locations. Any amateur team will have more risk than a professional one, just because of these procedures, not even taking into account training and skills development of individuals.

      Also, people do not behave rationally, so the claim that they would do their best to stay alive to spend the reward is strange, many people do very risky things in the pursuit or fame, notoriety and money and do not make such calculations. We live in a world where people take risks way out of proportion to the rewards offered.

      Finally, RCMP offer rewards for “information leading to the arrest of” or “location of” people, but they do not offer rewards for actual arrests, or actual location of dangerous people. Giving a reward for a citizen’s arrest would be clearly irresponsible (even the US bounty system requires a license). This is a similar situation; the reward it an incentive for the untrained to risk more than they would normally.

    • D.J.M says:

      I agree. I’ve voiced my opinion elsewhere as there seems to be a wave of people assuming that all the private searchers are inexperienced and lack the skill required to be there at all. I can say with certainty that some of the people involved are highly skilled and motivated not by the money at all.

      For the locals who live and breath the area and who have been directly involved in the search, it would be a frustrating assumption. I cannot and will not speak for the Canadian teams (with respect) but know many untrained and unqualified (in terms of SAR) individuals that are very ready and deployable that know the terrain and conditions intimately in the search area.

      The problem now is winter conditions have arrived and made it very difficult and almost a pointless task considering everything is covered in snow up high.

      • I think if you read my article you’ll note that I’m not making any such assumption. I’m well aware that the level of skill of many mountaineers and backcountry travellers is in fact far greater than that of many of the SAR people I know.

        My point is twofold; first that the skills of the “convergent” (un-organized) searchers are not vetted so there is no way to verify their skill level and no central organization that keeps track of certification or training levels. Secondly the things they are skilled in are not the things that SAR members train for; search techniques, communications, and working as a group.

        While you sate that “some of the people are highly skilled and not motivated by money,” all it takes is one or two people who are either not so highly trained, or with suspect motivations, to endanger the rest.

        The thing that SAR people fear the most is someone trying to be a cowboy or a hero. We don’t need heroes. Unlike a Hollywood movie, they are dangerous and we do our best to make sure they never get on our team.

        On a separate track, there is no way that a large group of people of any skill level can operate safer than a large group of searchers with air support, overhead monitoring, rapid insertion teams, a safety officer and a command structure. Since these are the skills and standard operating procedures of a professionally trained SAR team (volunteer or otherwise), the assertion is that untrained searchers will always be less safe and taking on more risk that trained professionals.

        At some point I will write an article about convergent volunteers joining in on a search.

        • D.J.M says:

          Hi Michael,

          Sorry mate, I was agreeing with the sentiment in the first post. I wasn’t inferring you were making the assumptions.

          As someone that has spent almost two decades in the exact search area being discussed, and hearing all sorts of speculation on the types of people involved in private searches, I’m finding most people are way off the mark. Generalising from various media outlets and websites based on hearsay and exaggerated claims of individuals lack of experience is disappointing and quite often incorrect.

          I stress this is in relation to the specific case only. I absolutely have no doubt that there are people involved that may not have the required skillset for the terrain they are entering but again I believe painting all individuals with the same brush is simply ignorant and ill informed.

          There are a handful of local individuals with an incredible depth of knowledge and skill that have been involved in the search that are nothing like the Cowboys you describe and in fact work in conjunction with SAR.

          There can be no comparison made between SAR and individual searchers for all the obvious reasons, but drawing conclusions about who is actually on the ground and their ability to be there is becoming a sport for some.

  2. JHaack says:

    One could also view the reward as incentive for the trained as well. No more bake sales…LOL…!!! Do the majority of people behave rationally…? My expereince is that most poeple are quite rationale and usually make good decisions. If irrational behaviour was so prevelant the SAR community would be far busier than it is, no? Humans seem to do OK at a very risky things, like driving. I agree that there are many examples of people behaving irrationally, rational behavior is not newsworthy. I would like to beleive that irrational behaviour in society is the exception, not the rule. It would be interesting to look back and see if the rewards resulted in finds and/or injuries to untrained searchers. For the family, when the official search concludes and nothing is found, they need something to continue to motivate people to help and rewards do this.
    Love the discussion and debates on here… Cheers!

  3. Economists like to build grand theories about people making rational decisions, but the reality is people are not rational, and there is an enormous amount of evidence to back this up.

    As for whether SAR should be busier because of this prevalence of irrational people, I’m not sure if it correlates exactly. Most of those irrational people spend their time playing video games, driving too fast on the highway, and smoking, drinking and eating themselves to death. Luckily most of the people SAR rescue are just either unfortunate or ignorant.

    My comment about irrationality is that it takes a special kind of crazy to think that flying from Canada to Australia to look for what is certainly a deceased person will make any bit of difference. The reward is also irrational since it contains an assumption that he might be alive.

    While I think it is irresponsible and bordering on criminal to offer such a reward, I understand it as the cry of grief and desperation that it is.

  4. Dan Cook says:

    All about risk vs benefit, this is true about all emergency responders. Case in point was the loss of Ms. Sweatman, was the risk to recover a body worth the life of a responder? Of course not. Even though all precautions were taken and the responder was well trained the outcome was the worst possible.

    The members of the public responding on their own may or may not be well trained will probably not have a plan or adequate backup, and in most cases not have good local knowledge. The risk will be greatly increased, even though flooding the area with many people may in fact locate the missing subject it is probably not worth the risk.

    Another interesting point is the building of or the advertising of trails. There have been numerous searches on the fools gold trail and on Burke Mtn. for subjects the were following trails that had been advertised, but were in various stages of incompletion. Many of these people assumed they were out for a pleasant hike and not prepared for a bushwhack, either lacking in skills or equipment or both.

    Although it is understood that a group of hikers can and are expected to do self rescue for their group or even to assist in the rescue of another group they may come across. When it reaches the point where an organized effort is required leave it to the people that have the expertise.

    • Jos Newman says:

      Just want to note that the reward will not be interfering with the SAR groups because, while the official search was on, the family were advised not to offer this to amateurs by the NSW Police, who organise the SAR groups. The police were concerned the lure of a reward would endanger inexperienced people. When the official search was wrapped up and the family offered the reward the police advised stipulating that any amateurs must be experienced, carry personal beacons and not search alone. The Canadian soldiers, who recently arrived to help, have a very postive attitude and are saying they will not return without Prabh. Very admirable, but I fear if they had an idea of the terrain, flora and environment they are entering they would not have been so positive. I hope their enthusiasm does not cause them any injury.

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