Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Helping the Lost?

In my last blog I mentioned some spectacular search and rescue operations I've participated in. One reader asked, “why we don't have small transmitters available for everyone that uses the slopes or climbs mountains to wear that could locate these people in a very short time using GPS or something similar. They could be rented at ski lifts and made mandatory for a small charge.” Such devices are available, but I disagree with his suggestion that they be mandatory. The reasons I oppose requiring them go well beyond backcountry rescue into our everyday and political life.

Both the government-sponsored Personal Locater Beacons (PLB) and the privately run SPOT system can help locate lost people, usually quite well. However neither is cheap, a PLB will cost hundreds of dollars. Worse, in use the battery may not last more than a day or two, not long enough to outlast a major winter storm. The SPOT is less expensive but requires a yearly subscription fee, though its battery will last longer and is user replaceable. Neither works unless the user operates it correctly.

Thus the first obstacle to widespread use of these devices is cost. If we require their use in the backcountry, we will be prohibiting anybody not financially well off from enjoying that type of recreation. However there are more serious problems.

First, we cannot legislate good judgment. Attempts to do so inevitably crash on the rocks of reality. The primary cause of backcountry accidents is not lack of equipment, it is errors in judgment. Requiring such devices allows people to mentally transfer responsibility for their safety to the rescue team instead of themselves. People will call for help when they might be able to extricate themselves, and they will take chances they would not take otherwise because they depend on the technology to save them if they get in trouble.

In fact one of the first uses of the PLB demonstrates exactly this phenomenon. A man on a canoe trip got in trouble and activated his PLB. That was probably OK and he was rescued. However some of his equipment was left at the scene so he went back. Then he called for rescue again to get help retrieving his gear.

In outdoor recreation as elsewhere we should encourage people to take responsibility for their own lives. When government mandates the way people climb mountains, many will abdicate responsibility for their own safety. Likewise, when government mandates how we get medical care, people will abdicate responsibility for their own health.

Second, I do not believe in legislating everything. This is supposed to be a free country and people should be allowed freedom of choice. If they do not harm others, let them make the dumb decisions. The cost to taxpayers is trivial since volunteers do most of the work anyway. When we legislate everything we get people who think that if it's not illegal it must be OK. At the extreme we can have things like the two men who picked up a rotary lawn mower to trim a hedge, then sued because there was no specific warning against such stupid actions. Can't we expect people to think for themselves?

Third, the idea that mountaineers are the major problem is false, the result of a form of accessibility bias. Mountain rescues tend to be spectacular and often newsworthy. The high drama of rescuers facing storms, steep terrain etc. attracts viewers and readers to the news. However mountain rescues are a miniscule fraction of search and rescue events. Hikers and similar people cause far more search and rescue missions than do mountaineers. That should be no surprise since there are so many more of them.

In addition, the typical search for a lost hiker is longer and more expensive than a search for a mountaineer. The reason is that a mountain usually has less area than does the forest where a backpacker may get lost, plus many mountains have little vegetation to interfere with searchers. In good weather an air search can often find lost climbers on Mt Hood quickly. Not so if we're looking for someone lost down in the heavily forested terrain at lower altitudes. That often takes teams on foot, beating through the brush.

As in all of life, reducing the cost of search and rescue operations requires that we start with a good understanding of the problem. Blaming mountaineers sets us off on the wrong track. Likewise blaming people like bankers for the current financial problem is misleading. In both cases they are part of the problem but hardly the whole of it. If we base our solution on that misleading information we are unlikely to solve the problem.

Forth, my correspondent seems to think that they could simply rent these devices at ski resorts and such places. However there are many places that are not near such businesses. In addition, maintaining such a rental inventory would be expensive and time-consuming. As with any solution, we need to consider the feasibility and cost. It is easy to propose solutions to any problem. It is more difficult to ascertain that those solutions really solve the problem without creating worse problems elsewhere. That is in fact the problem with many government solutions. They have good intentions but ignore both the side effects and often don't really solve the problem.

While at first glance my correspondent appears to have a good idea, thinking deeper about the subject shows serious problems. This is an example of the problems with what is called stage 1 thinking, looking only at what is apparent initially. Such thinking infects other areas in our lives, especially many of our political decisions. For example, as I write this the president is bound and determined to get a health care reform bill passed. Initially it looks attractive but what happens then? When considering any such decisions we should repeatedly ask ourselves, “what then?” What happens after we take action? What other problems will we create? What will it cost?

Only when we fully consider all of that can we be confident that we have a worthwhile program. Otherwise we risk creating new problems while not solving the one we set out to solve.

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