******Not for the Faint of Heart******
This next call I will share with you took place a few years back. The call took about four hours and was about when COVID-19 shut everything down except 911. I’m going to summarize this call in the best possible way.
This was when I worked for a very rural agency. There were a lot of ranches, farms, and land in general. That includes part of a National Forest.
Mind you, I was used to being a city dispatcher, so this was all new to me. I got used to it as time passed, but many calls took me by surprise.
This is one of them.
This call took place in the Spring. I remember it being pretty warm for the springtime in Colorado. However, Colorado is all about weather change. Many say if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, all you have to do is wait five minutes; it will change.
When everyone was locked down for COVID-19, many took on outdoor activities and visited National Parks and Forests. We all know this.
Anyway, I walked into work at about 18:00 (6 pm). It was still 80 degrees outside. It was hot being that late in the day. I sat down, took a few routine calls no big deal, and the next call came in around 20:00 (8 pm).
On the other end of the line was a guy explaining that he was lost and had been lost for about four hours. This was his first time getting cell reception. So, this is how this went.
The first question I ask is, “Do you have an address or cross streets that you are near?”
He said, “No, I’m lost in the forest. I’ve been lost for hours. I was hiking and somehow veered off the trail. I don’t know where I am.”
Next, I tried to get a location on his phone. I looked up at the map on my screen to see his location. I panned out on my map, and it was covered in trees. Just trees. I thought to myself; I don’t know where this guy is. I don’t. On top of that, this guy was bordering jurisdictions. He was on the line between OUR part of the forest and ANOTHER jurisdiction. However, that is beside the point; I took responsibility for the call either way.
I remember in training, we learned about some of the trails in the forest, but not all of them.
The next question I asked was, “Do you remember what trail you were on?”
He did tell me a prevalent trail name (I can’t name it).
I looked back at my map to see his location and eventually found the trail he was supposed to be on. His phone location was showing way west of the trail. He was way off course.
He said, “It’s getting really dark and cold out here.”
I asked, “Do you have food or water with you? What about a jacket or pants?”
He said, “No, it was 80 degrees today. I was only planning on being out here for a couple of hours.”
So now, I will get on my soapbox for a minute. At the same time, I was working for this agency. I took a lot of calls just like this. However, this is the one that stuck out to me. But if you go out in the woods in Colorado or any other forest, please know the temperature changes that can occur AND how to navigate the forest. I do not mean google maps on your phone. Technology fails, and it happens all the time. So I suggest a paper trail map with a compass, a change of clothes, food, water, and a first aid kit. If all that fails, please always go with someone or a group that can navigate the stars to get out of the forest. That is all…
So, I had to get other dispatchers to help me with this. I was only about three months in with this agency. We all had to pull out a huge forest map and figure out exactly where he was. We all concluded that he needed to walk about 20 miles east to get back to where the trail was.
I told him, “You need to start walking east.” But I didn’t say the miles yet.
He said, “Okay, let me pull it up on my phone.”
At that time, the call disconnected. I tried to call back numerous times, but it went straight to voicemail.
The supervisors in the room were already notifying search and rescue. Search and rescue explained that it would be at least a three-hour ETA. And because the universe thought I needed another challenge, the weather did change, and they were expecting snow in that area. So, this call was looking very bleak. However, search and rescue was his best bet at this point. I highly respect our search and rescue team because I came to find they know every single trail and rock formation in that forest. They know precisely what they are doing.
Fast-forward an hour later, and another call came in. It was the same guy. I had another dispatcher transfer him to me because I knew what was happening with the call.
He said, “I lost service again. My battery on my phone is about to die, but I could see my map and found east, so I just started walking that way. Can you see me on your screen?”
I looked at my map and then turned to the giant map on the table. Luckily he was heading in the right direction, but he was also going north.
I said, “Sort of; either way, you're going in the right direction. You will eventually hit part of the trail that you were on.”
He said, “I’m getting really cold, which is getting difficult. It’s starting to snow.”
I tried to reassure him the best I could. Search and rescue were on their way, but they had to enter the forest while it was snowing. The snow started blocking the entrances to the woods, which caused another delay.
I said, “You have to keep walking. Keep yourself warm. Keep walking in the direction I told you. Don’t look at your map; I don’t want to lose connection.”
He said, “Okay, I’m trying.”
This time, the call disconnected again. Unfortunately, that was the last time I got a call. I tried calling back numerous times, but then I finally stopped. He said his battery was dying, and I didn’t want to worsen it.
Fast-forward three hours- search and rescue eventually found his last phone location after we pointed it out on the map for them. They discovered his trail with their search and rescue dogs. They told all of us on the radio it was snowing heavily. I thought, how they still found his trail in the snow was beyond me.
About thirty minutes later, search and rescue returned to the radio and told me they had found him, but unfortunately, he died. They took him out of the forest, and we had an ambulance on standby. The paramedics did confirm that he was deceased and that it was from hypothermia.
When I heard that radio transmission, my heart sank. This is a call where I felt extremely helpless. I’ve dealt with lost children and missing at-risk adults in the city. But dealing with a lost person in the forest is a different beast, and I found that out in a horrific way.
I didn't talk to this person for very long because the phone kept disconnecting, but what made this heartbreaking was spending so much time doing everything I could to help him, and I still fell short. I was talking to him, and then he was gone. Furthermore, this was just an average guy trying to hike for a day, but everything changed in seconds.
This call did not have anywhere near a happy ending, and I will say this, please always know where you are at all times, in the city, mountains, forest, trails, roads, etc. It is so important.
Thank you all for letting me share this one. I know it was long.
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