As I write this, many mourn the untimely death of Rocky Mountain National Park Ranger, Jeff Christensen. As is common these days, he was on a solo patrol in the remote and rugged area of a national park, doing what rangers have always done, taking care of us and our natural heritage. When he didn't return as expected, a full press search and rescue operation was begun. His body was found seven days later, with initial reports indicating that he died from injuries sustained in a fall.
The Denver Post reported "it's certain that he carried a radio Friday. And officials said his pack probably contained camping essentials: food, water, a headlamp, matches and rain gear. He probably had his Park Service commissioned pistol and may have had a cellphone.
That they have not heard from Christensen over his radio 'does give us some concern,' (park spokeswoman Kyle) Patterson said, but not too much. It is possible his batteries are dead, or he could be in one of the many drainages or gullies where radio reception is spotty at best, she said."
While the investigation continues, questions and concerns are being raised, especially about the wisdom of sending rangers out solo into the wilderness. The trouble is, we have very few rangers and a lot of ground for them to patrol. Solo patrolling may not be optimum from a safety standpoint, but cutting patrols in half, as might happen if solo patrolling was no longer allowed, would also not provide much benefit and likely would prove detrimental in many respects. This is the first death of a ranger in the park since its founding. Nor are they dropping like flies anywhere else. So, it's not that this is a common occurrence, but it is a potentially dangerous business.
The preliminary results of the investigation are in and there is strong evidence that Christensen died as a result of the fall and likely did not survive the fall. On the other hand, this tragedy reveals a very serious omission in the survival and safety equipment these rangers carry. For the next ranger who has an unfortunate accident in the remote wilderness, a simple and relatively inexpensive piece of survival gear could easily save their life. This isn't the first time a ranger has gone missing, just the end result is different. A pocket-sized 406 MHz Person Locator Beacon (PLB) that transmitted a registered coded distress signal to satellites could have summoned help to his location within minutes, in the best case, and within 90 minutes in the worst case. This is regardless, in most cases, of adverse terrain that can defeat conventional radios. (See ETS article "Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) Approved in U.S." and related links from this article for more information about PLBs)
The question that needs to be asked is not why do we send these rangers out solo, that's a simple matter of economics; but why do we send them out without adequate gear. Eventually someone will total up the cost of this tragic search and rescue effort, hardly the first to be expended in such a situation. With up to five helicopters reported being part of the search and with hundreds of searchers involved for over a week, it will amount to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's more than enough to buy PLBs for every ranger who has to go on patrol solo. Basic 406 MHz PLBs can be had off the shelf for under five hundred bucks and I'm pretty confident the government can get them for less. You don't need one for every ranger, just enough for those patrolling remote areas, a much smaller number.
After a number of needless deaths, the U.S. Coast Guard finally mandated PLBs for all small boat crewmen (even before they were legal for you and me to buy them). When will the Park Service and the other guardians of our natural resources that send our rangers and the like into the wilderness give them the same advantage from this readily available survival technology? How many more deaths and wasted search and rescue resources have to occur?
Tragically, while some of our government agencies extol the virtues of these PLBs; how they save lives and save the taxpayers millions of dollars of search and rescue costs that also needlessly endanger the lives of those doing the searching, other government agencies ignore these same PLBs. They put their employees and others at needless risk by failing to adopt this proven, inexpensive, lifesaving technology. Moreover, it sets a bad example for the rest of the population who might well benefit if they would just carry these same pocket-sized lifesavers. Benefits that not only mean these civilian lives saved, but which also go all the way to our national bottom line, not exactly overflowing with funds. Search and rescue operations, even when conducted mostly with volunteers, cost a lot of money...and occasionally lives as well.
It's about time that those who need the gear, have the gear. Don't let it happen again. Let us honor Jeff Cristensen's sacrifice and untimely death and ensure that our people get the PLBs they deserve. It will save lives and money.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: August 7, 2005
Revision: 01 August 9, 2005
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