‘My daughter was missing’: Lessons from the other side of the search experience
Reflecting on the importance of preparation, follow-through and endurance
Most firefighters are required to be at a certain level of physical fitness when they join the fire service. However, the initial medical evaluation and physical agility test are typically a one-time check. After that, some of us slide into a more sedentary lifestyle, only exerting great physical effort on occasion – maybe a large house fire or a particularly intense training.
We must remember, though, that we never know when we are going to in a situation that will test our physical fitness. Our bodies must be prepared for any number of situations – an intense rescue, mayday of a fellow firefighter, high-rise blaze that requires climbing many stories. These events can occur at any time, and we as firefighters signed up to be there for the citizens of our communities.
We also need to have the stamina to help our families in times of crisis, as I was reminded when my daughter went missing. The situation tested not only my physical fitness but also my decision-making under duress and how I would work with command’s directions – essentially how I would handle the situation on the other side of the first responder experience.
A dark night for a search
It was July 4, 2021. I was camping with my family in the woods of southern Ohio, an area with no cell service.
After dinner, two of my teenage kids went for a short hike on a 1.5-mile trail they were familiar with. The trail went up about 650 feet in elevation, just enough to get cell service.
About 8:30 p.m., we discovered that my son was back in camp, but my 14-year-old daughter was not. I asked my wife to cook up the s'mores without me and started to get ready for the trail. I briefly picked up my hiking bag but ultimately decided I would not need it for such a short hike.
It was quickly getting dark, so I decided to jog my 39-year-old body up the trail to find her. I started yelling her name as I got toward the top of the trail. No response. It was about 9 p.m. now and getting dark fast.
Just as I was contemplating calling 911, my phone rang. It’s the Pike County Sheriff dispatch center. My daughter called them to say she was lost in the woods. She decided to explore an intersecting trail system and lost track of time. She really wasn’t sure where she was.
The dispatcher told me they were gathering resources to start a search and gave me some basic info on the direction she went. I explained that I was already in the woods looking for her and then continued to run down the trail.
We track our kids' phones, but her last known location was about an hour old. The information dispatch gave me seemed to match the ping I had from my daughter's cell.
I split off from the main trail and started jogging toward her last known location. Dispatch called me again and requested that I head back, as they didn’t want to search for two lost people. As a father and firefighter, that is a tough request. I explained that I was already a few miles into the trail system, the trails appeared to be marked well enough for me to get out, and that I felt I was fairly close to her based on the info I had. The cell phone ping only appeared to be within a half mile of my location. Dispatch requested that I stay on the phone with them as I continued to move down the trail.
At 2 miles into the trail system, I was right on top of the location I had for her phone. I called out for her but still no response.
She told dispatch that she crossed a creek and turned left on another trail. I had done neither, so I continued to move down a large hill. It was dark, I had no water, no flashlight, and I was completely unprepared.
Leaving my hiking bag was a terrible decision. I spend a lot of time in the woods and keep it packed with water, bug spray, flashlights, first aid supplies, and a multitude of other useful tools for trips into the woods. Preparation is useless if you fail to follow your plans.
At the bottom of the hill, I ran into a creek and followed the directions my daughter gave dispatch. I assumed I had to be getting close to her location.
I started running north, hearing fire sirens and air horns in the distance. The local fire departments were set up in different areas to see if my daughter could hear their sirens. As I moved north, I could tell that I was getting farther from the fire crews.
Even though it was dark, I moved down the trail without a flashlight to conserve my cell phone’s battery as much as possible. Occasionally I would lose my connection with dispatch, but I would eventually call back to check in.
At about 3.5 miles into the trail system, I stopped to yell her name. A startled bear charged across the trail about 25 feet in front of me sounding extremely angry. After it disappeared into the woods, it continued to huff and growl, and sounded way too close for comfort. Forward was my only option, so I continued to move down the trail. Thankfully the bear stayed away.
This section of the trail was long and straight. I really felt I was going in the wrong direction, but I kept moving forward. I crossed another creek and the woods got thicker, darker. There was no moon, and I finally started using the flashlight on my phone. I would still stop and yell my daughter’s name occasionally, but I wasn’t fully stopping to listen. I came across some landmarks, and dispatch confirmed that my daughter had seen them as well. It seemed like I was finally making progress.
Finding my daughter, then first responders
At that point, dispatch told me that she heard my yell! I asked dispatch to have her yell back. It was faint. I cannot describe the feeling of relief.
I picked up the pace and finally found her standing alone in the dark. She gave me a big hug, which was short lived because I was quite damp and fairly ripe. She was safe and uninjured.
She had managed to wander 4.82 miles away from camp. It was now 10:15 p.m., the woods were extremely dark, and the sounds of animals scurrying through the leaves were everywhere. We weren’t out of the woods yet. I gave dispatch my GPS coordinates from my phone, and they asked us to sit tight until units could make it to our location.
It’s hard to sit and wait. Even though my phone was at 30%, I decided to look at Google Maps to find an exit point. I had no cell reception with very little map that was preloaded. I told dispatch that there was a dead-end road nearby (within a half-mile), and it seemed like the trail might go near it. They sent a fire crew to the road and sounded the siren/airhorn. They sounded close. I wanted to move to them. Dispatch agreed with my plan, and we started down the trail in that direction.
The trail went up a hill – a muddy climb. When we got to the top, I could see a clearing in the woods, almost like an old road. Dispatch asked us not to leave the trail. My gut told me the road was down through the clearing. Again, we sat and waited.
Eventually air support arrived. The helicopter crew spotted us. They shined the spotlight on us while circling our location, directing the rescue crews to our location.
Once the crews reached us, it was just under a half-mile hike to the road. The weeds were thick, but the terrain was flat.
The timing was perfect. My battery cell was at 3%. We came extremely close to losing contact with dispatch, as well as our only source of light.
It was about 11:45 p.m. when we finally made it to the road, I was extremely dehydrated and exhausted.
After a quick evaluation from the paramedic, the ambulance gave us a ride back to the campground.
Gratitude for responding agencies and dispatch
While this incident happened over a year ago, I still owe a big thanks to all the agencies involved:
- Pike County Sheriff
- Ohio Highway Patrol
- Ohio DNR
- Benton Township Fire
- Pebble Township Fire
- MedCare Ambulance
It would have been a much longer night without them. I’m sure the list isn’t complete, as there were many other people, including local residents, who offered to help at the campground. I was extremely impressed at what I could hear in the background at the dispatch center.
Dispatch did a fantastic job. I would not have found my daughter without them relaying the information from her.
While my daughter absolutely screwed up, she did the right thing by remaining calm, calling 911 and staying put. The dispatchers had nothing but great things to say about how she handled herself. Spending two hours alone in the woods, after dark, would be a terrifying ordeal for most people.
Ready for anything
The event helped me reflect on my abilities as well. Thankfully I started taking my fitness seriously in my mid-30s. I moved very quickly over rough terrain with large elevation changes for roughly 5 miles. My heartrate redlined for over an hour. Ten years ago, my body would have failed me in the first mile.
Being a firefighter is a stressful job. We need to be physically fit. Data from the NFPA in 2020 shows that almost half of firefighter fatalities were cardiac-related due to overexertion and stress. Physical fitness does not have to be a seven-days-per-week adventure with overpriced gyms with a lot of equipment. You can do many workouts without any equipment at all, ideally three days per week at a minimum.
Remember, our number one goal is to always make it home and be there for our families.
While I enjoy spending a lot of time in the woods, my first due is a city of 85,000 people so I do not have any formal training in wilderness search and rescue. Being calm and adapting to any situation is the most important quality of a first responder. We need to keep a cool head under pressure and constantly problem-solve. As we go into any situation with plan A, we need to have plan B and C ready to go – with a smooth transition if needed. We also need to be prepared. While this incident had a successful outcome, the decision to leave my hiking bag could have had dire consequences. Since I did not have a flashlight, I could have easily ended up off trail and lost in the woods. The lack of water could have left me incapacitated due to dehydration in the woods without even reaching my daughter.