ST. GEORGE – The recent recovery of the body of 5-year-old Jerold Williams who got lost in Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, heightens every parent’s worst nightmare: a family outing gone horribly awry as a child just seen, disappears.
Despite what some may think, it can happen to anyone and recent events are a good reminder to parents and children to learn some simple wilderness safety measures, how to find your child and how to be found if you become lost.
On Aug. 6 at approximately 5:30 p.m. the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office received reports of Jerold Williams missing from the area where he was camping with his family – an unimproved campsite 12 miles south of Jacob Lake in the Kaibab National Forest.
Over the course of several days hundreds of people from multiple counties and agencies joined in the search for the 5-year-old. After five days and four nights missing, the boy’s body was found. Authorities believe he did not survive the first night.
Hug-A-Tree and Survive
In 1981, a series of events that eerily echo the search for Jerold Williams unfolded when a 9-year-old boy named Jimmy Beveridge went missing in a Southern California wilderness area. The search was extensive, lasting several days and ultimately ended with the recovery of Jimmy Beveridge’s body.
Inspired by that search, a man named Ab Taylor initiated the Hug-A-Tree and Survive program to teach children, 7 to 11, the simplest and most vital tips needed to survive should they become lost. The tips apply to anyone of any age.
In Iron County, the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team presents the Hug-A-Tree program in schools, scouting troop meetings and even at family reunions to help parents and children be better prepared in the outdoors.
Iron County Search and Rescue volunteer Daniel Houchen said the team has seen its successful implementation in real life search and rescue scenarios.
“It’s all free – at no expense to whoever wants to host it,” Houchen said of the program. “It is just our goal to educate the kids.”
As the name suggests, the program centers around teaching children to stay in one place, preferably by a bush or tree, if they become lost.
The idea is that a tree, being a living entity, can become the child’s “friend.” Being under it, they take shelter from the elements; they can talk to it and, yes, even hug it if they become scared; but the most important thing is that they don’t move.
“Little kids can be out of your sight really quick,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Darrell Cashin, who serves as the office’s Search and Rescue team liaison. “… if they can’t see you, they are going to wander around looking for mommy and daddy.”
Cashin was unaware of the Hug-A-Tree program but said that teaching a child to stay put is very important especially considering a young child’s instinct is to keep wandering, possibly even to panic and run.
Simple do’s and don’ts
Taken from the Hug-A-Tree program and the search and rescue teams, the following is a short list of do’s and don’ts that parents and children can remember:
- Do have your child carry a large trash bag with them at all times
- A trash bag can act as shade in daylight hours or as an extra layer of protection against cold or wet weather
- Teach your child how to safely cut or rip a hole in the bag for their face so they can breathe
- Don’t run
- Running can lead to injury, dehydration and exhaustion
- Do have your child keep a small reflective device such as a mirror or old compact disk with them to use as a signal
- Don’t be afraid when rescuers sound loud
- Teach your child that rescuers will yell loudly; they are not angry with the child, they just want to be heard
- Do equip all your children with a whistle
- The sound of a whistle can carry a lot farther than a human voice
- Teach children to sit down and blow the whistle if they become lost
- Don’t wait too long to call for help
- Several factors may play a part in a parent not calling for help soon enough: fear of the cost of rescue resources, fear of embarrassment or fear that they will find the child and need to cancel the rescue, among others
- Such fears are unfounded, Cashin and Houchen said with urging; call for help between 20-30 minutes after a child has been missing
- The longer you wait the farther a child can wander away
“Timing is everything,” Houchen said. “… our sheriff up here wants everybody to be found safe and as fast as possible … it doesn’t matter: as soon as they’re missing, call us, we’ll get (going). We would much rather get cancelled than end up doing a recovery instead of a, finding a missing person.”
Education is key
Educating and preparing yourself and your children is essential before making any trip into the backcountry.
“It just comes down to education,” Houchen said.
A parent himself, Houchen said that he has made sure that his children have thought about being lost in the wilderness and what to do to be safe in that scenario.
“Just like you do in a fire drill in your home and know how to escape, it is kind of the same thing,” Houchen said. “You wouldn’t want to take your kid out into a vast wilderness and not have some kind of a game plan for them if they do get lost.”
It is especially important for parents to be vigilant keeping their children on their mind, Houchen said, and to set healthy parameters when their children play in the wilderness.
One tip both Cashin and Houchen shared is line-of-sight. If your children can’t see you or you can’t see them, then they have traveled too far.
A few more tips for finding a lost child
- Dress them in brightly colored, easily visible clothing
- Take a footprint of each child at the beginning of your adventure and keep it available
- Make a scent kit by having your child wear a piece of gauze for about 30 minutes and then store that gauze in a plastic bag marked with the child’s name; this may seem hypervigilant, Houchen said, but could be instrumental if the use of a tracking dog is needed in the search and rescue
- Teach a child that if they hear a helicopter to go to a clearing and make themselves big, like making a snow angel in the dirt and then stay put
- Follow the path of least resistance – roads, trails and washes that a child might have followed; most children will follow the easiest path possible, Cashin said
- And, perhaps most importantly, don’t panic.
Panic is the number one problem that anybody has in the wilderness whether it’s an adult or a child alike. If they get lost, they’re going to panic. That’s why, you know, the Hug-A-Tree program really drills into the kids’ heads that as soon as they start to feel lost they stay put. That is key into being found fast and that’s what you want to teach your kids is not only how to not get lost but how to be found.
The Hug-A-Tree program is available to Iron County residents through Iron County Search and Rescue. If you are interested in having it presented to your school or youth group, Houchen said, you can contact them through the Iron County Search and Rescue Facebook page.
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