Definition of “Self-rescue.” Getting yourself out of trouble without having to put other people at risk to rescue you.
If you work or recreate in the outdoors, sooner or later you my find yourself at the fork-in-the-road having to decide if you should attempt to get yourself out of trouble or wait to be rescued. You should always be prepared to self-rescue and not rely on others to come to your aid when you find yourself in difficult situations and only call for help when you have tried your best to get out of trouble and failed or when you are incapable of self-rescue because of injury, illness or other circumstance. Always remember that when you call for help you are putting other people’s lives on the line on your behalf!
Every life threatening event is different and the mechanics of extracting yourself from danger will be different in each case. While the mechanics used may be different the actual process of getting yourself out of trouble is the same. This article looks at the mental and physical processes of self-rescue.
The process of self-rescue involves three steps: recognizing the threat, an awareness of “certain” verses “potential” harm, and taking action to remove yourself from the life threatening circumstances you now face.
Threat recognition. Your ability to recognize threats to your life is based on the knowledge and experience that you acquire over a life time. The ability to recognize those situations that place you in harms way can also be learned from others more experienced than yourself and by attending training programs that teach threat recognition. Nowhere does the need to be able to recognize danger apply more than when you venture into the outdoors. Being able to recognize warning signs enables you to see what’s coming and then step back from the brink before the hazards threaten your life. Threats to your safety might include inclement weather, dangerous terrain, wild animal attack and many other circumstances that might place you at risk.
Certain verses Potential harm. When confronted with potentially dangerous circumstances you must then be able to differentiate between those situations that are going to affect you right now and those that are not as immediate but will still have to be confronted at some point in the future. Certain harm might include for example, the crashed plane that you find yourself in is about to explode when the fuel in the ruptured fuel tanks ignites. Or perhaps, you find yourself in an avalanche chute with a cornice above that is about to break loose. Potential harm on the other hand could be the onset of inclement weather later in the day or the lack of water in an arid area.
Taking Action. When faced with a sudden, life threatening situation, any immediate action in the direction of safety is better than deciding on the best action that comes too late! John Leach, author of Survival Psychology, writes that “In an emergency 75% of people have to be told what to do. Only 10-15% of the people act appropriately leaving the remaining 10-15% sitting on the sidelines acting inappropriately!” Those in the top 15% had prepared for the events that they found themselves in.
The Steps to Self-rescue
IMMEDIATE LIFE-THREAT RECOGNITION AND ACTION When your life’s on the line you must act now. You won’t have time to think. Whether you live or die at this point depends on what you have done to prepare for this moment in time. If you have never thought through what you might do “when bad things happen” you are more likely to panic and take what you hope is the best course of action – but often isn’t.
Assuming you are able to extricate yourself from the event that precipitated you into a crisis situation your first step is to deal with any life-threatening medical conditions that are present – your medical condition and the medical condition of any others that you may be with. Take care of yourself first. Are you bleeding severely? If you are then that needs to be taken care of quickly using standard first aid procedures. Next quickly scan the accident scene to locate other members of your party that may need immediate help. Is the site safe? Do you need to move away from where you find yourself to a safer area? Once you have control of the medical issues and the safety of the area you are in, then you can sit back for a moment and catch your breath.
DON’T PANIC. Easy to say but difficult to do! George Carlin the comedian once commented that “We should teach people to panic because that what they are going to do in an emergency!” While there may be some truth to his observation I am more inclined to suggest that we should teach people that “The onset of panic is a normal reaction. It’s what happens the moment you realize that you’re in trouble”. The moment you realize you are in trouble adrenaline floods though your system putting you into a “fight” or “flight” mode. This is your body’s instinctive way of handling danger – either fight it or run away from it. Out-of-control panic must be avoided however. The steps you take to protect yourself from this moment on can make a huge difference in the final outcome of your situation. Recognize the threats to your safety and then either remove yourself from the situation or remove the threat. As dangerous as things can become, you are seldom in a situation where you can’t take just a second or two to think before you act. But you must “act.”
Coping with a crisis depends heavily on the preparations you have made before your life is on the line. Put another way “A person will do what they have been trained to do when they are in trouble and if they haven’t been trained they have nothing to guide them to take the correct action.
ASSESS YOUR RESOURCES. All of the resources you are going to have to work with are those you arrive with plus the resources that you might obtain from the environment you find yourself in. Despite the advice given in most survival manuals and that advice provided by such dubious survival experts as “Survivorman” and Bear Grylls of “Man verses Wild” you should never believe that you’ll be able to gather what you need wherever you find yourself surviving.
Go through your pockets and inventory your possessions. Inventory the contents of your vehicle. What do you have that will enable you to start a fire, erect a shelter and signal for help. Hopefully you will have some emergency equipment available to you that will enable you to do the things you need to do to survive as you rescue yourself. Evaluate the environment you find yourself in and identify the natural resources that are available that will help you build shelter from natural materials. Is there fuel available to build and maintain a fire? Is water available? Are there materials present with which to signal for help?
MAKE A TENTATIVE PLAN TO EXTRICATE YOURSELF. The object is to remove yourself from the situation you find yourself in and return to your family and friends as quickly and safely as possible. To return tosafety. To self-rescue. At this point it is very important that you are totally honest with yourself and develop a realistic plan that has a high likelihood of success. It is very easy to allow the desire for comfort and companionship to override what may be a better decision – stay where you are. Ego, especially with men, often gets in the way. They often grossly overestimate their ability to travel to a distant destination and also grossly underestimate the distance to that destination! Not a good combination!
Do you know where you are relative to the availability of help? What time of day is it? Is it too late to try to walk out today? Would it be better to hole-up for the night and reevaluate the situation in the morning? Did you let someone know where you were going and when you would be back? If so, you can be assured that help will come. Be patient and allow yourself to be rescued rather than attempting to rescue yourself – it’s safer.
STEP-BY-STEP, PLAN YOUR MOVES. At least plan the first few moves because you might not be able to see the entire journey. Decide what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. Is your physical condition such that you can safely accomplish the overland travel you are planning? If it is, do you have the clothing you need to protect yourself from the weather conditions that exist? Do you know where you are going? Do you have the energy that you will need to get to your destination? Do you have the navigation equipment you need to reach that destination safely?
If you can answer all of these questions in the affirmative while not allowing wishful thinking to cloud your decision making ability, then your next step is to:
PLAN CONTINGENCIESgencies. Make alternative plans for problems that you can foresee. You must anticipate as best you can the problems that might arise as you rescue yourself. These problems may include changes in the weather, rougher terrain than you expected, heavy vegetation, underestimating your ability to negotiate the terrain you encounter and many other issues. By thinking ahead you may already have a solution to the predicaments that you may face as you rescue yourself.
“DO” THE PLAN IN YOUR HEAD. Before you start, walk through your plan step-by-step. Review each stage of the plan objectively, realistically and with an eye for anything you may have forgotten. Ask yourself “Can I really do this or is it my impatience and desire to be back with my family that is making me want to “get home?” If you can’t “do” the plan in your head it won’t work on the mountain! Revise your plan. Find alternatives to those parts of the plan you have doubts about and when you are comfortable with it:
EXECUTE THE PLAN. When all is in order put your plan into action.
Do not let the concerns of others, the promises you made to be home by a certain time, the desire to go-for-help or any other issue influence your choice of action. Your decision to self-rescue should not be driven by panic or an overwhelming desire just to “get-out-of-here! The decision to self-rescue must be based on a thorough, comprehensive, objective review of your situation.
In the final analysis, even if it looks like you can “do-the-plan” it still may be in your best interest to sit tight and let the rescuers come to you.