By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park topped 12.5 million in 2019. This year, despite the park having been completely closed March 24 through May 9 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the sheer volume of people is once again exerting great strain on all the park’s systems—including emergency response.
Given the constraints the virus places on its staff and resources, the park is encouraging people to postpone challenging hikes or trying new activities during this time when first responders, parks, and communities all continue to concentrate on responding to the pandemic.
“We generally respond to about 100 search and rescues each year, many of which could be avoided with visitors planning and making responsible decisions,” says Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy. “During the ongoing health crisis, it’s critical that people make wise choices to keep our rangers and first responders out of harm’s way.”
Hendy focuses on Preventive Search and Rescue (PSAR), which she describes as “a parkwide effort to reduce visitor injury rates, specifically in the backcountry.”
Growing up in Chattanooga, Hendy discovered Cades Cove as a point of departure for backpacking trips while getting her B.S. in Recreation/Park Management from Auburn University. She was trained in Search and Rescue (SAR) at Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Arches, and Big Bend national parks.
Compared to those western parks, Hendy said the Smokies offers “proximity to wonderful partners who can assist you in your efforts. Here, we have five counties and several cooperating municipalities to lean on for help. The assistance from those resources is critical to our operations.”
As an example, one year ago, in July of 2019, Kevin Mark Lynch was found by searchers in the southeast area of the park near the Cataloochee Divide Trail. He was alert and responsive after having spent four nights lost in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“During that incident we had responders from all over Tennessee and North Carolina and beyond,” said Hendy. “Additionally, the volunteers that came from the various agencies were wonderful. I cannot say enough about the assistance and community support.”
PSAR is usually thought of as three concurrent efforts in education, enforcement and engineering.
Education is the most common and effective means of PSAR. “Ideally we reach the visitor with information that helps them make quality choices for themselves to assess their risk in the environment and prevent injury,” Hendy said.
Enforcement is the actual policing of the regulations. “This is usually the least effective approach,” said Hendy, “as it is reactive and requires an officer to happen to be standing at whatever location is in question when a violation occurs.”
Engineering may be trail maintenance that makes broken ankles less prevalent, for example, or stonework walls that serve as a safety barrier. Hendy pointed out that “engineering solutions may be very costly or have impacts to wilderness character that are undesirable.”
During these summer months, one of the biggest challenges for rangers is the volume of people enjoying the park. Based on their experience in developed areas, the public arrives with an expectation that help will arrive very rapidly once a person calls 911. But while modern communications allow us to call for help almost instantly, the steep terrain and personnel challenges put a limit on rangers’ ability to respond.
“If you are deep in the backcountry of the Smokies, you probably went there to escape developed areas,” said Hendy. “The consequence is those emergency response services are also remote and will take time to assemble. The public needs to mitigate their own risks and manage their expectations for how rapidly we will be able to get to them.”
Hendy’s objective is twofold: Increase the park’s capacity to respond to incidents by training more people while simultaneoulsy working to reduce the number of SAR calls received.
“That is the point of PSAR,” she said. “Save someone’s vacation by preventing their injury while simultaneously allowing for better service to those who do become injured by bettering our responses.”
How you can prevent the need for rescues:
Photos from top:
Chief Ranger Lisa Hendy focuses on Preventive Search and Rescue (PSAR), which she describes as “a parkwide effort to reduce visitor injury rates, specifically in the backcountry.” Photo by Phillip Smith
Search and rescue teams like the one shown here respond to about 100 search and rescues each year, many of which could be avoided with visitors planning and making responsible decisions. Photo by David Brill