Those who follow stories of wilderness rescue are likely to see the same disturbing case over and over again – the public shaming those who end up having to call for help. Scroll through the online comments for almost any story that tells the exploits of a search and rescue team, and you’ll likely find a bunch of “armchair quarterbacks” eager to deliver brazen criticism from behind their keyboards. Statements are often quick to blame those rescued and point out what a subject did wrong, as if we made mistakes on purpose, or at least as inexcusable negligence.
And it’s true, often when a search and rescue mission is launched there are things that the rescuer could have done differently – better preparation, a closer look at the prediction, a proper assessment of their own abilities, the list goes on . But in response, there’s honest analysis that can help make the outdoor recreation community a safer place, and then there’s blatant criticism, with a very real reason to avoid the latter.
In short, widespread public criticism of callers for help can make people less likely to call for help when help is needed for fear of being punished by their peers. Avoiding or even hesitating to call for help can quickly make a bad situation worse.
Search and rescuer Michael Coyle described this dilemma by referring to a case where a lost snowshoe hiker chose to call her friend instead of emergency services when she was in an emergency. Her friend eventually forwarded her message to rescue teams, but by the time she was found it was too late and she had succumbed to the elements. Perhaps a direct call could have resulted in more information being relayed to the search and rescue teams, perhaps a direct call could have expedited the mission and saved the woman’s life.
While the reason the lost snowshoe hiker called her boyfriend instead of emergency services is unknown, Coyle speculated that “fear of consequences” may have been a contributing factor. Coyle elaborated that public criticism can be a consequence, making people reluctant to make a potentially life-saving phone call when a nature trip goes awry. For this reason, it is crucial that the outdoor recreation community is aware of the response that comments and criticism may have.
There is no doubt that there is a place for reporting accidents that occur in the outdoor recreational space. This cover can provide learning opportunities for others and hopefully prevent the same situation from occurring over and over again, putting both lesser recovery seekers and rescuers at risk. But it’s important to pay attention to how these situations are addressed in terms of public response.
Nobody embarks on an adventure expecting it to go wrong, but almost every longtime outdoor enthusiast has encountered a situation where disaster might have been just a few wrong steps away. Perhaps a water bottle leaks, soaking carefully packed warm layers. Maybe a headlight or vehicle battery is dead. Maybe a backpack breaks or a deceptive hold gives way. Often an accident or delicate situation is a combination of a number of factors, some much more difficult to control and others seemingly unlucky.
Instead of being quick to criticize, try to offer real advice and support. Use kind words to make the outdoor recreation area more comfortable for beginners (and all members) and create a welcoming educational community, not a place where shame is a commonly feared consequence. The more accessible meaningful conversation is, the more useful it can be and ultimately make the outdoor recreation space safer for everyone involved.
As Coyle wrote when addressing the aforementioned snowshoe case, “public shaming is not only toxic, it is detrimental to good SAR results.
Here are some examples of victim shame that commenters have left in connection with our coverage of past accidents:
“I think a large percentage of kayakers need instruction.”
“Should charge the idiot for the cost of answering his SOS call.”
“You knowingly put yourself and these children in danger.”
While many search and rescue cases result, at least in part, from a mistake made by the person who ultimately needs to be rescued, try to respond constructively. Angry comments and victim accusations are usually not beneficial to the overall conversation.
If you’re interested in supporting Colorado’s volunteer-run search and rescue operation, one of the ways you can do so is by purchasing a CORSAR card. It’s cheap, at just $3 a year.
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