Local fire fighters and park staff conduct search and rescue
By Michael Turton
Philipstown offers some of the best trails in the country and hikers come in droves to experience them, spring through fall. One of the unintended consequences of the area’s popularity with outdoor enthusiasts is that hikers, especially those new to the area, often get lost, or worse yet, injured. The extent of the trail system is big part of the attraction – and also part of the problem.
More than 100 miles of trails wind through Fahnestock Sate Park and Hudson Highlands State Park, which between them encompass more than 23,000 acres. Breakneck Ridge, located just north of Cold Spring, has been called the most popular day hike in the U.S. and sometimes hosts as many as 1,400 hikers on a single weekend.
The challenge of finding lost or injured hikers and bringing then back safely falls mainly to local fire departments and staff at Fahnestock State Park. “It’s becoming one of our more frequent calls,” said Josh DiNardo, chief of the Cold Spring Fire Company (CSFC). DiNardo estimates that about one call in five to the Cold Spring fire hall is from hikers in trouble.
Bill Bauman, manager of Fahnestock State Park and Joe Hyatt, chief at the North Highlands Fire Department (NHFD), have similar assessments. Bauman said lost hiker calls can be “a few each week” although some weeks can be free of calls. “I’d say we’re dispatched jointly with CSFC at least once a week,” Hyatt said, adding that while there may be no calls some weeks, search teams can be called out as many as three times in one weekend.
Leaving the trail: a bad decision
Local residents familiar with Philipstown’s parks may find hard to imagine how so many hikers manage to lose their way. The most common reason is very basic, according to DiNardo. “People go off the marked trails,” he said. “And when you get 30 feet away from the trail, people can get turned around, and then everything starts to look pretty much the same.”
He said that lack the proper equipment can also lead to trouble. Flashlights are vital he said, especially in the fall when hikers fail to allow for the earlier sunset and find themselves left literally in the dark. Breakneck Ridge accounts for the largest number of lost hikers, with the White Trail that runs north from Little Stony Point also being a significant problem area, according to both DiNardo and Hyatt.
DiNardo sees a plus and a minus when it comes to cell phones. “The location of a lost hiker who calls 911 can usually be quickly pinpointed,” thanks to the phone’s GPS chip, he said. On the other hand, he said hikers often instantly use social media on their phone to spread the word when they discover an interesting new trail – driving even more visitors to the area, and inevitably more lost hikers.
If injured call for help right away
Common trail injuries include sprained or broken ankles and strained knees. “And we had two head traumas from falls this year, ” DiNardo said, adding that one of the biggest mistakes a hiker can make is to delay calling for help when injured. He cited a case this fall in which a hiker was injured around 6 p.m. but didn’t call 911 until after 1 a.m.
The rescue team was dispatched at 1:19 – and didn’t get back to the fire hall after 5 a.m. The hikers apparently thought they would wait it out until morning – but began to think differently when the temperature started to drop. “Had they called right away, we could have had them off the mountain by 10 p.m.,” DiNardo said.
In severe cases a helicopter may be used to help find a lost hiker or to evacuate someone who is injured. New York State Police make the decision to bring in a helicopter and did so recently just north of Cold Spring to help locate a lost hiker at night. DiNardo said that a helicopter from West Point was also used last year to rescue a woman suffering from hypothermia after becoming lost on Breakneck Ridge.
On the job training
For CSFC firefighters, it’s “on the job training” when it comes to assisting hikers in trouble. “It’s learn by doing,” DiNardo said. “Plus we go up the mountain once a year as a group – and if you go up 15 times a year on calls you get to know it pretty well.” The same firefighters tend to go on rescues he said, which reduces the need for extra training. Firefighters are routinely trained in First Aid and in addition DiNardo said Philipstown Ambulance is dispatched whenever CSFC receives an injured hiker call.
At North Highlands Hyatt said that about a dozen firefighters have taken a search and rescue program offered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “We also have several members who are trained in Rope Rescue techniques,” he said.
For local fire departments, the manpower required for hiker searches creates what could be a dangerous situation. Both Hyatt and DiNardo expressed concern about their ability to respond to calls to a structure fire if six to 10 of their experienced firefighters are two hours away on a mountain top, fully engaged in rescuing a hiker.
Being properly equipped and prepared is essential
Collectively, Bauman, DiNardo and Hyatt list a number of essentials that they feel all hikers should have in order to be safe and to avoid getting lost, including: flashlight, maps, compass, energy bars, water, cell phone, first aid kit, rain gear, and warm clothing. They also encourage hikers to accurately estimate how long their trek will take. Fahnestock also now provides trail stewards to assist hikers at Breakneck Ridge during the prime hiking season, both at the base of the mountain as well as along the trail to the summit.
Bauman also said that in addition to printed maps available at trail heads, the Fahnestock Sate Park and Hudson Highlands State Park maps can now be downloaded. DiNardo cautions hikers to always begin with a fully charged cell phone and to never hike alone. He also thinks it is a good idea each group designates some of its members to turn off their cell phones at the outset in order to ensure that at least one phone is available later if an emergency arises.
The cost of hiker rescues is difficult to determine. Local firefighters are unpaid volunteers and state park staff conduct searches as a routine part of their job. Even if not a financial consideration, manpower is undoubtedly the main expenditure. Based on the average number of rescuers involved and the length of time required, a typical search for a lost hiker can add up to more than 140 man-hours by the time it is complete.