Last month Westlake Village resident Wendy Gerber went hiking with a friend. Several hours later they became lost and had to call for help from the Malibu Search and Rescue team. They had planned to go kayaking on Westlake Lake, but changed their minds and instead hiked a trail at Lindero Canyon and Triunfo Canyon roads.
Their predicament wasn’t unique—hikers get lost all the time—but it raised the question of exactly when a person should call for help and how they can prevent getting lost in the first place.
“A year ago I had done the same hike but the rains had washed the trails out, so an hour-and-a-half hike ended up being three hours,” Gerber said. “I was on a mission to go back the same way, so we parked the car and went up the trail. We could see Westlake and about a half-hour further we could see the reservoir. I felt comfortable because I could see everything, but then we got—not lost, but we didn’t know exactly where we were.”
In other words, lost.
Three hours after they set out, Gerber called her boyfriend, Mike Paule, for help. Paule used Google Maps to help guide the two women out. Thinking they were near Sycamore Canyon Estates, Gerber asked Paule to meet them there.
Still, they couldn’t find a way out.
Gerber resisted Paule’s suggestion to call search and rescue out of embarrassment and concern she would be charged a large fee. She later learned that being rescued, even by helicopter, doesn’t cost a dime.
David Katz, a volunteer with Malibu Search and Rescue for 28 years, said refusing to call for help could make a situation worse.
“We always tell people, don’t assume you’re going to get charged for the rescue and therefore try to get yourself out of a predicament,” he said. “The reason is we don’t want people to get themselves into a worse predicament, or possibly death, if they were to wait until nightfall and then fall off a cliff.”
Gerber received a call from a search-and-rescue team member asking if she and her friend were injured or in need of anything. She was told to stay put and to place her phone in battery-saving mode.
Matt Kouba, superintendent of the Conejo Recreation and Park District, said a cellphone is the most valuable tool one can have in a rescue situation.
“Never use your phone as a flashlight. It’s not a good tool (for that),” he said. “There’s been so many nighttime rescues where people were using their phone as a flashlight; they lost their battery and there was no way for them to communicate.”
Two search-and-rescue team members finally found the pair at sunset. Gerber was wearing hiking sandals so the team members decided to call in a helicopter rather than risk an injury by walking her out of the mountains in the dark.
Gerber and her friend were flown to Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, where Paule picked them up and drove them home. They had set out at 10:30 that morning and got to the station at 6 p.m.
Kouba’s advice for not getting lost: “Always be prepared and know where you are—have a map, have water and food. There are so many phone apps available for retracing your steps. Be ready for the weather. If it’s hot, have a hat and sunscreen, proper clothing, proper shoes. Know your limits. Never go beyond your limits.”
Katz said it’s hard to set specific rules for when someone should call for rescue, but there are several factors that should be taken into account.
“What are the environmental conditions? Is it a 100-degree day, or a 40-degree day? How are you dressed? How long have you been out? What do you have food- and water-wise, clothing-wise that can protect you?” Katz said. “If there are health conditions, if the person takes medication or is having any kind of physical problem, chest pain. Maybe they’ve suffered some kind of traumatic injury.”
The time of year is also a factor. If it’s winter, that means less daylight, so the team has to work quickly to find the lost person. In those cases, they may call in the helicopter.
The 30-person search-and-rescue team gets calls for lost hikers, for people who have been injured or gone missing in the Santa Monica Mountains, and when cars go over the edge of a cliff.
They’ve already received more calls this year than at this point in 2017. They were called 162 times total last year, a record.
Volunteers are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Any team member who can will respond when a call goes out. They cover an area that stretches from the Los Angeles-Ventura county line to Pacific Palisades.
Katz said the team may start using unmanned aerial vehicles to help them locate people, as it would be easier than calling in a helicopter. There is a debate about privacy and the use of UAVs by law enforcement agencies, which limits Malibu Search and Rescue’s ability to use one except in extended missing persons cases.
Most volunteers are reserve sheriff’s deputies who have received law enforcement training and carry a badge and a gun. Regardless of their background, all volunteers are medically certified—they’re nurses, doctors, paramedics and emergency response technicians.