To Call 911 or Not…That is the Question

In order to communicate just how isolated it can feel up here in the Mount Hood National Forest I really need to rely on some pictures.  Timothy Lake is shown below with the red push pin.  As I have mentioned before, Government Camp is the closest “town” (pop. 193) and it is 24 miles/37 minutes away. 14 of those miles are on a slow, winding road through a reservation between us and US 26. So it is not surprising that when people are in trouble they come to us.  Generally the most unusual scenarios don’t come from our campers, but rather folks who are hiking or camping in the dispersed sites surrounding us, or the Pacific Crest Trail. Either way, as good neighbors we are required to help these folks as best we can, and at times that has made this job pretty stressful.


Last year as the lead it was even worse, because I had to decide when to call 911.  That might seem like a no-brainer, but in many cases it is not, and I always hated having that pressure on me.  Any decision with another person’s life at the other end of it seemed out of my pay grade, and yet I was constantly forced into those situations.  This year I was hoping that with an on-site manager I would rarely be in a position to make those calls, but unfortunately that has not been the case.  Our boss isn’t here all the time and as the office person, I have already been faced with numerous situations.  Again, you might think “just call”, but we can’t really do that.  There is always the danger of the police being less responsive if we “cry wolf” so we are supposed to review each situation and use judgement.  That’s where the trouble begins for me, because although I think I am capable of making good judgement calls I really don’t want the pressure.  Let me walk you through a few scenarios and see what you would do.  These are all things that have happened in the last 30 days.

Scenario #1 – Lee responded to a radio call from one of our camp hosts who heard people yelling from the water.  Their canoe had capsized about 100 yards from shore.  One person with a life jacket was swimming to a boat ramp at an adjacent campground that wasn’t open yet, but the other had no life jacket and appeared to be drowning.  An Iraq veteran who was camping at the campground immediately grabbed a kayak from someone else and paddled out to pull the second man to shore while Lee drove the park security truck to the closed campground to get the other man out of the water. Lee radioed that I should call 911 for an emergency squad because the water was close to 40 degrees and he was concerned about hypothermia.  The Sheriff refused to dispatch until the people themselves requested an ambulance, and since they ultimately refused, we were left to deal with it on our own.  Fires, warm blankets, and hot coffee eventually did the trick, but it was stressful for everyone.

Scenario #2 – I received a call from a camp host stating that a 2 year old child was missing.  For me missing people is the worst, and as a mother missing children fills me with dread.  We have protocols in place for this scenario, mainly because missing children might be a result of an abduction.  I am far more worried about what happens if they get lost in the wilderness, because as you can see below, once you get off our footprint it is miles and miles of dense woods and nothing else in every direction.  In this case the child was only missing for 20 minutes but because of their age and proximity to water the dispatcher took it very seriously.  Thankfully before they finished getting all the information they needed the child was found.  The parents had sent a 4 year old and 2 year old to the bathroom alone and not surprisingly they had gotten distracted and wandered down a forest path our of sight.



Scenario #3 and #4 – In the same week as the missing child we had two occasions where teenagers went missing.  In these cases we have been told to ask a series of questions before calling 911.  How are they dressed?  How long have they been gone?  Are they comfortable in the outdoors? These are just a few of the questions.  We also wait, an indeterminate length of time, and then eventually we might call the police.  Time of day matters, because the closer we get to nightfall the more pressure there is. In the first scenario the teenager we organized a lake wide search and the teenager was found in under an hour.  In the second scenario the teenager was last seen north of Timothy Lake near the Pacific Coast Trail and had already been missing 5 hours when they notified us.  After an additional hour of searching they asked me to call.  Again, before I finished the lengthy dispatch process (they ask a ton of questions in these scenarios) the teenager was found.  He had walked from the east side of the lake to the west side of the lake (this takes several hours) and was “found” by one of our employees.

The missing person scenarios are the absolute worst because I feel a responsibility while I am waiting to call. I understand intellectually that we should wait and attempt a search prior to calling the sheriff, but I also think if that person is hurt we are wasting valuable time. I also have pretty strong feelings about being in this situation at all.  On the one hand I know I make good decisions and don’t panic under pressure, and I am really good at coordinating and mobilizing the troops.  On the other hand I am a low level seasonal employee and these type of judgment calls seem above my pay grade.  Maybe not.  It’s hard to know, but I will say I rarely hear any other people tell stories like this.  That may be because our remote circumstance is not that common or because other organizations have permanent employee decision makers in place. I will say that in our case there seems to be a real lack of understanding as to how common and serious these scenarios are which leads me to…

Scenario #5 – A few days ago one of our camp host radioed in to state that someone came from the Little Crater Lake area (see map above) and reported a dead body in a car.  It seemed like last year we dealt with every bizarre scenario possible, but we always said at least we never had to deal with a dead body.  When the call came in, Lee and I knew our luck had run out on not having to deal with that.  Because the vehicle was off our footprint we did not have to respond, although initially Lee was going to go.  I put my foot down on that, mainly because I didn’t want him anywhere near a dead body and instead called the non-emergency line for the Sheriff.  My thought process was if the person was already dead it wasn’t an emergency, and I stood by that decision despite the fact that some people thought we should respond just in case.  It turned out later that the person was dead and had been for weeks, so the body was in an advanced state of decomposition.  What made this particular case extra difficult was a relative had passed around missing person flyers so we knew what he looked like.  We have no idea if it was suicide or foul play and probably will never find out.

That’s one of the other things I don’t like about these scenarios; we often don’t know.  Last year we had three separate instances of people being life-flighted out, and in one of the cases we never learned if the person died or not.  We all try to be as helpful and professional as possible, but it’s also important that we are careful not to put ourselves in a situation where we are putting ourselves at risk.  It is common for example for the rescuer to die in water rescue situations and searchers often become hurt when they are looking. Dealing with the mentally ill is extremely challenging, and we have already had an instance this year where a camper had a PTSD meltdown in the middle of the night and had to be talked down by Lee and our night security guy. These scenarios don’t happen daily, but they absolutely happen 1-2 times a week and I have mixed feelings about experiencing that level of stress.

Last season, because I was the lead, I didn’t talk or write about most of these scenarios, but this year is different.  I had a list three pages long of incidents last year I sat on, but this year I will be talking about them as they occur.  It matters because I know most people don’t think of these things when they think about camp hosting jobs.  And to be clear this is definitely not the norm, but it’s happening here, and I have to believe it is happening in other places as well, so I am going to share some of the experiences.

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7 thoughts on “To Call 911 or Not…That is the Question

  1. Wow….you have really put a new perspective on what you are doing…sending positive vibes and am in awe of how much you guys are going through.

  2. I totally understand how difficult your situation could be. I think I would call 911 and let them be responsible for their response. Just my 2 cents worth.

  3. I used to tell my kids, it’s not your job to decide who’s in trouble or not, who’s just kidding and who is serious. Your job is to alert the parents and/or the authorities. End of story. If they want to think you are crying wolf, that’s on them, not you.

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