Multitasking

Updated: Mar 2

(This article was originally published in Wilderness Medicine Magazine)


It was an ugly scenario, I’ll give you that.


We’d gotten the call on a Friday night, I think, for a Saturday morning response — someone had left a note in a small West Virginia state park saying he’d murdered two women and stashed the bodies at the park. Who knows how seriously the authorities would have taken that note, if it weren’t for the fact that two local teens were unaccounted for. They had to assume the worst.


By the time we got there, though, the picture had muddied. The teens had shown up, safe and sound, and the authorities were beginning to believe the note was a hoax. But they had a tiger by the tail — they’d initiated a search, and now didn’t know how to stop it. If they kept going and somebody got hurt looking for bodies that weren’t there, they’d have a legal problem on their hands; if they called the search off and somebody’s grandma found two women’s bodies two weeks later, it would be even worse.


Fortunately, one of the services that volunteer SAR teams with good incident-command training can offer is a set of mechanisms for deciding when and how to wind a search down, ethically and by the book. In some ways, when we roll up on a search like this we’re even bigger heroes to the local authorities than when we actually find somebody.


In this case, we had a number of clues of uncertain significance to follow up on, and a few bald spots in the previous search efforts to cover, before we could suspend.


Before I left for the search, I got a call from our incident commander, Don Scelza, who said, “Bring your caving gear.”


At the time, we weren't a cave rescue team. But a number of us were cavers, and had taken at least the introductory National Cave Rescue Commission rescue class. In this case, Don had something very specific in mind. A dog of unknown quality had alerted near a maze of rocks — essentially, a little cave system that had lost its roof — and Don wanted me to explore the maze thoroughly to rule out any, well, dead people being in there.


What I did not bring, and this is going to become poignantly relevant, was a dog. With Moe’s untimely and still-frustrating medical discharge [1], we’d gotten caught with only one operational dog — and Heather and Pip, along with our teammate Bill Evans, had gone to Mississippi, as part of the post-Katrina response, duly deputized by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania [2].


When I rolled up on the search scene, I had something else to do before I did any caving. At the time, before our team had its trailer, our gear had a habit of dispersing among the officers. Since I was then communications officer, I had our radios in my car and needed to set up our communications net as job one.


The base radio was a challenge. We had no electric power in the picnic shelter that served as a command post; I tried plugging the radio into a car cigarette-lighter inverter I had, only to find that, between the power loss at the plug, the inverter itself, and the power supply, we didn’t have enough juice to run the radio.


“You know, the radio runs on 12-volt DC,” Don said, looking over my shoulder, and I felt a little dim. I pulled the power supply off the radio, hooked the damned radio up directly to my car battery, and voila, we had a communications net. I wasn’t absolutely sure I’d be going home without a jump, but I had cables.


So I put my helmet, kneepads, and gloves on over my uniform, slung my gas-mask-bag cave pack over one shoulder, and hiked up to the grotto.


Normally you don’t do SAR tasks alone, and you never do cave tasks by yourself. But this wasn’t exactly a cave, and a grid team was covering an area right next to me, within easy shouting distance. So I dove in, starting at a big opening and working my way around counter-clockwise, crawling into every crack, every opening I could find.


The task was utterly uneventful until I was nearly back where I started from, at the far side of that big opening. Standing there, I had to admit that something smelled dead.


I thought, “Think like a dog.” Knowing the scent would likely rise in the daytime, I moved into the big opening and started climbing. From the top, I was able to move down into the smell, finding, eventually, the dead fox that was its source.


Can’t tell you what a relief that was. But I felt I had a good explanation of what the dog had alerted on — and that somebody needed to go back and do some remedial training.


I drew two other tasks that day; one, the field team leader’s nightmare, was to lead a team made up of park rangers, state troopers, and local firefighters in the day’s last area-search task.


I said to myself, “If you screw up, these guys will turn on you in a second.” We did have a difficult moment, when a rose thicket broke our line like the 20th Maine broke the Alabamians on Little Round Top. But I guess I handled it all right, because despite a little grumbling about how thoroughly I was making them perform a task that we all knew was pro forma, we had no major mutinies.


Earlier, though, I’d been making my way out to my last solo task of the day — a culvert leading from the reservoir that another dog had alerted on — and reflected on how utterly, totally cool I was. I was Joe SAR. I could do anything the incident required.


Multitasking? Bring it on, thought I …


Cruelly abandoned to hold down the farm on my own while th’wife was masterminding adoptions for nearly 250 rescued dogs in Montana — a different but still difficult multitasking mission — I’d been a little too busy to do a full entry recently. Instead I thought I’d give a quick smattering of stuff that caught my eye recently, but that has piled up way too fast for me to blog — or whatever it is I do in these pages — on them. In the event, this post got delayed, but here goes now:


First, in my Fortnight of Multitasking, something I was already suspecting — namely, let’s not kid ourselves about what great multitaskers we are. The people who multitask the most, apparently, suck at it the most. I think that multitasking gives the subjective impression of productivity without actually producing all that much.


A surprisingly sympathetic — and harrowing — story about what happens to cockroaches when deprived of social interactions. Answer: the poor little buggers get clinical depression.


Finally, and maybe most importantly, there’s this item about the movement behaviors of white blood cells. I got myself into a bit of a twist trying to figure out how having more receptors on one side of the cell would help one of these cells find the source of a chemical gradient, given that the difference in concentration of that chemical at each end of the cell has to be negligible. Then I saw this piece in Nature about a new method for observing individual cells in a living animal, through its intact skin. Turned out that not too long ago, folks used this technique to see that white blood cells moving toward an infection don’t move in a uniform front. They bob and weave, in apparent random motion.


Well, I’ve got an alternative explanation: they’re casting for scent, just like a moth trying to regain a pheromone plume he’s lost — or, maybe, a SAR dog trying to zero in on a search subject in difficult scent conditions.


Be that as it may, I had my own little epiphany about searching — and the limitations to multitasking — as I was crawling up that culvert, green slime dripping on my back [3]. It struck me that I’d never had to crawl up a culvert like that before, and I realized immediately why — normally, I’d have sent my dog.


And that’s when it hit me: I had no dog, but they’d given me all the dog tasks anyway. I really was just a dog’s sidekick.


Humbled, and again relieved at once again finding nothing, I trudged back to base to report.


[1] Happy ending: Moe has today found fulfillment and gainful employment as head of homeland security for our little farm.

[2] This is literally true. Soon after they left, I learned that the text of the mutual aid agreement between Pennsylvania and Mississippi that governed the response had been hastily scraped over, word for word, from the one that sent Pennsylvania state troopers down there, and included full police powers (remember, this was post-Katrina, and everybody was scrambling). For reasons that would be obvious to anybody who knows Bill or Heather, we didn’t tell either of them until they got back.

[3] Ruined my @$%#^$ uniform shirt.

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