Frontier medicine: The epidemiology of New Mexico wilderness search and rescue operations, 2008-2011

Tomas Xavier Villarreal, The University of Texas School of Public Health


This paper describes trends in New Mexico's search and rescue operations from 2008-2011, as well as preventative interventions to reduce the incidence of search and rescue events. A retrospective review of New Mexico Search and Rescue (NMSAR) incident reports from 2008-2011 was conducted. These reports are in the public domain and have been provided by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, Search and Rescue Division. The subjects selected are users of New Mexico wilderness areas for which NMSAR was activated. Incident reports were submitted to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety by the regional SAR team. This data was further assessed using an epidemiology tool (Haddon's Matrix) to identify risk factors and prevention strategies for SAR events. There were 432 reported search and rescue operations involving 549 subjects. Of these subjects, 408 were uninjured (74.32%), 78 were injured (14.21%), 27 were deceased (4.92%) and the status of 36 was unknown at the time of incident closure (4.92%). Hiking was the most common activity being performed by subjects (44.81%). Most incidents occurred between the hours of 18:00 and 24:00 (41.09%). Incidents occurred most commonly on weekends during June, July and August. The top three response types were land search (24.53%), callout (23.67%) and rescue (13.38%). The three most common jurisdictions searched for subjects was U.S. Forest Service (40.00%), Bureau of Land Management (13.01%) and private land (10.60%). The majority of subjects were found in the primary search area (71.70%). Seventy four risk factors and fifty one preventative strategies for SAR incidents were identified using the Haddon Matrix. Though a large proportion of the current body of research on search and rescue incidents uses National Park Service data, the majority of search and rescue incidents within New Mexico occurred on U.S. Forest Service jurisdictions. This suggests the scope of jurisdictions studied by current search and rescue research is too narrow. The majority of incidents as well as fatalities occurred in hikers, despite common perceptions that other activities, such as climbing, caving or motor biking, are more dangerous. The majority of subjects were not ill or injured at the time of rescue, raising questions about the appropriate use of limited search and rescue resources by wilderness participants. The search and rescue incident risk factors and prevention strategies presented in the Haddon Matrices are intended to assist participants in wilderness recreation and managers of wilderness areas best reduce the need for and consumption of search and rescue resources in their particular region.

Subject Area

Environmental Health|Environmental science|Recreation

Recommended Citation

Tomas Xavier Villarreal, "Frontier medicine: The epidemiology of New Mexico wilderness search and rescue operations, 2008-2011" (2014). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI1564151.