I finally got around to reading this thread -- excellent advice all around. I especially liked the xls for the detailed itinerary, the suggestion for radios for parties to talk to each other and the final itinerary on the dashboard (or maybe in an envelope on the seat with "Route" in big black letters -- might not want to let the car clouters know when you'll be back).
The walkie-talkie gizmos come in handy a lot. Parties who don't keep together easily get separated or pass each other without knowing it. With those things, at least we eliminate a number of the "I haven't seen my buddy in x hours" type reports. Even saved a guy's life once when one got sick, radioed the partner way, way ahead who came back and reported it to me. He was tanking from hypernatremia and was in seizures by the time I got there (drinking too much water, not enough electrolytes/food).
Seems like it'd be nice if the wilderness permit form had all those fields that you mention on it, and one could enter them, regardless of starting point. I only asked about SAR approaches because if someone might be looking for my party, I'd like to know what their general approach might be.
I think Sequoia Kings asks for the car license when getting a permit, though it probably doesn't always happen. In general, the order of battle for a SAR is:
1) Someone is reported overdue or injured.
2) Determine how accurate the report is. 2nd hand? Is the person actually overdue or just hasn't checked in as scheduled -- either using a SPOT or calling from a trailhead enroute.
3) What was the route? What was the weather, stream crossings etc. -- is there a reason the person could be behind schedule?
4) Any medical conditions that might amp up the seriousness of the report? (e.g. insulin dependent diabetic).
5) Experience level (that's never accurate -- relatives always report missing as "expert" but we always ask...).
6) Get as much preliminary information as possible as above to figure how many resources to put into the incident. Start focusing on route. What did they say? Who did they talk to? Emails to friends mentioning the route?
7) Somewhere in there, as it becomes more serious, a person is appointed Incident Command. This can still be pretty low-key, but there's now one person designated to run the operation and report information to.
8) Along the way, you're also trying to figure out the famed Point Last Seen (PLS). You need to start somewhere. At the beginning, it may be their home in Tennessee.
9) If it's still in no real cause-for-alarm stage, backcountry rangers are called and asked if they've seen the person &/or leave notes on trail signs to check in. Some areas have sign-in sheets and those are checked. Another fun SAR phrase: Last Known Point, if the person signed in, though wasn't seen.
10) If still no word, you start really amping up. Teams are called in, both locally (rangers) and if it's a large search area, the volunteer SAR teams are called in. An official request for them goes through the California Emergency Management Agency and you specify the experience level you need.
11) The Incident Command is ramped up. Someone is now likely responsible for Plans (figuring out where to search); Operations, Investigations, etc. Someone's buying food and other needed gear for the incoming teams. Another is starting to keep track of the geospatial information (PLS, route) and working with Plans to create search segments -- dividing the SAR perimeter up into small areas that can reasonably be searched by a team of 2 in a day.Team maps and briefing information with a photo and description are made to give to the incoming teams, post on trailheads etc.
You're first step in planning is to establish a search perimeter and search within that area. Sometimes it's based on how far you think a person can travel since PLS and you try to put people at that perimeter to keep an eye out for them or leave signs on trails to stay there and DON'T MOVE!
12) The Investigator is pulling in all the wilderness permits going back before the missing started the trip, looking up phone numbers, calling anyone who was in the area to find if they'd been seen. This is often successful. It's also important to note that negative information (no, didn't see them) is as important as a positive sighting.
13) You decide on which areas to search first based on what you think the probability is they'll be in a given area (segment). This is an art, though there's attempts to quantify it.
The real problem is that in most cases, someone is missing because they've done something totally unexpected -- usually a series of unexpected things. That's why they're overdue or even lost. You have to think like them and that's a problem... . Sometimes, they're in an area with an obvious terrain trap -- something that funnels people in like a roach motel (Tenaya Canyon is a classic. They get in but they can't get out).
The agency starts flying teams in and trying to search by air. If you're lucky, you have two helicopters -- one to ferry teams, one to search. You also need an experienced pilot and someone familiar with the terrain on board. It's really, really hard to pick out people from the air.
Even with a for-sure overdue and likely in trouble person (missed showing up for work, needs meds etc), it's usually a full day before the first teams are dropped off to begin a search.
14) With any luck at all, you start picking up clues as you go which help narrow and concentrate the search. Someone saw them on xx date at a lake. They said they were heading over there. Then you can at least start moving teams into that area.
15) Also with luck, the overdue person realizes they're lost or way overdue and are taking active steps to signal helicopters, get out in the open, get to a place where they'll find other people. If you're lost, it's best not to get more lost or risk injury. Get into the open and build a fire. Fire & smoke are pretty easy (kinda) to see from the air or even the ground. Four guys a few years back torched off a whole tree that was spotted a distance away (also, it was a safe tree to light -- it had been raining for days and the tree was on bare granite).
16) Part of the decision tree for the SAR is the likelihood of searching for someone who's responsive vs. someone who's not. The latter is obviously more difficult.
17) Most always, the person is found. And, most always, they're OK. But the next decision is how long to search. On average, I'd say ten days, in the absence of any clues, is what usually happens (I'm just going on a very loose guess). The problem is there are a LOT of incredible survival stories of people surviving long past what SAR people think they can do. There's some really grim stories out there of people not being found for years. Then the remains are found with signs (or even a diary) that they were alive for a long time.
So there you go. Whatever you can do to narrow down the search area in a worst case scenario is the ideal. I understand changing where you want to go but, if you're solo, you really have to weigh the risk both to yourself and the 100 or so people, helicopters etc. that are going to try to find you.
One more thing. This all looks really good on paper, but an actual major SAR is barely controlled chaos. The idea is to try to impose a kind of order on the search to cover the fact that the overdue person has done something likely random. You've got teams coming in from all over the region and state; you've got a large search area of gnarly terrain; you've got maybe 15+ people trying to organize it, feed these people, get them their needed equipment and get them out to the search area as fast as possible. And, oh yeah, you've got some poor guy with a family who's really worried about him. None of you have any real idea of where he is, only that he's not checked in or shown up at work.
What a bungathon. It's amazing we find anyone... .