Thursday, February 26, 2009

One skier dead, one finally rescued after 10 days

According to a couple of stories from CBC News and, a Woman has died after she and her husband got lost while skiing and spent 10 days in the B.C. wilderness.

The tragedy of this story is massive. I won't recount all of the details (see the above articles for that), but it seems that critical failures of preparation were made by the skiers, and critical failures of response were made by the local volunteer S&R team and the RCMP.

Sadly, any one of these missed steps by the skiers might have changed the outcome:
  • They didn't let anyone know to expect their return that day. No ground search was launched until they were actually reported missing nine days after getting lost.
  • The couple had no survival gear, just two granola bars and no water. Even a basic PSK (Pocket/Personal Survival Kit) would have provided for fire, and thus melted snow for water. An improvised shelter of even basic materials like a couple of garbage bags or a mylar space blanket would have reduced their exposure significantly also, reducing the need for additional calories to keep warm.
  • No GPS or Map & Compass. Getting lost is best avoided by "staying found", but even someone who is massively lost could likely have found a path back to safety given a little time, and assuming they knew how to use those tools.
  • No Personal Locator Beacon. A $450 PLB would definitely have alerted the highest eschelons of both American and Canadian SARSAT command and would certainly have kicked off the search nine days sooner, no matter what mistakes were made at the local government level.
As for the local volunteer S&R and RCMP organizations, I'm sure they will be looking long and hard at their own response procedures to determine why multiple SOS signals were ignored. The actions taken by the Golden & District Search and Rescue may even qualify as criminally negligent, and their response to the RCMP inquiries certainly hampered the RCMP response.

< Soapbox Mode > Its obvious that mistakes were made all around, but the skier's failure to prepare was the set that might have had the biggest direct impact.

Please please please, if you ever spend ANY amount of time in the outdoors, even as "civilized" as a ski or beach resort, consider your surroundings and circumstances and prepare for these kinds of events. And while you're preparing your few essential survival elements, please consider investing in a 406MHz PLB. I'm sure Ms. Fortin's family would agree that $450 is a small price in exchange for a life saved. If you have any doubt, let me point you to this other timely article: NOAA Satellites Helped Rescue 283 People in 2008

< / Soapbox Mode >


Monday, February 23, 2009

Science Olympiad: Junkyard Challenge

After I coached the "Robot Ramble" team for Mount Carmel High School's 2008 Science Olympiad team, I suppose there was no chance I'd get out of coaching an event for 2009.

The Science Olympiad folks served up a new event for this year, "Junkyard Challenge". The event consists of students partially pre-building an autonomous device to complete a pre-defined task, but the students must incorporate one or more "Mystery Materials" into the final build that takes place on-site at the start of competition. Its a great way for the competitors to demonstrate the ability to improvise, and potentially exposes them to a lot of different concepts.

The task for the regional-level competition was "Tipping the Scale", in-which the students must build a device to determine the mass of a challenge object provided during the test.

There were a number of ways to build a simple mechanical device based strictly on Hooke's law or a balance scale, but I asked my team if they wanted to try something more advanced, and they said "Yes!".

I'm proud to say that my team of High Schoolers built themselves an electronic scale, complete with a hand-built 5-stage ring oscillator biased by parallel plate capacitor acting as a transducer to measure the compression of the scale as mass was added. Besides my usual safety lecture and introduction to various machining operations for the mechanical part of the build, I had to introduce the team to some of the basics of electronics, including RC-circuits and the basic concept of an ideal parallel plate capacitor.

The concept for the capacitive transducer is based on something I was exposed to during an internship back in college. Obviously there are better (cheaper, easier, more accurate) ways to detect mass, such as using a strain-gauge load cell, but the competition rules were very explicit in disallowing any components harvested from commercial scales. To avoid any possible problems, I helped them build the whole device from absolute scratch.

I couldn't be more proud, as my guys took 4th place in their event, and MCHS took 2nd place overall, meaning a select portion of the team is headed to the State Competition in Long Beach on April 18th.

See more pictures of the build process in my web album.