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Missing in Action: How a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years Experience Disappeared

Did High Sierra ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to depression or disaster?

In 1976, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force named Robert Mattson came up with a method for prioritizing ground-search areas. His then-innovative strategy, first published in the Spring 1976 issue of Search and Rescue Magazine, came to be known as the Mattson Consensus. It was inspired by the pioneering work of B.O. Koopman, a member of the U.S. Navy’s Operations Evaluation Group, who created a mathematical approach to locating enemy submarines in the vast oceans during World War II. The strategy was so effective that Koopman and his group were credited with helping win the battle against German U-boats in the Atlantic.

The Mattson Consensus has remained a favorite technique of SAR professionals like Coffman, who implemented its classic approach as leader of the search effort at Bench Lake. According to Mattson, a successful search required the presence of experts who knew something about either the missing person or the terrain.

In this case, Coffman had assembled both. After collecting as much information as possible about the victim and the territory and dividing the overall search area into smaller segments, Coffman conducted a secret ballot. Each ranger was asked to assign each segment a number value–high for areas where Randy most probably was, low for least-probable locales. According to Mattson, it was “best to do this privately because it will insure that even the meeker individuals will be able to express their opinion without being intimidated by the more vocal members of the group.”

Though Coffman ran the show and knew the history behind the theory, the rangers knew the drill and spoke the same acronym-heavy language. POA, for example, was code for probability of area, the odds that Randy was in a certain sector. ROW was the rest of the world and represented the possibility that Randy was somewhere outside the designated search area.

The percentage points assigned by each ranger for 16 segments plus the ROW segment had to add up to 100 points. Nobody could assign a zero for any area. That would mean he or she knew with certainty that Randy was not in that particular zone, which was impossible. In his 1976 article, Mattson had taunted readers for such false confidence in the face of unknowns: “If you KNOW where the survivors are, why are you searching!”

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