Authorities use GPS to help prevent potential suicide in the woods

Leslie Slape

Modern technology and old-fashioned teamwork led Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputies to a remote forested area Tuesday in time to save a suicidal man’s life.

Events began shortly before 2 p.m., when a Cowlitz 911 dispatcher took a call from a man saying he found a suicide note on a truck parked on Powell Road about three miles east of Castle Rock, said Chief Criminal Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig. The caller also said he saw a man walking away from the truck into the woods holding a rope.

The dispatcher, who has been with the 911 center two years, kept the caller on the line as she dispatched law enforcement and paramedics.

“It took a while for her to realize that the guy who was reporting ... actually turned out to be the guy who was walking through the woods going to hang himself,” Rosenzweig said.

The man disconnected the call several times, but the dispatcher kept calling back, he said.

Sgt. Corey Huffine said Castle Rock paramedics found the man’s vehicle by a locked gate before he and other deputies arrived. They began exploring the rugged terrain for the man, whom they later learned is 31.

“He was on the phone to dispatch while we were searching, and I was hoping he would indicate to them ‘I see a deputy,’ ” Huffine said.

When that didn’t happen, he asked everyone to hit their sirens. The man told the dispatcher he heard the sirens, Huffine said, which gave everyone hope.

“I attempted to talk to him directly several times but he would not speak to me,” Huffine said.

Huffine used his mobile data terminal to send the dispatcher questions to ask him “to get his mind on other things,” he said.

But the man kept threatening to hurt himself, and suddenly “the phone went silent,” Huffine said.

Fortunately, the 911 center has technology that shows the latitude and longitude of incoming calls, Rosenzweig said. And doubly fortunate, Huffine’s hobby is geocaching — a kind of treasure hunting using GPS units. Sheriff’s patrol cars are equipped with hand-held GPS units, Rosenzweig said.

“Dispatch was able to give me the GPS coordinates from the last call,” Huffine said. “He was about three-quarters of a mile away as the crow flies. We started heading that direction, continuing to hit the siren.”

Logging roads and hiking trails don’t show up on a GPS unit, and he lost the signal frequently in heavy forest, he said.

“Eventually I lost it altogether, but it had gotten me on the right road,” he said.

Then the caller came back on the phone saying he needed help now, Huffine said.

“I found another gate and called for him, and he responded,” he said. Huffine walked in, found the man and brought him back to paramedics, who took him to St. John Medical Center.

He did not appear to have any life-threatening injuries, Rosenzweig said.

The search took 40 minutes, he said.

Rosenzweig said the dispatcher “did an outstanding job talking to this guy and helping him.” As for Huffine, “We’re lucky we had somebody like Corey who’s very adept at technology, employing it and using it. He’s probably the most adept deputy in the sheriff’s office at using technology to make his job better.”

Huffine, 39, has been with the sheriff’s office 17 years.

Cowlitz 911 Operations Manager Deanna Wells also praised the pair for an “outstanding performance” using “extraordinary compassion and insight.”