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  • Writer's pictureRebecca A Penn, MA

A first responder's study of visual search

Searching for targets amidst a flood of visual noise and distractors.

I have the privilege of acting as a volunteer wilderness search and rescue responder, and of being a graduate student in experimental psychology. My passion for search and rescue ultimately led to my return to New Mexico State University for a PhD in Cognitive Psychology under the advisement of Dr. Michael C. Hout.

2018 National Association of Search and Rescue: K9 Area II Certification with Leika, the Border Collie

It was initially in 2013 that I tested for a national certification for wilderness first responders provided by the National Association for Search and Rescue. This national certification includes two field stations which involve conducting a thorough visual search of an area using a SAR rule of thumb called "searching the cube." Searching the cube means looking around you in 360 degrees. This includes lifting your gaze to examine the area above ground and turning around and searching the area you've just passed through. All while navigating a line search or grid search. Little was I to know that this would evolve into a master's thesis study at the time.

My thesis study was modeled after specific field stations in NASAR's SARTECH II certification test. Participants in this study (n = 60) searched an open field while following a standardized route and finding as many targets as possible. This study required considerable steps taken in experimental design to minimize as much noise as possible. We also used a linear mixed model for a more granular analysis of our data and results. We manipulated factors such as instruction-no-instruction (between-subjects), as well as low- and high-frequency effects (within-subjects).

2020 Experimental stage for my thesis study

Are there ways to improve search performance in a three-dimensional environment? This is a question I am passionate about! In part, my research is driven by an innate curiosity about how the processes of visual search studied in laboratories might be taken a step further. This requires empirically modeling three-dimensional search to have a more scientifically grounded approach to improve search performance in environments with no monitors for viewing or screening or other mitigating tools for finding targets. In part, this passion also comes from striving to improve SAR responders' efficacy, accuracy, and reliability while searching for lost persons—or clues that might lead to their whereabouts in the wilderness. In the latter case, factors such as response time and accuracy in search can result in lives saved and lives lost.


Member of...

Vision Sciences and Memory Lab, Dr. Michael C. Hout, New Mexico State University

Dona Anna County Search and Rescue

Organ Mountain Technical Rescue Squad, Las Cruces NM

Sandia Search Dogs of Albuquerque , NM

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