Sunday, March 3, 2013

Safety--Getting Permission to Investigate

Photo by Sean Leahy  Photography
Maximizing safety during paranormal investigations has been a hot topic in the field lately, so I've decided that a series of safety-related articles might be a nice addition to the blog.  Much of what I'll be discussing over the next few weeks may seem like common sense, but sometimes we need to speak of the unspoken when it comes to certain protocol...just as a reminder and a reinforcement to what we should already be doing.

This first week's installment deals with the preliminary step of gaining proper permission to be at a location and how this  issue, which usually falls under the ethics of proper investigation practices, is actually first and foremost, a safety issue. Again, this sounds like such a common sense maneuver that every team claims to do diligently that it shouldn't even need to be discussed.  But, you'd be surprised at how many people out there still don't obey this basic tenet of paranormal investigation and its a mistake that COULD cost them their lives.  In fact, in some cases, it has.

In 2006, a 17 year old cheerleader was shot in the head in Ohio after she and several friends were caught trespassing on a man's property, which was rumored to be haunted.  In 2010, a young man was killed in North Carolina when a train struck him; he and several others were on an active stretch of track in search of a phantom engine.  These are extreme cases, but they are real cases...cases which could have easily been avoided if these people were not trespassing.

By my personal definition, active trespassing is when someone knowingly enters a property or location where they are explicitly NOT supposed to be---and they know they are not supposed to be there but they don't care.  If someone tells you to not be on the property, DON'T be on the property!  If there are any No Trespassing signs anywhere, DON'T enter the property!

In the paranormal investigation world, there are luckily not too many legitimate groups that engage in active trespassing.  Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of young, legend-tripping thrill seekers who engage in this activity, and when they get caught, claim they are ghost us ALL a bad name.  Not only is this activity against our investigation code of ethics, it is illegal and can result in arrests and prosecution.  It is also inherently dangerous as many times, these No Trespassing signs are there for a REASON!  There's a very good chance that there are risks associated with the property, and the owners don't want anyone getting hurt and suing.

Dilapidated buildings may be structurally unsound and pose a risk of collapse, or having someone fall through the floor.  These buildings can also harbor asbestos, mold, rodent and bird droppings, etc...all of which can pose a serious threat to those entering without proper equipment.  Outdoor properties may contain old hunting traps, mine shaft openings, wells, and hidden barbed wire fencing, among the many other dangers.  There is also the danger of the human element:  there may be someone actively trying to protect the property, or there simply may be someone there who is up to no good.

Passive trespassing is more common in this field, but can still be just as dangerous. By my own personal definition again, I define passive trespassing as investigating a location even though you cannot find an owner for the property, or believing that you have a right to be there since its "public" property.  Obviously, this area is a little more gray.  All properties are owned by someone, whether its an individual, a corporation, or the government.  All necessary steps should be taken to try to contact and obtain permission, in writing, from the owner to be on the property.  A visit to your county assessor's office, or county clerk can provide an owner's information, but also don't be afraid to ask around.  If there are residences or businesses nearby, they probably have a good idea who owns the property, or whether or not its abandoned.  Local law enforcement may also have an idea of who owns the property.  If an owner can truly not be found, its usually best to err on the side of caution and wait for another investigation opportunity to present itself.

Should a property actually be "public" property, make sure you are up-to-date on your state code.  Places like cemeteries and public parks are always favorite spots for newer ghost hunters to explore and gain some experience, but in many states, these places, whether its posted or not, are technically closed to the public after dusk.  You can still seek permission from whatever governing body runs or owns the location, and in many times, will be granted permission.

This last category is pretty broad and honestly, pretty weird.  I wasn't sure what to call it, so I'm going with unintentional trespassing.  This is when someone gives you permission for an investigation, but that person really isn't authorized to do so.  Sometimes an employee of a business will ask you to investigate, or give you permission without clearing it with the owner...especially if the owner lives out of the area and is not involved in the day to day operations of the business.  Another common scenario would be tenants of a rental giving permission for an investigation without consent of or to the knowledge of the landlord.  Generally these scenarios won't result in any type of physical/bodily harm, especially if the representative that gave you the permission is on site.  You may be asked to leave, or not publish certain information about any evidence you may collect if the owner finds out what is going on, but I've never heard of a case where anyone was hurt in this type of scenario.

However, there is a third type of unintentional trespass that COULD be dangerous. This is when there are multiple people living at a residence, usually a husband and wife, and only ONE of the adults gives consent...against the wishes or knowledge of the other, lol.  This actually does happen, and its happened to us.  Luckily, we spotted the red flags and gracefully bowed out of the investigation request before coming to the site.  I could only imagine what would happen if someone came home and found a bunch of uninvited strangers in his/her home!  This is also something that may happen when there are multiple generations of adults in the home and the parent or child gives permission against the wishes of the other, a scenario you sometimes see when there is an elderly person in the home.  Obviously, you would want to try to make sure that EVERYONE in the home is on-board and AWARE of what is happening, and that if there is a suspected issue, check to see whose name is actually on the title or deed, and that the one granting permission is over the age of 18 and is of sound mind.

So let's say that you have been granted permission by the appropriate person(s) to be at a location (or its a public location and state code is loose enough that it doesn't specifically disallow you to be there) and its a location where the owners will NOT be on site with you.  In fact, due to the nature of these types of locations, people in general usually aren't there at night.  How can you continue to maximize your safety?  I've written an article about outdoor investigations which offers a good deal of safety tips on this subject, but here's a basic run-down of safety tips that apply specifically to these cases.

* Do a walk-through of the property during the daylight hours, making note of any potential hazards.
* Let someone outside your group know where you'll be and when you're expected back.
* Don't investigate alone.
* Get written permission and keep a copy of it with you, as well as your ID.
* If someone asks you to leave, don't argue.  Just leave and contact the owners.
* Alert local law enforcement, caretakers, or any neighbors that you will be on site and let them know for how long.
* Wear light colored clothing to increase your visibility.
* Closed toe shoes are preferred.
* Have a cell phone handy.
* Bring a first aid kit
* Stay off any roads or train tracks
* Have proper safety equipment, such as gloves and respirators if in old buildings
* No smoking on the property
* If a building has more than one floor, don't go beyond the ground floor if there is any question about the stability of the stairs.
* No horseplay, no drinking, and no drugs.
* Do your research--if this is a location where drug dealers hang out, there's lots of violent crime, or an active serial killer is dumping bodies, then this might not be the best location to visit.
* When in doubt, get out.  If for whatever reason the situation feels unsafe, leave.

I hope you found this information useful and will always remember to just practice good sense when it comes to investigating places that have the potential to be dangerous.  Happy hunting, stay safe, and join me next Sunday when I'll share my recommendations for building the ideal ghost hunting first aid kit!

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