If you start Search and Rescue (SAR) to find people, you will be sorely disappointed. The majority of your time will be spent determining where people aren’t and training. Along the way you will help those who are lost and their families, meet some great people, build upon your outdoor skills, and acquire more gear.
Ten years ago on a wilderness survival campout with my sons’ scout troop, we had a Search and Rescue (SAR) team member come talk about SAR and demonstrate how a search is done. At the time I thought that would be fun to do after my sons aged out of scouting. In 2010 after 2 Eagle Scouts, getting out of most of my troop responsibilities, and 100 days on the AT, I needed a new outdoor activity and remembered our SAR team introduction. Ken “DripDry” Holder, fellow hiking buddy, scout leader, and Trail Ambassador, was in the same situation so we both began our SAR journey with Piedmont Search and Rescue (PSAR).
First, a brief background on how SAR works in Virginia. There are 23 volunteer Search and Rescue groups in Virginia, each with an agreement with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM). These groups only get called out when a local legal authority, typically a sheriff or police chief, requests additional resources through VDEM. These resources include ground searchers, K9 teams, equine searchers, trackers, aircraft, and technical rescue groups. All of these groups are staffed by volunteers who provide all of their own gear, uniforms, and time. And we’re available to localities at no cost.
Back to my SAR journey. Joining a SAR group is just the beginning, then the training starts. There are some online courses from FEMA and some basic training from your group to get you Call Out Qualified, which means you can go on a search with a chaperone from your group. Now you can finally go out in the woods when called, while praying you don’t make a mess of things. For continuing training, our group has monthly meetings, plus quarterly full day training. Then to get fully qualified, there are state certification classes that are two solid weekends of classrooms and simulations. (Fortunately work hasn’t figured out that I can fit 25 hours of training into a weekend for two weekends while paying for my own gas, food, and lodging. Plus purchasing all of my own supplies.) After basic ground certification you can go back to achieve specialty certifications. As an example Ken and I have completed certifications in basic tracking and team leadership, and plan to take the search management course in January.
The topics covered in training are varied and range from the basics such as knots and land navigation to tracking and crime scene preservation. If you like to learn, SAR will provide all you can handle. I’ve also learned much more of the geography of Virginia. Our group is centrally located in Virginia, so we get called out to searches in a large area of the state.
I want to describe a typical search, but I can’t because they are all quite different. People with dementia are one of our most frequent search subjects, however this year has provided plenty of variety with a hot air balloon accident, an F-15 crash, and one of our largest searches ever. So instead of describing a search, I’ll cover how I respond to a search.
It starts with a text from our dispatchers asking for availability for a search in a specified county. I’ll respond with a message that I’m available. Then I’ll start loading the car with my pack and extra supplies, put on my uniform, top off the water bottles, and check the batteries. In the meantime, our dispatchers have sent out the location of the search base and directions to get there. The drive is typically 1-2 hours to get to base. Once I check in at base, it’s time to wait for a task assignment. Our group and other SAR groups also provide assistance with search management, so they’ve already started preparing tasks based on the probable behavior of the subject. Once I’ve been given a task, I’ll fill out the team from available searchers, brief them, then head out to our task area. The task will have instructions on the type of search and how to accomplish it, but there can be big differences between the maps and how the ground looks now, so it may be modified in the field.
When we search, we’re not searching just for the person, we’re searching for clues. Of course the biggest and best clue is the subject. If we can tell that the subject has been through our task area, that can significantly narrow the search. Most of the time our searches tell us where the subjects aren’t, which helps focus the search to other higher probability areas. After completing the first task, a cycle of rest then a new task will go on for as long as I am able to search. When the subject is found, an evacuation team is formed to get them out to medical assistance. Finally it is time to check out at base and head back home.
Not all searches end quickly. Some can run for long stretches before they are suspended. We currently have one in Charlottesville related to an abduction that has been going for 4 weeks now. I’ve been up there 5 times so far, working with ground search teams and canine teams. As volunteers, we go when we can, fitting it around work, family, and other commitments.
DId I mention that SAR is a great excuse for acquiring more gear? If you ever want to start a debate among searchers, just ask what’s the best flashlight or pack. You will probably get more opinions than there are people, because everybody has multiple ones. Unlike lightweight backpacking gear, SAR gear has to be sturdy and dependable. Most of the time we are bushwhacking and it almost always involves briars. So no wicking polyester as outside layers for clothing. Heavyweight uniform pants and shirts reduce, but not eliminate, the briars that make it to your skin and they don’t snag like a lot of hiking clothes.
We also have to pack some personal safety equipment, such as webbing and carabiners, as well as gloves and eye protection. Sometimes we may need to wait for extended periods while out on task, so extra clothing layers are needed as well as enough food for 24 hours. My survival kit includes an emergency bivy and small water filter, just in case.
SAR is lot like backpacking, you have the planning, the training, the gear, and the dedicated people with a passion for what they do. I feel lucky that I get to pursue both.