First responders get search training

Published 11:39 pm Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The mother called in a panic — she had arrived at the Lake Meade skate park to pick up her 16-year-old son, and he was nowhere to be found.

Soon, searchers swarmed the woods near the skate park, looking for clues to the teen’s whereabouts. He was described as wearing blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt and tennis shoes. He’d had a Subway meal for lunch on his way to the park and has an affinity for Texas Hold’Em poker.

After coming across a Subway wrapper, a skateboard and playing cards in the woods, the searchers finally find the teen about two hours after the original call. He had a broken leg and hypothermia, so they stabilized him and prepare to take him to the hospital.

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All of this was a training scenario for 28 new first responders from the Southside Regional Fire Academy on Wednesday. The class, “Search and Rescue for the First Responder” was led by instructors from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and volunteers from Tidewater Search and Rescue.

All but one of the new recruits are set to be Suffolk Fire and Rescue employees when they complete their training. The other is a Portsmouth recruit.

The students split into six teams, and each team was assigned a different part of the wooded area behind the Lake Meade Park to search on Wednesday. They had learned about different search tactics, the use of a compass and other vital information during the first half of the class on Tuesday.

“We train them not to look for the obvious,” said Rob Speiden, an adjunct instructor with the state emergency management department. “If they’re looking for the obvious, they’ll miss the subtle clues, but if they’re looking for the subtle clues, the obvious will be obvious.”

Speiden said the searchers are taught to look for footprints and personal items that may have been dropped. In a real search, dogs would be called in to assist with picking up the missing person’s scent.

“The majority of lost people are found in six hours if things are done correctly,” Speiden said.

On Wednesday, however, there were a few mishaps. One team, for example, calculated the coordinates of the found skateboard incorrectly.

And another team radioed to the command post that its compass had been lost. That brought on a little teasing from the instructors.

“Be on the lookout for a compass,” instructor Nathan Brown said into the radio. “Clear plastic. Red lines. Four years old. Goes by the nickname ‘Fred.’”

A steady rain fell throughout most of the training, but the instructors were pleased, because it prepared the recruits for searching in all kinds of weather.

“It’s a good learning environment, but they’re going to struggle with it,” instructor Theresa Crossland said. She noted that sometimes, light rain actually can help with real searches because it keeps the scent closer to the ground for the dogs and helps create better footprints.

Lt. Mason Copeland of Suffolk Fire and Rescue said he wished it were about 20 degrees cooler.

“If you can search in that, you can search in anything,” he said.

Eventually, one of the search teams in the woods found the “missing person,” a 14-year-old volunteer who is a junior member of Tidewater Search and Rescue. They treated him for a simulated broken leg and hypothermia.

But there was little chance of the volunteer actually having hypothermia — he had been sitting in Copeland’s van most of the time they had been searching for him.