Search and rescue teams test skills

Published 9:53 pm Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hundreds of first responders and search-and-rescue experts converged on King’s Fork High School on Feb. 24.

Nearby, three people had been reported missing. A woman whose father lived with her and her husband woke up about 5 a.m. to discover her father, who has Alzheimer’s, missing from the residence and the front door wide open.

This has been a problem before, so the embarrassed couple didn’t want to call 911. Instead, they set out to find her father on their own. A neighbor, returning home in the wee hours, spoke to them as they left. But about three hours later, the neighbor realized none of the three had returned home, so he reported them missing.

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By the end of the day, search teams would find the husband walking through backyards, the wife injured and her father dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Fortunately, none of it actually happened. The couple were volunteer actors, and her “father” was a mannequin with a fake gun by its side. It was all set up to test the performance of regional search-and-rescue efforts.

“The event went very well,” said Suffolk Fire & Rescue Lt. Mason Copeland, the exercise coordinator. “We incorporated a couple of things that we normally don’t, and we had resources that were there for us that we never think about.”

Copeland said about 80 to 100 people participated from throughout the region. Various teams included Tidewater Search and Rescue, Piedmont Search and Rescue, Gates County Search and Rescue, TriSar, Civil Air Patrol, K9 Alert, Greater Atlantic Rescue Dogs and Dogs East.

Copeland said he especially appreciated the participation of Civil Air Patrol and Gates County Search and Rescue.

“We’re always looking for air support,” Mason said. “Civil Air Patrol is available for us.”

Copeland also said the relationship with Gates County is invaluable, since its border with Suffolk is entirely rural and includes the Great Dismal Swamp.

“They’re a bordering community to us,” Copeland said. “Should we have to search in the swamp area, it’s not really that far for Gates County to get there to help us. They’re doing a search and rescue exercise the first weekend of May, and we’re probably sending a bunch of people over there.”

Mason also said the inclusion in the scenario of finding a deceased individual helped test the teams’ performance on preserving evidence at a crime scene. Teams are trained to treat all unattended deaths as a crime scene, he said.

“We always teach it, but we never practice it,” Copeland said of the search teams. “You can read a book and get all the knowledge in the world, but putting it into play is a different story. They did good that day. We were really pleased with it.”

Bob Allam of Piedmont Search and Rescue said exercises like what happened Feb. 24 are invaluable.

“It’s giving us a chance to work together so when something does come up that’s a real search, the relationships are already established,” he said.

Copeland said that despite the fact it was an evaluation exercise — the team was judged on its performance by a handful of experts who observed throughout the day — it was still good practice.

“That’s why we did it the way we did it,” he said.

Multiple private entities, including the Suffolk Youth Athletic Association, Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church and a handful of homeowners, gave permission for their land to be used during the exercise, Copeland said. He was thankful for their support.