LAND SEARCH TASK FORCES


by
Marian Hardy and Brooke Holt
Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S.
June 1993


In trying to come up with what to say in this presentation, I have had quite a problem. I keep feeling like I am preaching to the choir - but maybe not totally........

In business a Task Force is a group of people with special and different skills brought together to work as a unit to solve a particular problem. Usually the particular problem to be solved dictates the combination of skills, knowledge and experience of the people on the Task Force.

In the past few years, the FEMA Urban SAR Task Forces have been formed around the country. A Task Force is made up of 56 people all of whom have particular jobs to perform. And all are needed to solve the particular task which is to locate, access, stabilize and transport victims of catastrophic disasters. There are leader roles to plan, direct and coordinate the resources available as well as interface with the local responsible agency; there are specialists to do the field work, such as search, extrication and medical treatment; and there are technicians who are responsible for communications, logistics, documentation, safety, and structural engineering evaluation. All are necessary and required to solve the previously stated problem.

A Land Search Task Force is no different from the Business or FEMA Task Forces. The make up of a Land Search Task Force will however have some practical differences depending on the terrain, the weather conditions and the type of search being conducted - such as in a suburban, urban or rural area, in water search situations and in the location of human remains.. These resources might include but are not limited to

In searches on land we have found that not just one search resource holds all the answers, to solve the mystery of where the victim is located. The skills and experience of many types of resources are needed. Most times it is the coordinated effort of the search that finds the victim, not a single person's or one group's "superior skill". For instance, in the past 10 years in the Mid-Atlantic States, the various land search resources have been not only working together on searches more and more, but the various groups have been training together periodically in order to better understand and coordinate their respective skills communications and terminology.

The tools and techniques available to searchers to find someone under water are also increasing - in type and in numbers. For instance, in addition to the dragging tongs, there are:

If the search is for human remains, there is a whole band of further knowledge and technology for locating human remains under water, on land and buried underground. One of our NASAR members, John Dew of the FBI in New York, conducted a seminar in October 1991 entitled Location of Human Remains, which demonstrated the availability and use of :

These are all people and equipment resources for which you may have an application on a Task Force.

In your experience, what is your estimate of how often the Land Task-Force concept is practiced in reality? I suspect that if you have seen a well run search you have seen the Task Force concept in action. But how does this all come about? I can't give you any simple answers, but I don't think it just happens!

In 1981, when I started in search and rescue as a dog handler, things were different than I find them today. For instance, if we were called out by a Virginia Sheriffs Dept. for a search, our dog teams might well be the only outside resource participating, and the time we were called out was usually well into the search - maybe days. The police or sheriff's dept. might have their people there or there might be a local fire/rescue squad, but that was usually the extent of the resources involved.

In the early '80s, we occasionally met up with units from the Appalachian Search and Rescue Conference (ASRC) at a search, but less often than not, and there were certainly no other dog units involved, even though they were available. There seemed to be an unwritten law that if one dog unit was at the search no other dog units or SAR resources should be called out. I remember when a search might be held up awaiting the arrival of dog teams, so the area "wouldn't be contaminated" - this is not necessary and not really a good idea!.

In 1983, one of our contributors, the late Mrs Forest Mars, the owner of Kal Kan Pet Food Co., became interested in the Search and Rescue Dog movement in the U.S. . She asked about what was needed because she wanted Kal Kan to assist the dog units across the country as one of Kal Kan's Public Service Programs. I advised her representative that rather than giving belt bags, jackets and dog food for individual handlers, the best use of their support would be an Awareness Program to make agencies responsible for search, and the general public, aware of the capability and availability of SAR dog resources in the U.S..

To make a long story short, Kal Kan funded some projects within the NASAR SAR dog Committee - SAR Dog ALERT (for public awareness), the National SAR Dog Directory (for where to find dog teams ), the Water Search with Dogs Project, and the publication of the Compendium of SAR Dog Training and Evaluation Standards. The funding covered the costs of publication and some postage, only, and the work was done by NASAR volunteers. In addition, Kal Kan conducted an awareness program through the public media - TV, print and radio. DOGS-East, which was my dog unit at the time, was used by Kal Kan as a focus in the East. As a result, the number of searches we were called on during that time went from 18 (or 20) per year to 45 and then to 60 per year where it has remained ever since. The search call outs for other dog units in the U.S. also increased.

By the way, Kal Kan has through the years changed their product's name to Pedigree. The reason for this story at this time is that Kal Kan's/Pedigree's efforts and assistance have made a difference not only to the SAR dog community but also in other SAR communities, at least in the Virginia area.

Also in the early '80s Paul Demm of the VA Department of Emergency Services (DES)* would meet a couple of times a year with a few of the SAR resources available to the state - Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association (VSRDA), DOGS-East (D-E), the Civil Air Patrol, and ASRC Units - the Blue Ridge Mountain Rescue (BRMRG) and Shenandoah Mountain Rescue Groups (SMRG). The original purpose was to talk out problems or questions usually arising on searches in which the groups might have worked together in some combination. After it was noticed that the dogs were getting more and more call outs, an informal pact was made between DOGS-East and the ASRC leadership that whenever we - the dogs - were called out, we would suggest to the search boss that ASRC also be called - they could furnish overhead teams, ground field team leaders, communications, cave rescue teams, technical rescue and wilderness medical support. A number of times we called ASRC ourselves for overhead teams - because although a number of us in D-E were trained in Managing the Search Function (MSF), we would much rather be in the field with our dogs and we were a scarcer resource.

Even though this arrangement led to cooperation between search resources, the dog units continued to be called out separately. At the time there were three SAR dog units in the Virginia/Maryland area - Virginia Search and Rescue Dog Association (VSRDA), DOGS-East, and Blue and Gray Search and Rescue Dogs. The latter two units grew out of VSRDA.

Then in 1984, there was an unusually extensive and vicious tornado in North Carolina. The use of dog teams to find victims buried in debris in this sort of an event would have been an excellent resource, should anyone have thought of it, but none were called. Afterwards it occurred to me that even if someone should think of the dogs, who would they call? At the time although there were a number of SAR dog units on the Eastern seaboard none of them worked together -- a certain lack of trust seemed evident - sort of like " We train hard and we know we are good - but that other unit is unknown to us and for all we know, their teams might not be any good" --stay clear! This seemed like such a waste and the person who suffered because of it was the VICTIM ! In Virginia and beyond, a number of other factors began to add up to a potential problem.

It became important to be able to manage the scarce SAR Dog resource in some way that would work. The whole country was more than we could deal with, but the East coast dog units were a different story.

In 1984, a couple of us from DOGS-East and the newly formed West Jersey Canine SAR contacted all of the dog units on the East coast that we knew of at the time and suggested a round table meeting at a central location (in PA) to discuss non-controversial matters of common interest - such as radio frequencies, local problems and successes - get to know (and perhaps trust) each other and see what happens. Actually the first day was a success. We developed a protocol for call out and back up which is still used today,.and we decided that the concept of meetings was a good idea. We would continue.as the East Coast SAR Dog Confederation (ECSARDC). Late that night the Delaware Water Gap Park learned of our whereabouts and asked for dogs for a water search. The next morning dog teams from five different units were effectively working together.

At the meetings of the ECSDC, because we avoided controversial issues at first, barriers were broken down and mutual respect and trust developed between the participating units. There were more commonalities than differences. We standardized radio frequencies, shared sources for radios and prices, gave technical assistance in obtaining radio licences, and found that although our individual unit written standards might look different in format or length, the basic or minimum standards were the same in all units (and were all derived from the original American Rescue Dog Association standards developed by Bill Syrotuck). As mutual respect and trust developed, other issues such as training methods and various skills and techniques were shared and discussed.

Meanwhile back in Virginia, other events were taking place which further enhanced the coordinated efforts of many different resources at searches. A young boy went missing and a search was initiated by the Sheriff's Dept.. The state DES heard about the efforts and offered trained resources. The Sheriff indicated that he didn't need any help! And when the sun went down, he discontinued the search, because "no one can search at night".

To make a long story short, DES was able to get permission for one dog team to search the area at about 0500 hours the following morning. Within half an hour the dog team found the child's body - he had died about midnight. If this child had had influential parents, they might possibly "own the State of Virginia" because of their child's death.

In 1986, Virginia DES had started to develop and refine their SAR program -- the ground work had been layed -- so as a result of the child's death, a change was made at the State level with respect to responsibility for searches. In the State of Virginia the county sheriff's department is responsible for searches. The State Police, however, were given the responsibility to respond to a search as an observer. The State Police Lieutenants and Sergeant were all trained as SAR first responders by the Virginia DES. The new job of the State Police was to observe what was being done and if the sheriff's office was not taking appropriate steps to conduct the search, the State Police was required to step in and "assist". In addition, a limited amount of state supported training in MSF and a Ground - Search and Rescue (G-SAR) "College". was conducted for search volunteers. Paul Demm's original SAR resource meeting expanded to an ad hoc group, currently known as the Virginia SAR Council, which advises the State on matters pertaining to SAR.

So what does all this mean? It means that when a search is called in most places in Virginia these days, the resources of the VA SAR Council are available through the VA Dept. of Emergency Services (DES) to the responsible agency - usually the Sheriff's Dept. The responding search organizations are not new to each other, but rather have, trained and worked missions together before, and the flexible Incident Command System (ICS) management system, including standard terminology, is used along with the technical knowledge and skills of MSF (Managing the Search Function) and/or Managing the Search Operation (MSO)

As an example, I want to share with you one of the best run searches in my experience and the search put the Task Force concept together for me.

Eighteen year old Shawn Crawford was hiking in Shenandoah National Park.with his friends on Old Rag Mountain on Sunday, 9 October, 1983. At about 1300 they were at the summit. Shawn, in tennis shoes decided to race his friends to the parking lot by traveling down the north face of the mountain instead of following the trail. When he didn't show up at the bottom by 1600, his friends reported him missing. The Park Rangers checked trails and roads that evening and began planning a major search effort.

The next day the Park Rangers and three dog teams -- two from VSRDA and one from the U.S. Customs Service, working uphill, searched the high probability areas. One of the dogs alerted in the area of Pinnacle Rock on the north face at the 2600 foot elevation.

Monday evening member units of the Appalachian Search & Rescue Council (ASRC) from the Washington and Charlottesville area joined the search providing night foot patrols of the Ridge and Saddle Trails, as well as camp-ins at strategic locations. Their efforts were to assure that Shawn did not wander out of the search area during the night.

That night, DOGS-East (whose members are currently in Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S.) was requested to have five dog teams at the search base camp ready to work at 0600 Tuesday. Dog teams from VSRDA and the U.S. Customs Service were also expected. For the day shift, the mountain was divided into 7 major sectors radiating from the summit. The dog teams were deployed at daybreak focusing on the 4 high probability sectors -- 4 teams working from the bottom and 4 teams working the summit area. The terrain on the upper 1/3 of the mountain was very difficult -- large, wet lichen-covered rocks, ledges, laurel thickets downed trees and sheer drop-offs (also sleeping bears in caves) -- this all made searching with dogs very difficult. The weather deteriorated -- 40-50 degree temperatures, fog, and over 5 inches of rain fell steadily between 0600 on the 11th and 0600 on the 12th.

The dogs teams again alerted independently at the 2600 foot contour level near the Pinnacle Ridge area and also over a cliff on the Ridge Trail.

By midday the search planners committed the climbing search teams to search the north face of Old Rag from the summit to the base of the cliffs. At 1635, one of the ASRC searchers was literally at the end of her rope, 200 feet below the summit and 40 feet above the next ledge when through the fog, she could see a hole in the laurel bushes below -- and Shawn on the ledge beneath. Suspended by the rope, she directed nearby searchers to the area. Shawn was reached at 1804 hours. He was suffering from extreme hypothermia, was able to respond weakly and incoherently to the searcher's questions and appeared to have head and leg injuries. A rappel rope was rigged from the summit to the ledge where Shawn lay and ASRC medics were soon at his side; ASRC members then coached a Park Medic Ranger and a Madison County Rescue Squad Cardiac Technician down the rappel rope in the dark. A stokes rescue litter with medical and rescue equipment was lowered down the cliff. A warm intravenous line and warm oxygen were started. Shawn was carefully packed into the litter, and additional ASRC rescue team members rappeled down to him. Already hampered by night, the fog, wind, rain, and cold, operations became even more difficult as the rain increased. Because it would be a very complex operation to raise the litter up the cliff to the summit trail, it was decided to rappel a team to Shawn's location at the base of the summit cliff, then to find a route to the trail lower on the mountain. The ASRC bushwhacking team was beset by difficulties, including slippery footing, driving rain, and the ever present fog. The team kept encountering cliffs and chasms in the dark, and had to painstakingly backtrack and start again and again. The rescue mission coordinator came very close to directing the litter team to spend the night at the base of the cliff, so that a vertical raising operation could be started at first light. Finally at about 2230 hours, the bushwhacking team was able to make visual contact with a team coming up from below. The two teams were separated by a cliff, but the litter could be taken down to get to the trail. With great effort, the ASRC rescue team carried. Shawn down the mountainside to the cliff where they lowered him, subsequently arriving at the Saddle Trail at 0215 hours. As other searchers of all specialties lighted the Saddle Trail in the darkness and rain the Park Service personnel carried Shawn out the remaining mile downhill to the fire road, where a Madison County Rescue Squad ambulance was waiting to take him to the University of Virginia Hospital.

By the time Shawn reached the hospital he was out of danger from hypothermia but his injuries were serious. He was found to have a fractured skull, broken ribs and cut knees. In this case the hypothermia probably saved his life ..in any case he was at home for Christmas and his prognosis was for a complete recovery.

This search and rescue operation in my memory was one of the most difficult in Virginia and Maryland. In the opinion of Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S. handlers and other volunteer units participating in this operation, the reason Shawn is alive today is because of the techniques of search management employed in the Shenandoah National Park. The Park rangers early recognition of the extent of the problem; their gathering of information about the victim; their detailed planning and logistics; the use of clues; and their use of available search and rescue resources are to be commended. In addition, the selfless cooperation between the various SAR organizations participating under adverse conditions to achieve a common goal was thrilling -- A TASK FORCE WORKED !!!

In talking with almost every type of search specialty group, I have heard complaints about the "responsible agencies" for a search not calling "us" out or not soon enough! Another complaint arises when the agency does call "us" out, but doesn't know what to do with trained SAR resources once they have them.

This is real ! But what can we do about it?
The thing we, ourselves, have control over, besides maintaining our respective search skills, is our attitude in general; our attitude and respect for other searchers (in the same specialty or other specialties); our cooperation with the agency in charge of the search, even if their search leadership may leave much to be desired; and our commitment to work for the victim - including the concept that "it doesn't make any difference who finds the victim -- the only thing that counts is that the victim is found!"

We can work with folks in other disciplines and learn each others terminology, radio protocol, modes of operation, support needs, limitations, and most of all learn that those other guys aren't half bad - seem to know their stuff, too!

But what about the "call out" problem?
The responsible agency for a search will vary in different states, but usually it falls to a law enforcement agency of some sort. Law enforcement agencies are often perceived by the public to be more interested in finding the "crooks" than finding the victims of crime or a missing or lost person.

As searchers we are often frustrated by news reports of a lost person, particularly a child, who for a short period is "looked for" by the agency. Often the subject is not found by the "search techniques" employed - so the only explanation is that "the subject must have left the area, -- i.e. is probably a run-a-way". The agency's run-a-way policy, at least the ones we know about, is that the agency will only look for a run-a-way if the subject is under seven years of age or is thought to be suicidal.

The "search techniques" employed are often far short of state-of-the-art, and usually include using large numbers of people - such as officers, firemen, police cadets, the Army, etc. to walk through the woods or to "check" the area - from a path or the road.

With the number of missing persons, at any given time, in any given jurisdiction, it is perhaps understandable that the lives of some missing or lost people fall through the crack. BUT DO THEY HAVE TO?

I can recall 5 or 6 instances in the greater Washington area, alone, where the little victims might be alive today had the investigation of their cases not been characterized with one or more of the following conditions

Again it is understandable that responsible agencies have to employ policies to prioritize and limit their work load to what they can handle. But for instance, when something happens like - a youngster is found dead in a high probability area relatively close to the point last seen - and when any of the above mentioned "situations" apply, it is ultimately embarrassing to the agency and it tends to anger the families when they find that their child might not have had to die, if only the agency had acted with state-of-the-art search techniques and used resources available to them - Most of them at no cost to the agency.

This brings to mind a search a few years ago in Loudoun County, Virginia. A young woman was last seen on the bike path outside of Sterling, VA. Dog teams were called out in the wee hours of the morning. I remember talking to a deputy as we searched. He told me his sheriff was reluctant to use volunteer searchers because of liability. I told him about the Virginia County incident and suggested that not using state-of-the-art search techniques also had liability implications. I mentioned that the volunteers were trained to the state-of-the-art level and there was a real need for law enforcement personnel to be trained in search management so that the available resources could be used effectively more often

To make a long story short, the missing girl's body wasn't found until a year later and miles from the areas searched. But dog teams found clues (blood) to indicate she had been murdered and she was not a run away. Subsequently, the Sheriff was sufficiently impressed with the efficiency and coordinated efforts of the volunteer search teams he eventually had called in - such as the incident management teams, the dog teams, the ground searchers, the communications support and the resulting documentation - that he sent some of his officers to NASAR for training in Managing the Search Function. Now if someone is missing or lost in Loudoun County, their in-house search managers are on top of the situation and requesting specialized resources -- what's more, they know how to use them. More than once I have arrived at a Loudoun County search to find that the victim had just been found and was O.K.! We volunteers love (meaning we do not mind) that sort of call out. The department looks (and is) good and best of all, the suffering of the victims and their families is minimized.

I realize that agency policy is beyond our purview, but if all the local agencies we find ourselves assisting had the Loudoun County approach, we would have more call outs and would be called out sooner.

Getting back to the conditions I mentioned earlier, the first two - making assumptions and ignorance of SAR techniques and strategies - are addressable through education and we can help - either as individuals or as members of specialty SAR organizations. In my experience with various law enforcement agencies, the officials we work with, eventually if not initially, have been glad, happy and eager to know about the availability of the dogs and other SAR specialties we have suggested. An almost universal response is " If I had only known about you people we could have used you on ..." Then would come a list of investigations, usually for kids, that were obviously still of concern.

In a way, it's up to each one of us to sell our product -- state-of-the-art Search and Rescue resources to local and regional responsible agencies through demonstrations and talks. It is not our personal skill or even our specialty unit's skill that needs to be promoted but rather the Task Force concept which is made up of people, all of whom have particular jobs to perform. All are needed to solve the particular task which is to locate, access, stabilize and transport victims. Bitching amongst ourselves does nothing to help these agencies preplan.

In the preceding, I have presented the Task Force concept with my own experience. I am sure that there are many of you who have had similar experiences and operate on a search as if there is no other way.

I am equally sure that the concept is not widely practiced, not because you in the SAR community aren't willing and eager, but because the necessary relationship between the agencies responsible for search and the various SAR resources have not been established - for what ever reason. Hopefully, this presentation will leave you with the idea that there is hope, but it doesn't just happen. It is up to you.

The responsible agency for a search is just that - responsible! The search and rescue resources come in only at the agencies request and work for the agency. The resources' job is to do the best they can and to make the agency look good by finding clues and the victim, if possible, or at least doing everything possible to try to find. In those cases in which the victim is not found, it is essential that the documentation of the search efforts.in the form of a written report be given to the agency.

A word of advice. -- This not a perfect world and not everything happens as we think it should. If your relationship with a responsible agency is not what you would like it to be, I suggest that you never, never, never bad mouth the agency or another SAR resource, for that matter. With human nature being what it is, relationships tend to deteriorate even further. Threats are not appropriate. I suspect that sooner or later, something will happen and the agencies will find that they need you and when they are ready will ask for your help. Remember the Virginia incident! In any case, until that happens, spend your energies where you are wanted, work with other SAR organizations and build a positive reputation. There is no room in Search and Rescue for "TURF PROBLEMS"

Respect and work with each other to be ready for the eventual call out as part of a Land Search Task Force.


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