As the sun set on a Houston football field last Wednesday, Search and
Rescue (SAR) training coordinator Frank McDonald was putting volunteer
Andy Muma through his paces—literally.
Pacing is a key skill for SAR volunteers. To help police do a ground
search, they have to pace out how many metres they’ve walked, in all
kinds of terrain.
“No hip chains for you,” said McDonald after handing Muma and others
their assignment—walk along three compass bearings for three set
distances and arrive within a metre or two of a waypoint that only
Hip chains—small, waisted-mounted boxes that spool out a measuring
thread behind you— are a fine tool for forestry workers.
But in an emergency, SAR members can’t be tied to any tools that might
fail or slow them down. It takes practice, but they can get fairly
accurate even with just their feet to guide them.
“My pacing—I’ve done a lot of pipeline work—I’m about 103 to 104 paces
for a 100 metres,” said McDonald.
On Wednesday, SAR training meant running those compass drills at dusk
and loading a volunteer into a rough-terrain stretcher.
But in the months and years ahead, members of the Houston SAR could
find themselves rescuing people from cliffs sides, river rapids or an
avalanche. There is no cost to train up for those dire scenarios—all
the training is covered by the Provincial Emergency Program.
The SAR team meets once a month to train and certify new members so
that they can answer the next time police call for help with an
emergency search or evacuation.
“It’s a great group of people,” said Wendall Ewald, a Houston science
teacher and certified SAR instructor.
Some of Ewald’s students signed on this year—Kyle Warren and Ewald’s
daughter Kelly had heard him talking about SAR in class.
They wanted to help, and it didn’t hurt that joining the SAR meant
getting to ride in a helicopter or to dig a snow cave and survive a
night alone in the mountains.
The last time the SAR team held a winter camp-out like that, McDonald
said the temperature dropped to -26 C.
“I don’t get any sleep because through the night I have to check to
make sure they’re all still alive,” he said, laughing.
That kind of training gives SAR volunteers a real sense of what it’s
like to be stranded in backcountry, which helps when a real call-out
In the past, the Houston SAR has gone out to find capsized boaters and
moose hunters who got caught out past dark. Last summer they evacuated
people ahead of a forest fire.
In cities, McDonald said, more and more SAR teams are having to find
Alzheimer’s patients who have wandered away from home.
“There’s such a wide range of people out there,” he said.
In his experience, McDonald said the most common reason for getting
lost in backcountry is simply going out too far for a day trip. And
when it starts getting dark, people tend to hurry and make mistakes.
Such mistakes can be deadly. A few years ago, SAR members found two
people who died hiking. One had tripped and fallen, the other likely
rushed too quickly for help and lost their way.
After facing tough cases like that, where someone has died or been
very badly injured, McDonald said SAR members can meet with people who
are experts in managing that kind of stress.
“Even police and fire fighters, people who do it all the time, need
access to that stuff,” he said. Experts have realized that such
front-line workers burn out quickly if they don’t get a chance to talk
out what they’ve been dealing with. That’s particularly true when
children are involved, he said.
Most searches wrap up in less than 24 hours, but they can go on for
five days or more. The longer a search goes, McDonald said, the more
intense it gets. Other SAR teams come in to help. The team leaders
might call for planes, police dogs, overnight trailers or helicopters
equipped with infrared cameras.
On Wednesday, the Houston SAR got some brand-new equipment of its
own—a rough-terrain stretcher wheel.
Donated by the Dungate Community Forest, the wide, heavy-tread wheel
mounts to a stretcher so that teams can wheel a victim over rough
ground. The whole rig feels surprisingly light.
Kyle Warren was the lucky volunteer who got wheeled out first.
“It was not quite as rough as I thought it would be,” he said. “I feel
a little safer than when they just carry me.”