By Randy Franks
The fewer hours of daylight in fall and winter increase the likelihood of searching in the dark. With Standard Time bringing the onset of darkness even earlier, Contra Costa Search and Rescue used its November full-team training to conduct a nighttime mock search.
Wilma Murray developed the scenario, which was conducted on the Muir Heritage Land Trust’s Fernandez Ranch open space. Scouts and parents from Boy Scout Troop 277 and a few other willing individuals volunteered as the subjects and their distraught families, earning praise all around for not only the commitment of their time, but also well-acted roles and valuable observations during the after-action debrief.
“The guy we found, Graham, I figured he was playing the autistic boy we were briefed to expect,” said Don Kavanagh. “But a couple different times during the rescue, I thought ‘Is he actually autistic?’ He was into it, very well done.”
The scenario involved a small group of 12 and 13 year old boys who ventured into the hills to launch homemade rockets. The volatile fuel source detonated unexpectedly, causing a range of injuries and disorientation. As dusk descended on the hilly 700-acre preserve, CoCoSAR deployed first a hasty squad and then as a full team.
The team used its full range of techniques. The first mission was a hasty search of the Command Post and immediate surroundings, which located one of the subjects in good condition within 20 minutes. He was less than 100 feet from CP, but completely hidden from view.
Team lead Brad Schimek was pleased. “It’s my first find!” he said. “Even though this is ‘just training,’ I’m genuinely proud we found him so quickly.”
Wilma Murray said later, “I placed that subject expecting he would either be found immediately or possibly not at all. I’m pleased that the team did its job and searched the CP. It is not unknown for a subject to be found very close to where searchers gather and still go unfound for several operational periods.”
Some of the team’s specialized resources and equipment were brought to bear on the missions. “[Search dog] Shannon did some good work tonight,” said handler Jennifer Wright. “It turned out our search area did not have any subjects, so no finds, but we were working well together.”
The FLIR night vision goggles were also deployed with John Banuelos’ admonishment: “The subject or clue could be behind heavy foliage, so you’ve still got to be observant. It’s night vision, not x-ray vision.”
Many new Type 2 and Type 3 team members participated. This was their first opportunity to employ new skills in a full-team environment and discover that SAR is “continuous learning.”
Luigi Pangilinan became a debriefer, a role he had only heard about during the academy, but had not experienced nor specifically trained for. “It was difficult, getting detailed accounts of search areas, especially when the team was not provided a map,” he said. “And I got cold sitting there. I really wanted go out on a mission, just to warm up.”
Another lesson emerged from the night’s last find, made by Team 17. After assisting with a live medical event involving a parent volunteer observer, the team resumed its training assignment, making many voice callouts, hearing cries for help, but not locating any subjects within their search area.
Team lead Robert Medearis said, “As we were preparing to return to CP, our navigator was focusing on getting us back onto the trail. The other three of us continued the search behind our navigator. Routine visual sweeps identified the subject down near a large oak tree.”
Cameron Soo, handling medical for the team, said it demonstrated how “we’ve got to stay sharp at all times, like on the return to CP. The assignment was covered, but the search was obviously still on.”
During the team debriefing, Operations Lieutenant Chris Nichols summed up the basic message of the night’s training. “Searching in the dark is hard,” he said to a murmur of assent, “and, this time of year, we should expect to do a lot more of it.”