Seek and you shall find

Published 11:09 am Monday, May 29, 2017

EURE – Imagine being lost in the woods. You’re hungry, disoriented, and without shelter to keep you out of harm’s way when it comes to the natural predators found in the wild.

If you are unfamiliar with the territory, “Lady Luck” would need to be on your side in order to survive and find your way out. Even if you are lost in an area that you’re familiar with, you may be injured and unable to maneuver.

That’s why it’s important to have highly training search and rescue teams, all ready to mobilize and travel at a moment’s notice.

Late last week and into the weekend, teams from across North Carolina – some from as far away as Winston-Salem, Newton-Conover and Pender County – assembled in Gates County for four days of intense search and rescue training.

This team makes sure their map coordinates are correct prior to entering their area to search within the Chowan Game Lands off Sandbanks Road.

Using a grant from North Carolina Emergency Management (EM), Gates County EM hosted the exercise in the Chowan Swamp Games Lands located off Sandbanks Road (Gatlington Beach area). There, 82 individuals representing 13 localities and state agencies used this specialized training to sharpen their skills.

“We ran three, real-life scenarios of missing individuals,” said Billy Winn, Director of Gates County EM. “We wanted to get this exercise as close to realistic as possible.”

Using a special permit from the North Carolina Wildlife Commission who controls and manages the Chowan Swamp Game Lands, the teams involved in SARex 2017 (Search and Rescue exercise) staged at the tent camping area located at the entrance to Gatlington Landing. A base of operations was set-up there, giving the search/rescue teams access to 12,000 acres of river shore, swamp and pine plantations.

In the first scenario, one that began Thursday and lasted into Friday, the driver of a vehicle had mechanical issues at Gatlington Beach and struck out on foot, but became lost.

“In that scenario, a 9-1-1 call is placed from the wife of the man who is long overdue to be back at his home,” Winn said. “Our (Gates County) Sheriff’s Office becomes involved, taking the initial information, to include that the man had informed his wife that he was going to Gatlington. A missing person profile is written by the Sheriff’s office and then Sheriff (Randy) Hathaway orders in search and rescue personnel, which matches our county protocol.”

The missing man was discovered 20 hours later by search teams. He was located approximately three miles from his vehicle near a place known locally as “The Hideout.”

The second scenario began Friday and lasted into Saturday. In this case, a kayaker – who had launched at Shoups Landing near Winton – paddles north along the Chowan River. In the area near the Dowry, he becomes ill, heads to shore from where he abandons his watercraft and begins to wander aimlessly on land.

Winn said that individual was located 16 hours later roughly two miles from the Dowry in an area with extremely thick brush.

In the final scenario, the driver of an ATV crashes near the campsite, is injured, and wanders off. It took search and rescue teams eight hours to locate him nearly 10 miles from the accident scene.

Winn noted that in all three scenarios, Hasty Teams (those trained to move quickly through a search area, looking for footprints, broken tree branches, etc.) man trackers, K-9 teams, and search teams using ATV’s were used.

“Once deployed, each search team calls in their location every 30 minutes and reports anything they have found,” Winn explained. “All of that information is tracked by GPS and every clue they find is tracked on a map.”

An Incident Management trailer ran all operations from the base camp. Communications support was supplied by the Greenville Fire Department (Task Force 10) and North Carolina EM established satellite communications at the site.

K-9’s used in the exercise were part of two units involved in the training – Coastal Carolina Search Team and Southern Pride Search Dogs.

Winn added there was also a special training for a dive team from Perquimans County. Using side-scan sonar technology from Hertford County EM, the dive team was able to pinpoint the location and probe the water in search of mannequins that had been pre-positioned there as practice.

“We had a great turnout of search and rescue agencies and we were able to gain valuable experience with this real-life exercise,” Winn stressed. “It also proved as valuable to learn how to work cooperatively with the different teams, and how to learn this new SARTopo (search and rescue management computer software) system.”

This marks the second straight year that Gates County EM has hosted this particular exercise. Winn said he would most likely attempt to earn future grants from the state to conduct similar exercises.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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