Search and rescue exercise at Dilley's Mill
Twenty-seven search and rescue (SAR) units from six states, along with state and county command and control elements, converged at Buckskin Boy Scout Reservation over the weekend for a major SAR field training exercise.
The highlight of the weekend was was a full-scale search operation on Saturday. Twenty-two search teams, consisting of three-to-five members each, combed their assigned sectors on the sprawling reservation. The objective - - locate a simulated lost scout.
Droop Mountain native William Kershner was overall in charge of the exercise. Kershner served in the West Virginia State Police for 25 years and now serves as the search and rescue coordinator with the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The coordinator said a major goal of the exercise - dubbed Operation Be Prepared - was to test SAR units' ability to provide their own logistical support - as they would during an actual emergency.
"The reason we did it the way we did - it's called Operation Be Prepared - one objective is to make sure all the teams could take care of themselves on Friday and into Saturday," he said. "In other words, bring everything you need for your comfort and your operations and assessment."
Kershner said realistic training identifies problems that would be encountered in a real world situation.
"Everything's working real well and we've had a few issues with the weather and we've had some issues with communications and so forth, but everything's working like it really does when it really happens," he said.
Techniques, similar to those used to apprehend serial killers, now are being used to locate missing persons, according to Kershner.
"Search and rescue has come a long way since I was trained beck in the 70s," he said. "Back then, you just mapped off a grid and searched the thing, like the military does it. Now, we're using profiles and percentages. A lot of science goes into it - lost person behavior and psychology and the profile of the person we're trying to find."
As a state police investigator, Kershner trained under a renowned FBI psychological profiler.
"I trained under Rob Ressler," he said. "If you ever saw Silence of the Lambs, he was the Scott Glenn character."
The Droop Mountain native adapted his profiling skills to locate missing persons and said his phone often rings when a person goes missing in the state.
"We've done so many now, they basically call me up and give me the background and I can tell them where to start looking," he said.
Pocahontas County emergency services director Melvin Martin increased the difficulty for a headquarters team using the county mobile operations van. Martin disallowed the use of an onboard generator to test the van's ability to use external power.
"We've had a few problems, which is good - that's why we do these exercises," he said. "We're powering the trailer from a building over here and only powering it with half the amount of power that it can handle. I found out where the trigger point was - they lost power about midnight last night. I have a generator that I can power the whole thing with, but I was testing how much I can power it off of external buildings and learning our limits."
Jason Scotchie, with Shavers Fork Fire and Rescue, served as incident commander on Saturday. Saturday morning, Scotchie briefed the assembled search teams on the exercise scenario: the simulated lost scout suffered from Asperger's Syndrome and was last seen arguing with two other boys near the camp chapel. The scout had wandered off in an undetermined direction.
With few clues, the teams ventured forth to their assigned sectors.
Saturday afternoon, a West Virginia SAR council team located the simulated missing scout in a wooded area north of Lake Sam Hill and evacuated him to an ambulance at the scout camp.
Saturday evening, the teams conducted a "hotwash" - an after-action review to discuss problems encountered during the exercise and ways to prevent those problems in the future. Communications was the main problem encountered during the training exercise. Some search team members said the high frequency used for the communications network was unsuitable for the Pocahontas County terrain.
During the exercise, at least one property owner complained that a search team had entered his property without permission. The complaint was relayed to Martin.
Kershner helped establish the West Virginia SAR council four years ago, with the goal to improve SAR capability throughout the state. He said the $50 fee for organizations to join the council was a good deal.
"Council sets the standards for team members and team leaders and so forth, somewhat like the fire commission sets the standards for firemen," he said. "It's $50 dues. We pay for all the training. I try to give them as much field gear that I can provide for them as volunteers."
For more information on the WV SAR Council, see www.wvsarco.org on the Internet.