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CERT practices search-and-rescue
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Its dark and late at night. The days are warm, but the night still calls for wrapping up in layers of clothing. Youre out with your family, camping underneath the stars in a remote part of Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.

Youre just drifting off to sleep when a bear, sniffing around the edges of the campsite, becomes confused about which food source he is going after. He tears into the tent, and carries off one of your family members. Amid the chaos and screaming, you are separated from your family in the pitch-black night, with no cell phone service or knowledge of where you are.

This was the scenario that volunteers with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) faced at their first search-and-rescue exercise, held April 6. Organized by leaders within CERT, the group worked through how they would respond in the event of a real-life emergency situation.

These training exercises are important, for us to be prepared when the actual event occurs, explained CERT Administrator Charlie Vincent. Its not if something will occur, its when. There will be search and rescues, we will have attacks by animals, we will have tornadoes. If we dont practice at least a couple of times a year in a similar situation, as we did on Saturday, then were not going to be prepared.

First, the fictitious scenario was laid out for the volunteers:

Mark, a 36-year-old father, had taken his two daughters Amy, 16, and Janice, 14 on a camping trip. At 3:25 a.m., their mother received a frantic phone call from Amy, who was screaming that a bear took their father out of the tent. At that moment, their cell phone died.

We strive to base our scenarios on real world events that have occurred, or could easily occur in our region, said Anne Brandt, CERT volunteer and one of the organiziers of the rescue, along with fellow volunteers Greg Hicks and Bill Farr.

Beyond that, the volunteer search teams had no idea whether there were any survivors, where they were located, or whether they were even together or not. After the scenario was explained, team members prepared for their individual duties and responsibilities before entering the woods. We never go into the woods until we are organized, Vincent explained, saying that adrenaline rushes are common in volunteers and scenarios like the one described. When adrenaline is up, rash decisions can be made and the volunteers themselves can become victims, making organization and planning important steps in the process.

They broke up into two search teams of three people each. Members also remained back in command central, manning the radio, relaying information to the search teams, and waiting at the medical station to assist with any injuries.

While certain CERT members had developed the scenario and knew in advance where the clues and victims were, the search teams did not know any information in advance, other than the briefing on the scenario they received before setting out.

Clues, strewn around the forest floor, mostly involved torn, bloody clothing. Team members used these clues to ascertain where the victims might be. None of the victims were found together. In this scenario, the two daughters were found alive and uninjured, though both in shock.

The father was found alive, but unconscious with significant injuries. The CERT team placed him in a ravine, making it difficult for the search parties not only to reach him, but then to transport him back to the main road for medical care.

There was also a decoy scene set up for volunteers an old crime scene involving a skeleton. The scene was set up near the father in the ravine, to demonstrate the importance of first attending to the person who may be able to have his or her life saved, versus being distracted by a gruesome criminal scene.

Distractions, whether something drastic or more natural like a rainstorm, are all part of search-and-rescue events, volunteers said. The weather held out for the Saturdays training exercise, with sunny skies.

Bears and snakes were not sighted, though a turkey hunt was in progress. The volunteers all wore bright yellow vests for safety. All were happy with the conclusion of the training session.

I think we had an excellent training exercise, said Vincent. There were a few things that we could probably tweak, but overall I think it was great.

Brandt suggested radio communication could be improved.

When you have multiple situations occurring and multiple teams, they tend to speak over each other, she explained.

In a real-life situation, Emergency Services Director Billy Thurmond would call Vincent if CERT services were needed. Vincent then would contact the leaders in CERT, and mobilize the team into action. I usually will tell him how many people I need, Thurmond explained. Say, I need 10 people for a particular situation. So its usually the first 10 that call back.

CERT volunteers provide support for the Emergency Services Department, whether its during natural disaster or offering back-up during community events. Theyve also helped with special events, like when we do Sparks in the Park (for the Fourth of July), Thurmond said. Theyve been called out to help with different aspects of that.

Thurmond said that the regular training, as well as the breadth of knowledge already possessed by volunteers, makes the Dawson CERT team one of the strongest among similar-sized counties. You have such a wide variety of knowledge right there, from people who are in communications to people who have search-and-rescue backgrounds, to anything you can think of, he said. Its just a great group of men and women with a broad background that the countys been able to use to benefit our citizens.

Vincent noted that CERT membership is down. We havent had any actual events, thank goodness, he said. But people who join an organization like this want to get involved, and when you dont have any incidents to occur, then they get a little discouraged and drop by the wayside.

While a real search-and-rescue might call out more volunteers, Vincent encourages community members to get involved before a disastrous event occurs.

You can never be too prepared, he said.