Behind-the-scenes rescuers: Emergency management team gears up for autumn rescue season
Summer’s not quite over, but emergency responders in Haywood County are already practicing their skills in preparation for rescue season, known to most simply as “fall.”
“That time of year is when our beautiful forest has people, by the hundreds and by the thousands,” said Greg Shuping, Haywood County’s director of emergency management. “The more people we get up there, the more likelihood of a missing or injured person.”
While the trailheads are certainly full of cars in the summertime, for the most part the people to whom they belong don’t go too deep into the forest, Shuping said. But in the fall, daytime weather tends to be clear and inviting, and prizes like blackberries and fall leaves entice people to venture further down the trail. Sometimes, they’re not prepared.
That’s where Haywood’s Incident Management Team comes in. The team is a collection of volunteers — they typically hold jobs as firefighters, nurses, paramedics and police officers by day — who respond with support for the searchers, offering resources like mapping, communications and food.
Like any team, practice is key to performance, and the IMT recently completed one such drill to ensure that responses remain swift and skillful. Supporting a search typically requires three trailers — one for communications, one for planning and one for logistics — a generator and a large, insulated tent. The goal of the exercise was to get all that equipment from Waynesville to the John Rock Overlook of the Blue Ridge Parkway and set it up within an hour.
The drill, which included 45 people from nine different agencies and the IMT, went “very well,” said Heidi Warren of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. They task was done in one hour and seven minutes.
“It’s more than just parking a trailer,” Shuping said. “It’s what’s in the trailer.”
Besides the 30-minute drive to the site, responders have to set up computers and maps, secure an Internet connection and make a host of other preparations before they’re ready to support the search. Having those resources in place is vital to success.
While IMT members don’t actually venture into the woods and conduct the search, they do supply all the backup resources that the agency leading the response — often the sheriff’s and fire departments — need to make sure the search ends well. The IMT helps searchers navigate the woods, keep a watch on the weather and have food and shelter waiting when the team returns, among others supports. Having those tasks taken care of offers searchers some peace of mind.
“The last thing we want is to get out there and have any more issues. If we have issues, we’re not going to be able to keep at the mission at hand,” Warren said. “We don’t need another searcher out there that gets lost. We don’t need to have 40 people in the woods and only 39 people accounted for.”
In a given year, Shuping said, the team responds to somewhere between 25 and 40 search and rescue calls in the Black Balsam area of the Pisgah National Forest. While that’s a relatively small number compared to the volume of calls resulting from car crashes or heart attacks, search and rescue responses are much more involved.
“This is a unique situation, and instead of sending a deputy or just one ambulance, we’re trying to muster up, even to get started, 20 or 30 people,” Shuping said. In a rural county like Haywood, it can be challenging to rustle up that many trained and capable people to respond at a moment’s notice, which is why it’s important to have a large roster of trained team members to draw from when an emergency occurs.
“We have 50 members in hope that a dozen of them will be available,” Shuping said.
Unlike the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the mandate or resources to perform search and rescues on land it manages. That means that people from the local area have to provide the service. It’s a specialized form of emergency response and pretty demanding on the people it involves, who by and large act as volunteers and work other jobs during the day.
“The people we have, they have a life,” Shuping said. “They do what you and I do every day, and then when somebody is lost they have to spend all night when they’re already fatigued to try to find somebody or rescue somebody.”
So getting the crew together to make sure everyone’s on the same page about what to do when that call comes through is vital. Practicing the routine ensures that the support team does its job well so the on-the-ground searchers, in turn, can do their job well.
“They practice searching. We practice management,” Shuping said of the difference between the IMT’s role and that of the rescue crews. “Our part of this is that we organize people and we help be more efficient and safe. That’s our job.”
The best way to help decrease the number of people who need rescuing from the woods? Make sure you’re not one of them. Follow these tips to ensure that your autumn excursions are refreshing rather than dangerous.
- Plan ahead. Choose your route a day or two before you do it, and research it well. Get a good night’s sleep, drink water and eat a big meal before leaving. Let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
- Know what you’re getting into. If the most strenuous walking you’ve ever done was on a city greenway or downtown sidewalk, don’t try a 10-mile mountain trek. Choose a route that matches your experience and ability level.
- Check the skies. Stay out of the woods when the weather’s predicted to be bad, and plan your trip so you’ll finish well before sunset.
- Pack a bag. Be sure to bring plenty of food and water, a headlamp, a first aid kit, a raincoat and a good map with you.