By Author(s): Paul M. Ross, Jr.  and Tim Bonno 
Published Thursday, March 1, 2012
| From the March 2012  Issue of FireRescue 
In today’s economy, everyone is looking to do more with less, and the fire service is no exception. Due to budget reductions, fire departments across the country have had to reduce levels of support staff along with highly trained firefighters/paramedics. Many departments haven’t been able to take advantage of training or purchase needed equipment due to their lack of funding. But one thing has remained constant: Citizens continue to expect high-quality, timely response capabilities when emergencies occur. In many communities, departments might look to volunteers to fill the gap.
Of course, volunteer firefighters comprise a majority of those in the fire service, and volunteer responders in a variety of disciplines are common nationwide. Many departments recognize the value of well-trained volunteers. So in tough economic times like these, are there other areas of response operations where we can effectively utilize volunteers? The answer is yes!
Normally, when we talk about search and rescue, we are referring to the “basic” search function performed at a fire scene or to the specialized function performed by regional heavy-rescue task forces or federal urban search and rescue (USAR) teams. But most departments experience numerous requests for search and rescue that fall in between these extremes—and that’s where volunteers can come in.
The Eureka (Mo.) Fire Protection District (EFPD; www.efpd.org) has incorporated a volunteer search and rescue (SAR) team into its cadre of operations that has proven to be a professional asset to both the fire district and the communities within the region.
Meeting a Need
The EFPD’s SAR team was formed in 2002 after the district recognized that there was a need for trained volunteers when searching for lost, injured or missing persons.
“Along with our mutual-aid partners and agencies, we noticed that we were receiving niche requests for lost, injured or missing persons as well as large animal rescues,” recalls EFPD Chief Greg Brown. “Unfortunately, without a specialized team like we now have, we had to use firefighters and EMT/paramedics.”
Since its establishment, the team has grown from a mounted unit to a multi-disciplined, self-sufficient search team consisting of specialized canine, mounted search, ground search and large-animal teams. Additionally, the team has its own communications and support capabilities along with trained planning and management personnel. The team’s 35 volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, including medical, business, construction, aviation and public safety.
“We now have a highly trained team of volunteers who have desire and drive. And the enhanced capabilities the team brings to an incident ensure safety for all involved, as well as the best possible outcome,” Brown says. “The community-service aspect of this team is saving lives, and protecting property is a plus.”
The volunteer SAR team features expertise in the following areas.
Team members are trained in all aspects of communications and have their own communications network that includes VHF and UHF radios, repeaters and extenders. Recently, the team obtained an incident command trailer that includes various communications capabilities as well as computerized mapping software to formulate search plans and track search progress.
This capability proved to be very beneficial when the team was called in by local law enforcement to search a state park for a missing person in an area of difficult terrain and limited local resources. The team deployed its own interoperable communications network for the search.
The team’s canine unit is one of its most frequently deployed assets. This unit uses dogs trained in trailing, air scent and human remains detection. Currently, the unit consists of three dogs and their handlers.
According to Pat Tuholske, K9 unit coordinator, the training for a dog and its handler takes about two years. All training, both initial and continuing, is paid for by the handler. To be on the team, handlers and dogs must hold a national certification in the discipline for which they deploy, along with completing a team evaluation.
The K9 teams have certifications from the North American Police Working Dog Association and the American Working Dog Association .
Mounted Search & Large-Animal Rescue
When the EFPD SAR team began operations, it was based upon equine capabilities. As compared to searching by foot, horses are faster, can carry more supplies (which enables them to stay out longer), offer a higher viewing platform for searching and provide a more rested rescue worker when a subject is found. The team’s mounted unit uses well-trained horses capable of searching large tracts of forest, fields, trails and other terrain.
With their equine expertise, SAR team members broadened their capabilities to include a technical large-animal emergency rescue (TLAR) unit. Most fire departments are well-equipped and well-trained for protecting and saving human life and property, but what about horses, cattle and other large animals?
Following a vehicle accident with a rolled-over trailer, a trapped horse or other large animal can be difficult to extricate. Rescuers untrained in large-animal extrication can quickly become victims themselves, or use tactics that may exacerbate the animal’s injuries.
The members of this unit have undergone specialized training in how to prepare for and safely approach large-animal incidents such as overturned and wrecked trailers or livestock haulers, large animals loose on the road and large animals stuck in mud or ravines, as well as incidents where people are trapped with the animal.
Departments interested in implementing a volunteer SAR team should consider the time requirements it will pose on the department, as well as the qualifications that volunteers must meet.
Within the EFPD’s command staff, Deputy Chief Randall Gabel has oversight of the SAR team; Lt. Ed Kriska serves as the district’s liaison to the team. In this role, Kriska interacts with the team’s leadership and serves on the team’s command staff. According to Kriska, about 20% of his time is spent managing SAR team business. “Operationally, scheduling volunteers is a bit more challenging than career individuals,” he says. “For example, when we get called out on a search, I have to work around the volunteers’ personal schedules, which may pose conflicts, rather than simply turn to a group that’s already on duty for a scheduled period of time.”
To become a member of the team, individuals must complete an application that’s similar to an employment application. The EFPD also requests and checks personal references for each volunteer. Along with the application, the applicant agrees to (and pays for) a background check that is verified by local law enforcement. Once the application process has been completed, a formal interview is conducted. With a successful application, background check and interview, chief-approved recommendations are then formally approved by the EFPD’s board of directors.
As with any organization, career or volunteer, funding is always an issue. Team expenses average $5,000 per year, to which the EFPD contributes about $1,000. The majority of expenses are paid for by the members themselves. This includes the cost of uniforms, equipment and supplies. Additionally, team members pay for their own incidentals (gas, food, etc.) during training and deployments. Fundraisers have helped the team raise money, which in turn has been used to defer team-related expenses. In addition to raising money, these opportunities also prove to be strong public relations opportunities—not just for the team itself but for the fire district as well.
Recently, the team was approved as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, which will allow it to solicit and accept donations for which donors will receive a tax benefit. In addition, the team will be able to apply for various grants.
Liability is another issue that comes up when dealing with volunteers. Because of its affiliation with the fire district, members of the EFPD SAR team are considered volunteer firefighters and are therefore covered under existing worker’s compensation coverage. Additionally, the Firefighters Association of Missouri (FFAM) provides a life insurance policy and the Missouri Fire Marshal’s Office provides a death benefit for any firefighter (career or volunteer) killed in the line of duty.
Some public safety agencies may be reluctant to develop a volunteer SAR team, perhaps due to a lack of understanding as to how to effectively incorporate a volunteer program. This reluctance can readily be overcome by talking with peers in agencies that have already gone down the path and have overcome the challenges. In some cases, resistance might come from the misconception that volunteers are trying to take over career positions. This is simply not true. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. Most are gainfully employed and are simply looking for an opportunity to give back to the community, learn new skills and meet new friends. Volunteers are a terrific resource that can add great value.
“It takes a special individual to be on this team,” Kriska says. “Members not only give a lot of their personal time, but they also pay their own way. And, they do it all to simply help find someone. They bring the missing home.”
When the team is deployed, it’s done so at no cost to the requesting parties. Law enforcement agencies and fire departments across Missouri and western Illinois have requested the EFPD SAR team to assist in all manner of searches and other incidents requiring trained searchers.
Team policy states that the SAR team does not self-deploy. Rather, the team must be requested by another public safety agency in order to deploy. Typically, those requests are made through direct contact with the EFPD’s administrative offices or by calling the district’s dispatch center.
Members of the team carry pagers or cell phones so that all members can be instantly notified of a search call-out. When dispatched, each member of the team responds to the search area with their equipment, first-aid supplies and two-way radios for communication with search coordinators and other team members.
Successful assignments include locating an Alzheimer’s patient lost in the woods on a cold winter night, assisting in locating missing children and responding to searches following natural disasters. The team was deployed twice to assist in search activities following the devastating F5 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., in May 2011. In its first deployment, the team worked side by side with federal teams in SAR efforts. In its second deployment, the team was brought back to assist with search and recovery efforts.
Rick Judd, manager of the EFPD SAR team, says the benefit of having such a volunteer team is three-fold. “The district gains a high-visibility team for next to no cost,” he says. “From the deployments that we’ve been on, the media coverage that resulted was extremely positive. For the public, they realize the availability of a highly trained team of individuals that can easily and rapidly blend into the existing incident command structure established at a search.” And from a public safety standpoint, the SAR team brings search theory and tactics that aren’t generally taught in law enforcement and fire academies to incidents. “In turn, our positive outcomes are comparatively higher,” Judd says.
By simply recognizing a need within the community, applying some creative thinking, and empowering a few dedicated volunteers, the EFPD has developed an SAR team that continually proves to be a valuable asset in the fire district’s operations cadre. If your department faces similar needs, consider the benefits that a volunteer SAR team could bring to your community.
The Eureka (Mo.) Fire Protection District
The EFPD is located in Southwest St. Louis County and Northern Jefferson County, approximately 30 miles southwest of St. Louis. The ISO 4-rated district operates out of three stations and protects 28,000 people. It provides EMS, fire and rescue service to an urban and rural community comprising 82 square miles, the largest in St. Louis County.
The district is a combination department, utilizing both volunteer (reserve) and career staff, and has nearly 100 members, including paramedics, EMTs, firefighters and support team members, as well as an Explorer post.
SAR Team Training
Within six months of joining the team, all team members are required to have completed a core group of classes. Most are accessible online at no cost. This basic group of classes includes:
- ICS 100: Introduction to Incident Command System
- ICS 200: ICS for Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents
- ICS 700: NIMS: An Introduction
- ICS 800: National Response Framework
- CPR/AED and First Aid
- SAR Tech III (Offered by the National Association for Search and Rescue)
Additionally, team members train year round in backcountry travel; map, compass and GPS use; communications; evidence preservation; and search and rescue operations.
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