It was warm and drizzly and I was the only person at the Amherst Shore Provincial Park not wearing blaze orange. It started to pour at eleven o'clock. But everyone was dressed for it because they came prepared for walking around in the woods all morning.
Since this week's "In Conversation With..." interview is with a 35-year member of Pugwash Ground Search and Rescue, I was checking out an actual in-the-field training session to get a feel for what this group, and its counterpart, Springhill Ground Search and Rescue, does.
First of all, "Pugwash" and "Springhill" are misnomers; these searchers cover a vast area, all of Cumberland County from the New Brunswick boarder to the Colchester County line, with the Trans Canada highway splitting the are into north (Pugwash) and south (Springhill).
Secondly, what is involved IS PRETTY DAMN COOL, from the people to the equipment to the dedication. And this is what makes my job so great, getting a chance to learn about something and share that experience. Most of us know that GSaR groups exist but we couldn't actually say what they do beyond "they search for people who are lost". We don't give them another thought but these groups are important and they need members.
The searches they do can range from a hunter who didn't return home to a child who is lost to a shore search after someone went under water and didn't come up. The groups also work with the Project Lifesaver program which is geared autistic children and Alzheimer's patient (and anyone else who is prone to wander) and uses electronics to track and find. (I saw a demonstration of this and it works so well; it's the subject of an article that will appear in the May 1 issue of the newspaper.)
But Ground Search and Rescue is not as simple as a group of people showing up to look in the woods; training is essential and the law. Yet...it also is not as complicated or time-consuming as we might think (the last search the Cumberland County GSaRs did was 18 months ago). There is one meeting and one training evening a month, and every so often they run a Saturday scenario -- they create an actual search in the woods for a missing person. Yesterday, clues were planted at the park and four teams were searching for them as part of a scenario involving a missing child whose older siblings went to find him and got lost themselves. Everyone was having a good time while working on the skills that some day could save a life. It's fun and the camaraderie is great but it's done in all seriousness.
The enthusiasm of these searchers (and the groups include a couple of women; four now with Pugwash -- go, girls!) is high and contagious. This work is important to them and as technology makes the job more efficient, they get more excited about helping others.
This photo shows what the members say is typical of an actual search: Everyone standing around, eager to get started but waiting on the RCMP to give the go-ahead. Unless it is a Project Lifesaver search (in which a team of two armed with a receiver gets started right away) which the RCMP do not coordinate, the teams work under the local police. Once they get going, they usually find the person or the body they are looking for.
Both groups have mobile command posts now and they make such a difference; Ed Mackenzie of Springhill GSaR says they used to work out of someone's truck! With laptops and additional monitors being part of the process, these mobile command units are must-haves for groups even though they are an added cost. Springhill painted their truck last year while Pugwash is hoping to paint theirs this spring; according to one of the team managers, however, county council doesn't consider GSaR an "essential service" so they aren't providing any funding.
Both groups must put on fundraisers to cover operating costs of between nine and twelve thousand dollars a year, and the mobile command posts will increase those costs. If you see an event (poker rally, pancake breakfast, etc.), please support your local GSaR; you never know when you or someone you love will need their help. Better yet, commit an random act of kindness by dropping off a donation! Trust me, it will be most appreciated.
But money isn't everything. They need people.
After what I saw yesterday, I'd join if I didn't have so much on my plate right now. All it takes to become a basic searcher is being over 19 years of age, in good health/physically fit and having a clean criminal record. The fact that I get easily turned around -- lost! -- might be seen as a deterrent but since searchers go in groups, there's no way I could be more of a hindrance than a help.
Plus, the groups use technology now: GPS locators in the radios allow those in the command post to know where each team is at every moment. They use maps and compasses but GPS is part of the gig now.
It's a dedicated and enthusiastic group of people who volunteer because they want to help others in need. They need the support of the community and they get it from area businesses but they also need as many members as possible (not everyone can show up to a search every time and longer searches need fresh searchers) so support from community members makes a big difference.
Thanks for a great morning, folks. It was eye-opening and inspiring. One could almost say "essential."