By KEVIN KEEGAN
HOLLY SPRINGS, Ga. — Staring out onto the trail ahead, the beam of my headlamp is intermittently obscured by the condensation from my breath. I hear operations break in over the radio for a personnel accountability report, or PAR check, for all dispatched strike teams. Jon Morris, our squad leader, asks the other five strike team members, including our assistant squad leader, Patti Pratt, and myself if everyone is doing okay. We all respond, “yes.” When our strike team’s turn was up, Morris transmitted back to operations that we are, “code 4″ — an emergency services response code signifying that we’re all doing fine. Our strike team has been hiking through the hills of DuPont State Forest in the western region of North Carolina for just over three hours in search of a 40-year-old male who was last seen hiking in the area 10 hours earlier. We are looking for any clue or sign that would indicate if the subject had been nearby or where he might be headed.
We started our operational period around 9 p.m., when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees. It had now dropped to 20 degrees and the weather service anticipated a low of 18 by early morning. It was taking its toll on our stamina and our ability to think critically, but that was one of the hurdles during the training exercise last November.
Cherokee County’s Search and Rescue Team is an all-volunteer government organization funded by Cherokee County Fire and dispatched by Cherokee County 911, according to the team’s Special Operations Chief, Darrell Mitchell. The search and rescue team is one of three teams operating within the Special Operations section of Cherokee County’s Fire and Emergency Services. Chief Mitchell, a 36-year-veteran of the fire service, leads the hazardous materials team and dive team along with search and rescue. As stated on Cherokeesar.org, the search and rescue team’s primary objective is to assist Cherokee County’s Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office with searching for missing, lost or injured people.
Morris has been on Cherokee County’s Search and Rescue Team for a little over five years. He was originally recruited to the team for a pivotal skill set in the search and rescue domain. Morris gained a reputation as a predator tracker and hunter in the Waleska area of Cherokee County where he was frequently asked to eliminate nuisance animals such as coyotes and feral hogs. It was his ability to track that prompted Chief Mitchell to reach out to him, says Morris. Morris was originally part of Cherokee County’s technical rope team prior to joining the search and rescue team, but soon prioritized his time solely on the latter. He is currently the squad leader for the team’s alpha squad.
Like Morris, Pratt has prior experience in community service and has been a member of the Cherokee team for three and a half years. She previously volunteered for other organizations such as Red Cross and the Georgia State Defense Force and is currently a member of Cherokee’s Community Emergency Response Team as well. She is one of many ground-pounders on the team, meaning she often participates in rapid response and ground based searches, and she also serves as alpha squad’s assistant squad leader. Though not her official duty, she’s typically the face of the search and rescue team during public relation events around the county.
Is there training involved?
“Yes, we train one night a month for a couple of hours and the following Saturday all day,” Pratt says. “The training varies from a mock search to land navigation or learning to tie knots and their applications. The training can be as little as the mandatory times and days or as much as you want. Some of the team members get together to do some training on their own based on their interests and or needs. There are different opportunities through GEMA, FEMA, and out of state organizations also, for both classroom and online training. They all offer a range of courses and topics.”
“Obviously, you have to pass a background check before you can become mission ready. You have to qualify in a set criteria of disciplines and skills,” added Morris.
According to Morris, team members must also pass a physical pack test that is based on the Wildland Firefighter Pack Test.
“I spend most of my time honing my land nav [navigation] skills,” Pratt said. “I feel this is extremely important on any mission to be able to know where you are, where you are headed, and how to get back.”
“Besides fulfilling our role for search and rescue…we also work in our community to educate the public,” Morris says.
“We attend local events and let people know we are here and what we do,” Pratt says. “We educate them on the do’s and don’ts when out in the woods. We have printed lists of the 10 essentials that everyone should have with them when out in the woods along with other information about the outdoors. We also support the Hug-A-Tree program which is a national program to educate kids on what to do if they should find themselves lost.”
The most important aspect of the work they do, said Pratt, is the work for the community.
“It is rewarding to me that I am a part of something that can and does make a big difference in people’s life,” said Pratt. Whether it is the person that is lost or the family that is anxious and worried about that person. What we do does matter and that is very fulfilling for me.”
Our training mission that night in North Carolina continued for another three hours and we didn’t end up getting back to command until 3:30 a.m. The temperature didn’t hit 18 degrees as forecast, it hit 15, but we worked together as a team to search for our subject and for clues, to navigate the terrain successfully, and to keep each other safe from exposure to the environment. Even though we were not the strike team to find the subject that night, we came away with invaluable lessons to build upon for future missions.
For more information: Visit http://www.cherokeesar.org