Training for ‘Search Season’
Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team member Eric Bivona, of Plainfield, walks the shore of the Boston Lot Lake conducting a training search. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Orford Police Officer and response team trainee Mike Foster reports his location to base while walking a search grid with team member Eric Bivona. The exercise was meant to put into practice the navigation and search skills learned by trainees over the last four months. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Darkness falls as Mike Foster, of Orford, looks for a subject during a mock search in Lebanon’s Boston Lot. Foster, a trainee for the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team, periodically gives a short whistle blast to identify himself to fellow searchers, then calls out “Anna,” the name of the team member playing the subject in the exercise. Training lasts for four months and teaches potential members the wilderness medicine, navigation and search techniques needed to find people missing or injured in the forests of Vermont and New Hampshire. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Now out of character, wilderness response team member Anna Condino talks with Eric Bivona and Mike Foster, the searchers who found her. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
With his search plotted on screen, Mike Foster explains his strategy to the team as they gather to debrief. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
As dusk settles, Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team trainee Mike Foster stops to put on a headlamp and check his map after two passes across his search area. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Members of the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team, including (from left) Dan Schneider, Eric Bivona and Mike Foster, prepare for a training exercise recently in West Lebanon. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Every year, as the busy season approaches, the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team takes to the classroom and the woods to teach search-and-rescue techniques to new members.
“The ‘search season’ is the warmer months, when more people are outside,” said training officer Dan Schneider. The drills wrap up in April or May, “so that everyone is ready to go.”
Seven new members, including a paramedic with Lebanon Fire Department and two emergency room doctors, completed the training this spring. Several have ski patrol experience and wilderness first responder training.
But, Schneider said, but anyone can join. “The common theme is people love spending time outside, and they have some flexibility in their schedules.”
New member Colleen Wearn has lived in, and explored, the Upper Valley for about a decade.
“I have enjoyed the trails and getting outside in this area,” said Wearn, director of admissions at The Mountain School in Vershire. “I started feeling like I should be doing something to contribute.”
The wilderness response team was a good match for Wearn, who runs the outdoor program at The Mountain School and works in the summer as an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School.
“It utilized my skill set, and I thought it would be pretty enjoyable as well,” she said.
So far, that seems to be the case.
“You see some amazing things when you go out into the woods at a time when you wouldn’t normally be out there,” Wearn said. “Even during one of our trainings, we had an amazing moonrise and some nice moments.”
The 32-member wilderness response team, part of the Dartmouth Medical School community service committee, fielded 27 calls last year.
Being a member is “quite a significant time commitment,” Schneider said, and flexibility is key.
“We don’t have any sort of shifts, and there are very rarely scheduled callouts,” he said. “We usually get called out toward the evening. … Someone goes out in the morning, and they don’t come back in the afternoon.”
The team handles two kinds of calls — searches for missing people and “fixed point” rescues, in which the location of the “subject,” such as an injured hiker, is known.
The fixed point calls are usually local, limited to the area between Mount Cube in Orford and Cardigan Mountain in Orange, Schneider said. But they can be as far away as the White Mountains or Mount Monadnock, depending on the need.
Searches, which comprise the majority of the calls, can take the team anywhere in the Twin States. For those calls, they work with New England K-9 Search and Rescue.
“We provide navigation assistance to them,” Schneider said. “What’s critical for the dog handler is to spend as much time as possible focusing on reading their dog.”
The wilderness response team provides a variety of search-and-rescue training sessions throughout the year. But for new members, navigation takes top priority, Schneider said.
Subjects don’t always require medical assistance, but “we’ll (always) need to know where we are in a searching area,” he said.
“The worst thing that could happen is that a searcher gets lost, pulling resources away to find the missing searcher.”
Between eight and 12 team members respond to each call. They each carry a “24 hour pack,” which includes food, water and overnight gear, although most calls last just three or four hours, Schneider said.
Schneider, an engineer with Solaflect in Norwich, has been with the team since 2005. One of the perks of his volunteer gig is spending time outdoors.
“Often, you don’t get to go outside as much as you want,” he said. Then, a call will come in “and you’ll find yourself walking through the woods at night in an area you’ve never been before.”
For more information about the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team, go to www.uvwrt.org.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at 603-727-3210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.