Search and rescue team in need of help
The search was on for a 47-year-old man Sunday.
He was last spotted at the old Wild Animal Park grounds. Moose Jaw Search and Rescue (MJSAR) were called in to help.
The man, Joe Doremi weighing 165 pounds, suffering from cancer and possibly intoxicated, was missing since 11 a.m the day before in the MJSAR’s mock search scenario. The exercise was entirely fictional, but no less real to the SAR team.
The rain was unrelenting on Sunday. Somebody suggested earlier that they reschedule their training exercise due to the weather, but searcher Fern Paulhus wouldn’t have it.
“They don’t pick a day when they want to go missing,” says Paulhus. “I’m sorry. We’ve gone out in minus 35 degrees… numerous times. We’ve gone out in a blizzard; we could hardly see a thing.”
The search is slow and meticulous.
“We’re not looking for a person at this point. We’re looking for evidence,” Tamilyn MacNevin explains.
Missing the smallest piece of evidence could mean the difference between life and death.
That arduous attention to detail is time consuming, which means that rainwater starts puddling in shoes and eventually breaks through the gear meant to keep it out. But the team pushes on — always within eyesight of each other — ducking and climbing through the terrain, because people don’t always go missing where there are easy trails to walk on.
The searchers are acutely aware of the immediate area around them. That’s called the searcher’s cube — look up, look down, in front, behind, sideways, 360 degrees all around. Look for anything out of place.
“The evidence could be the size of a Toonie or the size of a human body,” explains Dave Dryburgh, search manager and commander. “You can’t pass through anywhere without leaving a trace.”
Tamilyn stops. Could be a piece of garbage. Under a low-hanging tree, she spots a Tim Hortons coffee cup.
A whistle signals to the team lead — for this exercise, Devin MacNevin, Tamilyn’s husband — whenever a suspected piece of evidence is found.
Devin makes his way over and assesses the possible evidence. The coffee cup was too old.
“Keep searching,” says Devin.
Paulhus finds a leather wineskin tucked deep in the brush, to which an untrained eye would not have given a second glance.
“I had to be in the right spot with the right angle,” said Paulhus. “You have to hit it dead on.”
It’s that dead-on vision Paulhus is known for. It takes practice. Especially in heavy rain.
Paulhus gives the wineskin a shake. It was half-filled. Everyone chuckles. “Party after the search,” someone shouts.
Paulhus is one of the veterans on the team. He joined in 1986 in the early years of the program. He was riding snowmobiles at the time, and someone went missing in Briercrest. He helped out. The person was found, and Paulhus was hooked.
“I have kids… my daughter went missing when I first started,” said Paulhus. “This was before we really got going. I had to run a search for my own daughter. That was hard.”
Paulhus’ daughter went missing from school. They found her heading back into town from the river after a four-hour search. She was eight years old at the time.
“I don’t want to see anybody go through that,” said Paulhus. “That’s why I am still here today. I just want to bring them home.”
Dean Ubell is a newbie on his first search on this wet afternoon. He hasn’t completed any training yet and so was partnered with Paulhus.
“I’ve got young children of my own,” says Ubell. “And I wanted to get involved with an organization that helps the community.”
You’ll hear that a lot in the MJSAR team — everyday people, thinking of their own children, their own families.
Ubell is looking forward to his first official training next month — basic search training Nov. 5, 8 a.m. at the South Hill Fire Hall. There’s a one-time $50 fee to join, because what you’re joining is not a funded city service. There are over 30 SAR chapters in Saskatchewan — all volunteers.
The 30 or so MJSAR rescuers have paid for their individual equipment out of their own pockets. The equipment is extensive — radios, rain gear, snow gear. The two outfitted SAR vehicles they use are showing their age. So fundraising is key — like the upcoming steak night at the Crushed Can on Oct. 20.
Just over an hour into the search another whistle rings out, and “Foxtrot” is heard over the radio. Devin has found Doremi.
The “Foxtrot” code, agreed upon earlier, means Doremi is alive and found. If it had been “Delta, delta,” Doremi’s present situation would be a lot more unfortunate.
In a real-life situation, Doremi, soaked and clearly suffering from exposure and hypothermia, would receive first aid until emergency services arrive.
Devin seems pretty proud of himself, but quickly remembers that he couldn’t do it alone — a realization that RCMP officer Jim Adams also realizes back at the base during the debrief.
“We are three officers on duty,” says Adams. “But you guys add 30 extra sets of eyes and hands.”
Out of their gear, the team readies to leave the base of the successful search. Devin, now in dry civilian clothes, reflects on the search.
“Knowing the group of people that I know, that if someone goes missing, I feel confident that somebody is going to find them, and that everything is going to be okay,” he says.
“Because I have kids of my own.”
SAR dependent on fundraising
Moose Jaw Search and Rescue (SAR) searcher Christine Simpson is hoping the new provincial Crown — the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency — that was recently created to take care of 911 calls, will evolve to include search and rescue services.
“It just makes sense,” she said.
SAR chapters across the province are volunteer-based and therefore need to finance their own equipment.
“It’s frustrating to hear that you are piecing it together from one search to the other,” RCMP officer Jim Adams told the MJSAR team at their debrief after a mock search on Sunday.
The specialized equipment necessary for successful searches is expensive. Add to that, maintenance and repair of the equipment as well as the two vehicles and trailer the MJSAR uses.
“We have to raise funds or we couldn’t do it,” explained searcher Jerry Sushelniski.
When the RCMP or the city police activate a search and rescue team, all the detachment or municipality pays for is fuel for the vehicles and meals for the searchers.
The rest comes out of pocket for the SAR chapter and through fundraising efforts.