Tidewater Search and Rescue Celebrates 30 Years, Looks to Future

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

Members of Tidewater Search and Rescue participate in monthly tracking field training exercises. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Members of Tidewater Search and Rescue participate in monthly tracking field training exercises. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

A group of six men and women, outfitted with all the equipment they would need to survive in the wilderness for 24 hours, gathered in the parking lot of Harwood Mills Park in Newport News on a Saturday in early September.

The group was assembled for one of Tidewater Search and Rescue’s monthly field training exercises.

Kevin Brewer, a member of TSAR for 20 years, arrived on the scene early that morning to set up the missing person simulation, which involved roping off the area where the missing person was last seen, planting footprints and otherwise disturbing the search area in ways the other five members would be able to notice and investigate.

TSAR, currently composed of around 30 members who travel all over the state to aid in search and rescue efforts, is celebrating its 30th anniversary last month.

Formalized search and rescue organizations throughout the state of Virginia came about as the result of a 1984 case that took place right in what is now TSAR’s own backyard: the line between James City and York counties.

“A small boy – about 5 years old – wandered off and crawled out onto the ice that winter,” Brewer said. “Unfortunately he was not found in time, but he maybe could have been if there had been people in place who knew how to conduct a search. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

TSAR formed the following year, with an original membership of a few dozen volunteers.

Since the early days of formalized search and rescue operations, Virginia has become a leader nationwide in ensuring the competence and professionalism of the many search and rescue organizations under its jurisdiction.

“Virginia is the only state to have actual ground search standards, and tracking standards,” Brewer said. “I would put us up against search and rescue organizations in any other state.”

In order to take part in actual search and rescue operations throughout the state, members of TSAR and other Virginia search and rescue organizations must pass an official test, which ensures they meet the standards set statewide.

Even compared to the already high bar set by the state, TSAR stands out, boasting the most state-certified search and rescue instructors of any group in Virginia, Brewer said.

Search and rescue operations require careful studying of footprints, broken branches and "fluffed up" leaves- all indicators that a person has recently passed through an area.  (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Search and rescue operations require careful studying of footprints, broken branches and “fluffed up” leaves- all indicators that a person has recently passed through an area. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Regular training exercises like the one taking place at Harwood Mills Park are part of what keeps the membership of the organization, which has fluctuated between 30 and 50 volunteers in recent years, engaged and sharp.

The exercise simulates a real search and rescue effort as closely as possible, which meant a slow start as the volunteers took their time gathering all of the necessary information.

Group members peppered Brewer with questions about when the subject, a 19-year-old autistic male visiting the park with his family, was last seen, what he was wearing and how familiar he was with the park.

Once the basics were covered, they began delving deeper into their knowledge of what is known as “lost subject behavior.” This field of information, studied by search and rescue organizations worldwide, deals with the basic psychology of missing persons and certain behavioral patterns they are known to display.

Remembering to get all of the necessary information upfront is one of the hardest parts of search and rescue training, Brewer said, and even seasoned volunteers sometimes carry index cards with them to remind them to cover all the important bases.

Becoming comfortable with a base-camp scenario comes in handy when members of TSAR arrive on site at real search and rescue operations, of which they are called to up to 25 a year.

“It tends to be cyclical for some reason,” Brewer said. “For a couple years we may only have a couple in the area and then we’ll have a whole bunch in the next few years.”

Despite these sort of variations, the searches themselves can be surprisingly predictable. They typically last less than 12 hours from when a person is reported missing, and Brewer estimates 70 percent of the missing persons TSAR is involved in searches for are found alive.

In the cases they are not, the subject was usually deceased even before search and rescuers were called on scene.

Also consistent is the type of subjects TSAR has been called to search for in recent years, though this has changed dramatically over time.

The last location where a missing person was seen is a major focus of search and rescue operations. In this simulation, TSAR volunteers carefully explore the Harwood Mills Park picnic shelter.  (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
The last location where a missing person was seen is a major focus of search and rescue operations. In this simulation, TSAR volunteers carefully explore the Harwood Mills Park picnic shelter. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

“It used to be that children, hunters and hikers were the main types of people we were searching for,” Brewer said. “But now it’s largely older people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

Brewer said the lack of assisted living facilities to meet the older population’s needs likely means TSAR will continue to see people with dementia as the main subjects of search and rescue efforts.

Once the group at Harwood Mills Park established all the facts of the scenario they broke into two groups, with one group heading out to the site where the missing person was last seen and one hanging back to focus on containment efforts, such establishing a perimeter around the section of the park the subject was believe to be lost in. The search effort was under way in earnest.

The volunteers participating in that day’s simulation have all been through many like them before, but they still eagerly show up for more field training each month to hone their skills. The amount of dedication required to become an expert tracker is a deterrent to many people, but it is also what makes the volunteers who do stick with it so valuable.

“For every five people we have apply [to TSAR], we have only one who stays and actually gets involved. And for every five who stay, only one stays and remains involved for more than a year,” Brewer said.

The issue of low retention becomes a particular problem when faced with a natural disaster or national tragedy.

“After 9/11, I couldn’t tell you how many phone calls we had from people who wanted to help, wanted to get involved [at a local level],” Brewer said. “Same with [Hurricane] Katrina, and even when Morgan Harrington was missing.”

But the people who get involved as a result of those kinds of high-profile news stories rarely stick with the organization, Brewer said.

It is the volunteers who become interested in search and rescue of their own accord who tend to remain involved with the organization over the long term. While that means overall membership has not necessarily grown significantly since TSAR was founded 30 years ago, the organization has grown in other ways.

“We’re on the verge of having our canine team tested to state standards,” Brewer said of TSAR’s future. “We hope to have our canine unit up and running by the end of this year.”

Search and rescue volunteers often prefer to sketch footprints rather than photograph them, as this helps them remember and recognize them better in the field.  (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Search and rescue volunteers often prefer to sketch footprints rather than photograph them, as this helps them remember and recognize them better in the field. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Also on the horizon is a major piece of legislation that passed through the Virginia state legislature just this past year, which will add a search and rescue component to the police academies.

This change will hopefully address one of the major challenges that TSAR has faced so far: lack of understanding on the part of law enforcement and the larger community about the services volunteer search and rescue organizations can provide.

“I believe [this legislation] will cause searches to be reduced by hours,” Brewer said.

In the meantime, members of TSAR intend to keep attending conferences, participating in field trainings and seeking out other avenues to improve the services they are able to offer.

“For everybody [in TSAR] it’s the same reason why we do this: a yearning to help someone who needs to be helped,” Brewer said. “In any missing person situation, if law enforcement says we’re not giving up, Virginia search and rescue is going to be right there with them.”