The first weekend of May saw Bush Search and Rescue Victoria run an annual training exercise. I was involved as a participant on the first day, and as an organiser on the second.
Saturday Search exercise
This exercise was a combined feature search/line search/stretcher carry exercise. We split into groups of two. As well as day walking gear we carried:
- A police issued SPOT, which is used to track the location of the search group.
- A BSAR issued GPS. BSAR use Garman etrex units. These are loaded with vector based maps. One drawback to these maps is the contour lines are SRTM based, so they are not as accurate or reliable as DEPI based maps.
- A police SMR VHF radio.
- Each member has a CB radio. I carried a radio for UHF CB with a 5/8th wave antenna for CB. I also had a amateur radio 2m/70cm handheld, but decided to leave it in the car due to the low probability of its use during the exercise. On real searches, I carry a handheld with at least 2m capability.
The 5/8th wave length antenna and 5 watt radio generally gives me very good performance in the field. It tends to outperform the police VHF radios, unless a repeater is setup. Often on real searches this happens, but on a training exercise, not so. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it is situation normal to have bad comms on search, why make it easier during practice? 🙂
Feature searching is often making our way down gullies and calling out. The assumption is that the lost person(s) is/are still conscious and can respond to a call. Practically, we would still need to get within 100m, sometimes 50m of a lost person for this search method to be effective. It does cover a lot of ground and many people have been located through a feature search.
After getting close to completing our allocated search patterns, we made our way to a designated spot where a line search was to be conducted with about 5 groups merging together. Here’s a photo of the group on a road approaching the line search area (courtesy BSAR):
The idea behind line searching is to thoroughly cover ground, searching for any evidence of the lost person, or whether they had been in the area (footprints, recently damaged foliage or something that they had dropped).
After the line search, the final segment of the activity was a stretcher carry. BSAR had been donated an old stretcher that was used in helicopter winching. Equipment supporting that use had been stripped from the stretcher, but it’s potential ongoing use was to relocate a person requiring rescuing on the ground. This can happen to evacuate a person over ground to a waiting ambulance, or to move them to a better location for helicopter extraction.
One of the BSAR members was placed onto the stretcher, made secure, and carried through the scrub about 400m to a road (photo courtesy BSAR):
Sound and light exercise
“Sound and light” is a night time technique that has been adapted from New Zealand. The approach that BSAR uses here tends to be a little more informal. The idea is to walk along a track, shining powerful torches in the trees for about 30 seconds or so. Then stop, turn the torch off, make a loud sound with whistles and listen for about 5 or so seconds in the dark. Then rinse and repeat. The light in the trees can be seen for some distance. The evening of the practice was drizzily and quite windy. The wind meant that the sound part of the exerise was not that effective, but I’ve seen this technique used elsewhere where the sound is an important component.
Tracking & Hypothermia
The following morning was a rotation exercise. First up was tracking. I remember seeing the movie “Rabbit Proof Fence” and how good the Aboriginals are at tracking. I’m not so good, however having some skills in this area helps with searching. There have been some searches where tracking people has been decisive on the search. It’s important to look for any clues, a break in the vegetation, any marks on trees. A great deal of bush in Victoria is not that open, and so there certainly can be evidence left when someone has been moving through it. One difficulty is to distinguish between a person moving through the bush and animals. It also helps to know where other search parties have been – we don’t need to find each other!
Another exercise was considering dealing with Hypothermia in the bush. Many people lost for a while have inadequate gear to keep themselves warm. Hypothermia happens whenever the rate of heat loss exceeds that which the body creates heat. The body creates less heat when its been a while since the last decent meal. If conditions are poor – cold and windy – it can be challenging to keep heat even if well prepared.
Two things can certainly help with heat retention. One is placing a person lying on the ground on foam. This provides a nice insulation layer between the person and the ground. Direct contact with the ground can suck away a lot of heat – even without snow. A second, additional approach is using a “Bothy Shelter” such as the one below: (photo courtesy BSAR)
It warms up a lot in these things. Having two or three people in there becomes quite toasty. If the weather is poor, one of these things could go a long way towards saving someone’s life.
The final main exercise of the weekend was a GPS Rogaine. Rogaining is an orienteering style exercise where participants make their way to a series of controls in the field. In a rogaine, there are too many controls to get to within the allowable time, and the controls have varying point levels. Participants generally are trying to score as much as they can, so there is time pressure. The GPS rogaine does not have any physical punch or anything at the control, it is just a place. Participants are able to use a GPS to get there, but they need to be competent in its use – and to read a point off of a map and convert that into a grid reference. What is being trained here is to be able to identify where to go off a map, translate that into grid references and be able to physically go there. This is like a real search where a search pattern is given as a series of points, or a line, on a map. One needs to be able to go to the first point, or start of the line, and then traverse along the pattern until the desired end point.
I was organising this part, so I did not participate, except for testing the software. A GPS Rogaine could not be scored manually, there would be simply too many calculations!
Most teams were able to do well in getting their controls, but it was interesting the few slipups here and there.
That was it for another year of BSAR training. There has been only one significant callout in the last year, and hopefully it stays that way.