Lake County’s only K-9 Search and Rescue (SAR) Unit – Flynn-the-dog – and his human handlers, husband and wife team, Aaron and Gail Collins, brought home the mock lost hiker after a few real-life incidents intruded upon the day’s field exercise.
Flynn, a purebred Belgian Sheppard, is a full-fledged participant and a committed canine volunteer with the SAR and he works as hard as any two-legged member on the team. His handlers, the Collins’, have trained him to not only follow scent, but to be able to differentiate from all those known to be out in the area in order to exclude confusing scents and concentrate upon the smell of only one person – that of the lost individual.
At the start of any search effort, mock or otherwise, Flynn is given a chance to mark the sent of all search team members who stand quietly in a semi-circle as Gail Collins walks him past each searcher in turn to eliminate their presence from the search scene.
Once Flynn has cataloged the discounted scents, he is then either given a personal item belonging to the missing party, or taken to their last known location to register the aroma of just who he is looking for.
If all goes well, and there is no guarantee that it will due to weather conditions, human nature and/or scent contamination, Flynn will then track the lost party with his team in tow, in his mission to lead them all to safety.
During Sunday, Feb. 9, mock-search, all of the above scenarios came into play with the site contaminated by non-participants in situ and stuck in the muddy slush, the scent Flynn was tracking laid down two days prior before the snow fell, and the inadvertent removal of one of the track markers carefully placed for the exercise by SAR Safety Commander, Cory Thornton.
Thornton, who walked the route with ‘victim’ Melissa Steele in order to lay the scent trail for Flynn, was pleased with the unexpected variables playing out in the mock search and rescue event, noting that “In real life, it (searches) never go according to plan; there are always outside elements to deal with.”
Sunday’s exercise, dubbed “Mock 2-9 Search” started before the break of day at the Lake County Emergency Complex in Lakeview with the creation of the ‘victim’, Steele, as well as a back-up lost hiker – Thornton’s own brother Casey – just in the off-chance that the unexpected that usually happens, included the need for a substitute ‘lost’ one.
At around 7 a.m., Kathy Smith applies a coating of injuries to Steele, complete with fake blood, wounds, contusions and abrasions all in living color and contemporary with the carefully crafted scenario, and then she is taken to the pre-set location to await rescue, complete with dropping scented clues from the last marker to her location.
By 10 a.m., the SAR operations center at the County compound is full of volunteers – more than two-dozen in all this day – and the official briefing begins. Safety Officers Mark Suba and Cory Thornton lead the crew imparting some of the known information as the volunteers respond with pertinent questions – all part of the exercise – and, after the necessary information has been shared, the teams are formed, assignments given and the volunteers take the field.
At headquarters, Dan St. Clair, Ben Startt, Tracy McLain and Lissa Webbon tackle the logistics; Relay Team 1, Patrick Roach, stationed at Black Cap and Bullard Canyon Junction, coordinates with Relay Team 2, Steve Michael, stationed at HQ to make sure that all messages get through from all parties.
Team 1, mounted on ATV’s consisted of Chuck Messner (lead), Alan Munhall and David Garcia (KCSAR); Team 2, also riding various forms of ATV’s: Casey Thornton (lead), Lesa Cahill, Rusty McNair, Jake Nelson (KCSAR) and Rose Beardsley (KCSAR); Team 3 – the Collins’ – and the Disaster Unit manning the Rescue vehicle: Darla Tague, Leslie Sutterfield, Simon Ballaine and Rusty Hammond.
As all teams took their positions and the search began, the inevitable intrusion of real-life spiced things up a bit. Unknown parties, missing markers and the terrain covered with a variety of conditions from thick, sticky mud to deep, soft snow lent the aura of reality to the situation and heightened the experience for all involved.
The entire exercise lasted over seven hours, and the information garnered is quite valuable in honing skills as well as search and rescue procedures for future need, and was considered a success even by those who, in the competitive nature of humans, clearly lost by a nose.