My First Search by Barbara Martin
The Friday evening commute from Sacramento to Placerville ended a long workweek as I arrived home at 7:30 p.m. The message on my phone machine announced a callout search for a missing Alzheimer's victim lost in the vicinity of Cosumnes River College. The instructions were to arrive at 5:00 a.m.
My first thought was about the cold weather; it was 34° out on my deck and it was sure to get colder as the night wore on. What were the chances an elderly victim would survive one night, only to find out later that he had been lost for three nights? I knew survival was unlikely and we could only hope he had hitch hiked a ride or found shelter. I ran around the house, gathered up everything I owned that would keep me warm, and my pack. Somehow it was not too hard to fall asleep until I was abruptly awakened by a 2:00 a.m. phone call I thought was calling off the search. It turned out to be a friend in crisis. Luckily I don't need a lot of sleep.
Arriving at the Office of Emergency Services at 5:00 a.m., I hoped that my first search was not more than I bargained for. The training sessions were fun but this was prime time, this was for real, and it was really cold and dark outside.
Many people were already on hand and ready to go. Although I'm a ground crew member, Catherine Ciofalo quickly took me under her Management wing and was prepping me to interview the family. I was really ready to pound the ground, but I also remembered the ice in the ashtray outside and was a little thankful for the warmth of the Command Center. Quickly my thermals were triggering hot flashes and my wool socks started to itch, but I didn't want to take layers off in case my assignment changed.
This was my first experience with Management, and I was impressed by the calm and organized approach. I was continually fascinated with the logistics of a search, determining the areas to search, how teams were assigned, radio monitoring, and handling of the media was continually fascinating. Scott Stewart was taking orders for a quick shopping trip to Raley's, so we put a prayer book, our horoscopes and our favorite kiwi doughnuts on the list just to annoy him.
I soon learned my assignment was to interview the missing man's family at 7:00 a.m. It was an important and delicate assignment, and I was anxious to do a good job. (I've been interviewing people for most of my adult life in my occupation as a nurse, but this was really different.) The candor and composure of the missing man's three adult grandchildren impressed me. After I pointed out the helicopter circling the region, it seemed to make the intensity of the search more real to them. I felt they understood and appreciated the incredible amount of energy and dedication that was going into the search for their grandfather.
The role of the chaplain was sort of a surprise to me. He was the backbone of the family support, and played an incredibly important role. I was asked to hang out with the family, maybe go to breakfast with them, and just add myself to the support team.
Emotionally, however, it was a bad place for me to be very effective in this role because of other stresses in my life. I knew I would be able to do whatever I was asked but secretly I was praying for a different assignment. My prayers were answered when Dee, also a nurse and a new member to SAR, arrived and stepped right into my assignment next to the chaplain. It seemed either totally planned or serendipitous. I was too thankful to figure it out.
I was eager to learn as much as I could and Catherine and Frank Munoz were making a big pitch for me to become part of the Management Team. Honesty is always my best style, so I told them that the fieldwork was what I liked best. Catherine quickly pointed out that I could do both and be in a great position to have some say about which field assignment I might go out on. Frank convinced me that half my time spent in the field and half at the command center could be pretty sweet. I think I was effectively conned by Frank
The media were almost constantly present but respectful of the developing situation. I certainly stayed out of their way since the last thing I wanted to see in the background of the 6:OO news were my weary, puffy eyes.
Lunchtime arrived and the search crews returned as well as the family. Everyone warmed up, rested, ate and debriefed. The search and rescue teams had learned a lot about the homeless people and abandoned buildings in our county.
Debriefing was also a new skill to be learned and practiced. New teams were gearing up and Catherine was making good on her promise to send me out. I put on my gators over my jeans and boot tops, a tip I learned from Jael after hearing about the star thistles and the blackberries. My pepper spray was retrieved from the car after hearing about a pack of dogs that had been harassing one of the teams.
I was ready to join Karen's ground team but a sudden switch of plans sent me out with Loren Krueger in a 4-wheel drive truck after we received a possible report of the victim on Missouri Flat Road. Loren was quite a veteran and he even let me communicate to our teammates with his radio. You would think with all natural ability to yak at length on the phone, I would not be intimidated by using the radio, but somehow I am. We even encountered a man who appeared a little strange and possibly lost himself but seemed to be okay. If he wound up missing someday, I wondered if he had family that would be as concerned as our Alzheimer victim's family?
Suddenly, a garbled radio transmission. Loren pulled off the road and killed the engine so we could hear. I knew in my heart that the news was not good although reception was garbled. Phil Dold and his wife, Megan, were part of our 4-wheel drive team and they pulled up behind us with the news. I wondered if I would ever have to make this difficult of a radio transmission. Search over, time to debrief and go home. It felt a little like a crash landing.
Arriving at OES, the family was being told the bad news. It was a really tough day for Scott Stewart and Marty Hackett. It was interesting to watch the response of other SAR team members. This is a serious business that doesn't always have a happy ending, a mini-metaphor for life. I felt good that the job was done and we had done the work needed.
In the debriefing, the SAR volunteers that found the victim were very honest and open about their feelings. The chaplain had moved into phase two, helping the SAR members start to work through their own feelings. I wondered for a moment who helps the chaplain.
Scott and Marty were very supportive and help was offered to any SAR volunteer that might want it. An experience likes this always makes an impact and affects your life's journey. It often dredges up previous experiences and emotions that can be overwhelming for reasons that may not be obvious to yourself or others.
The chaplain said that feelings are the way you connect with the human race. It made me really proud to be part of an organization that connects with that same human race and will do anything they can to help. Tired and packed full with new learning experiences, I went home to continue my own journey.
From January 1999 Lost & Found Newsletter