|Mounted volunteers train year-round for search and rescue situations|
|Written by Carol L. Paur/For CSI Media|
|Monday, 12 September 2011 07:26|
Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue volunteers work with their horses during a recent training session in Rock County. After some time in an enclosed area, the riders broke off into a search exercise in a large wooded area. Terry Mayer/staff
(Read the story in the e-edition HERE.)
WHITEWATER — Say the word “posse” and it’s hard to dispel images of rogue, gun-clad cowboys on horseback helping the sheriff with a shakedown of hardened criminals. Today, a different kind of posse exists, one not exclusively of men nor gathered to enforce the law. The Whitewater Area Mounted Search Team and Rescue, created in 2007, is a group of trained volunteers with horses who assist law enforcement and emergency personnel with search and rescue.
Reaching out to Walworth, Jefferson and Rock counties, WAMSTAR began with a lost autistic boy and a Richmond Township woman willing to help find him.
“I was preparing for our daughter’s wedding. This happened on a Thursday. When I picked up the phone, it was a code red. I thought it was a telemarketer,” said Sandy Olds, WAMSTAR founder. She quickly found out it was a message from law enforcement alerting residents of a missing boy.
“We live on the edge of the Kettle Moraine,” Olds said. “I said to my husband, ‘I can’t imagine having a lost child.’”
Being an experienced equestrian, Olds contacted the sheriff to offer her services for the search. The boy was found three hours later, but the incident spurred Olds to develop a mounted search and rescue team. After about a year, WAMSTAR was born.
“We really kind of struggled in the beginning,” she said. “A lot of people thought we were just a horseback riding group.”
But according to Olds and other volunteers, that is far from the truth. With help from Whitewater fire and rescue, volunteers receive basic first aid and CPR training. They are quick to point out, however, that they’re not emergency medical technicians.
“We cannot administer medication at all, however, we have an RN (registered nurse), but that is not the role,” said Debbie Kahn, a volunteer from Palmyra. “We will make the victim as comfortable as we can until EMT or EMS (emergency medical services) arrive. ... If we need to do CPR, yes, we do that.”
They also are trained in search and rescue methods, and follow the standardized Incident Command System developed and used throughout the country during emergencies, disasters and search and rescue missions. It is the method adopted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and provides for smoother communication for and between the different groups deployed during an emergency situation.
“We spend an entire year training. We spend our winter on personnel training; calling tree, setting up our base. We train all our volunteers to be a base commander,” said Kelly Wojcik, a volunteer from Helenville, which is in Jefferson County. The base commander is the liaison between WAMSTAR and the sheriff and emergency personnel. The base commander also gives the WAMSTAR volunteers their assignment.
Wojcik continued, “In summer, we focus on our horses. We desensitize them; we practice our ability to search in groups, in pairs. We also do mock searches.”
Not just any horse is allowed into the group. After extensive training, the horses must pass a checklist of requirements.
“All of our horses are put through a certification class they have to pass,” Kahn said. “If the horse does not meet the necessary criteria, they need to find a different horse. There are horses not cut out for this.
“All the horses used are very calm; the rider and the horse become a bonded team. We do not switch or swap horses.”
Some of the requirements for the horses include:
• Being able to stand quietly and remain calm amid all the commotion at the search site. Crowds, vehicles and other animals must not distract them.
• Climb and descend hills, cross water and bridges and step over obstacles.
• Get along with other horses and ride in a group.
• Carry packs filled with items needed for the search and be able to drag large, heavy objects.
• Be able to ride double.
“They (horses) can sense something a lot quicker than us,” added Kahn. “They know what’s normal or not normal — their heads will perk up.”
Since its beginning, WAMSTAR has participated in three full searches and has been called out on three other cases that were resolved by the time they arrived.
“Two of them resulted in finding bodies (not by WAMSTAR volunteers); the rest were what they call ‘bastard searches.’ The person was found somewhere else, safe and sound,” said Jelaine Goehl, WAMSTAR chairwoman. “In all, we were able to do our job in our areas, as we were assigned, so that is success to us.”
Some emergency personnel are reluctant to use WAMSTAR, wondering if the group can withstand a rigorous search and rescue.
“We run into a lot of apprehension. When they look at our group, we want them to see us as a professional group,” Wojcik said. “We are exclusively a search and rescue group, we’re not just a riding club. There’s always the concern that we might be another victim. We show them what we’ve done with training.”
Beloit Police Chief Norm Jacobs was unaware of the group, but said he would consider using its services in the right situation. He was enthusiastic about what WAMSTAR could offer to the community, although he said that not just any person or group could volunteer their services.
“My main concern with any civilian group is how well they are trained, organized and disciplined,” Jacobs said. “Most civilian groups we ever dealt with take their volunteer work very seriously. I am sure they have a lot of training and discipline in what they do.”
For those who have used WAMSTAR’s services, however, apprehension is replaced with confidence in their abilities.
New Whitewater Police Chief Lisa Otterbacher is one of those who has confidence in WAMSTAR.
“We had a university student that went missing. We employed a full search and rescue,” Otterbacher said. “We put WAMSTAR in the larger area. There was no learning curve, they were off and running.
“We had a hot tip that he (the missing student) might be on the south side of town, so we deployed our officers there, but it was a heavily wooded, marsh area. I contacted (WAMSTAR) to ask them to move. Without a bat of the eye, they put their horses in the trailers and moved them to the other side of town.
Otterbacher, a 21-year veteran of the force, said the WAMSTAR volunteers are passionate about what they do.
“I was so honored to have the opportunity to work with them,” she added.
WAMSTAR is one of more than 300 mounted search and rescue groups in the country, according to the Mounted Search and Rescue website. There is only one other mounted group in Wisconsin.
The nonprofit group has male and female volunteers that range in age from 13 to nearly 70 years old. WAMSTAR’s funding comes from private donors, and the group won’t turn down any donation.
“Until recently, the members paid for everything themselves,” Goehl said. “I would say I have between $40 and $60 in the contents of my trail bags, and another $60 in the bags alone.
“One practice probably costs $25 to $30 in fuel ... Horses are expensive, and so are trucks and trailers. Saddles run anywhere from $300 to $1,500 or more.”
A recent donation from the Wisconsin Horse Council helped to pay for radios and signs, Goehl said.
“That sure beats trying to communicate with our cell phones,” she added.