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THE ALL VOLUNTEER ARMY: WashCo’s Search & Rescue Team

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February 8, 2012 by wcobserver

FARMINGTON – Every so often, John Luther will stop talking. He and Willie Watts, who’s sitting right beside him, will stare somewhere into the distance, their ears resting on every sound crackling from the radio. They’re listening to a call coming through — it could be an emergency — at the Farmington Fire Station.

“I like to listen to every call [coming in],” says Luther, the Search & Rescue Coordinator for Washington County. “When I hear a call coming into the county, I know some- body is running.”

That running somebody is likely to be on Luther’s team. With an operation of about 100 volunteers — many of whom are full- time firefighters, too — the Urban Search and Rescue (S&R) is an essential component of the Washington County’s emergency response team, one that has grown impressively over the past several decades.

While search and rescue operations have been ongoing since the 1970s. The pioneers of the Washington County S&R, like David Scott, Joel Sacassberry and Mitch McCorkle not only operated the local fire department but built their own rescue rigs and coordinated searches. The operation really picked up in about 2004, though, with federal funds from Homeland Security helping to create the Department of Emergency Management and the merging of the Technical/Urban Rescue Operations with the more traditional image of officials searching the woods for a lost child.

“The people have always done a great job, it’s just now in more demand,” says Luther. “When I first started doing Search and Rescue, it really didn’t do much more than lost persons. But now, you see that Search & Rescue has changed.” As Fayetteville and surrounding cities like Springdale and Prairie Grove begin to grow, Luther says the team can just as likely spend time search- ing for a missing person in the city as in the woods. In fact, the one longest search, he says, was for an elderly man who wandered away from his assisted living home near the

NWA Mall. The search was successful. “This didn’t happen overnight,” says Luther. [S&R Team leader] David [Comstock] organized this — training his team, training others when it wasn’t something jurisdiction heads put a lot of stake in to it. And they continued to better their teams [with] very little funding and very little support. … We’ve built off of foundations that were put in place by people before us.”

It’s a far cry from what the S&R is these day. The 100-plus team coordinates with nearly all agencies on the state level, has two brand new trucks full of gear, another trailer, and access to aerial transportation from the state agencies. The intensity of the team’s work, has much to do with the changing of the S&R’s role, says Luther.

“You can get lost in the woods and we’ll come rescue you,” he says. “And you can get caught in severe weather conditions and we’ll be there as well.”

Indeed the S&R crew is trained in just about every kind of disaster imaginable — collapsed buildings, terrorist attacks, flooding, caving accidents. Luther says S&R responds to about a call a month, with flooding and swift water being some of the team’s most frequent calls. There were 80 such incidents in 2011, and during that year’s flooding, S&R once received 35 calls in 24 hours. The coordination among S&R, the Sheriff’s office and the judges that preside over the groups have become so efficient that Washington County’s Department of Emergency was able to organize efforts with Madison County to send a special team to assist Joplin officials after the devastating tornado last year. How were they able to turn a once rural operation into an multi- functional superhero team?

“The one thing all the teams have in common is good people behind the scenes doing the work,” says Luther. “What you don’t see, unless you’re at the calls are the 100 folks who are sacrificing with additional training. This is above and beyond their daily life and it’s a huge sacrifice. … You want to see an example of a public servant, this is it.”

In the garage, Luther and Watts show off the equipment. There are hats, and belay ropes, and air tanks, and life rafts, and stretchers. Volunteer Mark Cunningham pulls out a big pair of bolt cutters. It would seem that sometimes the “rescue” part of the job offers enjoying rewards once in awhile. Like the time, chuckled Cunningham, S&R had to help a woman cuffed to a bed because her partner, in the heat of curious passion, lost the keys to their love-links. Everyone in the station garage has a much-needed laugh.

This was a few minutes after Watts had opened up the back of the S&R van to pull out more tools. In the back, hung a giant, heavy-looking anchor, its treble hook edges wrapped covered in a blanket. Watts says it was for dredging rivers and other flooded areas. Searching, dredging, namely, for bodies. Much like the moments in the station house when the radio was crackling, there’s the briefest interval of silence.

“There’s a lot of emotional elements that [our volunteers] have to deal with … after body recoveries or extrications, those guys and gals live with that from then on,” says Luther. “And [those volunteers] are people you live next door to.”

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