A large-scale search and rescue training exercise was conducted this weekend in Union County with more than 100 area participants.

The Eastern Oregon Search and Rescue organization is composed of 10 counties: Union, Baker, Umatilla,
Wallowa, Morrow, Gilliam, Wheeler, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties. Every year, the EOSAR gathers together for a training that takes the volunteers through real-life search and rescue scenarios to hone their skills. It also provides an opportunity for the teams to work together outside of an emergency situation.

Chris Galiszewski, chairperson of the EOSAR, said the goal for Friday and Saturday’s training was to improve communication between the teams.

“It’s better to meet today (during this training) instead of during a winter storm warning in the wilderness,” he said. “The teams work together and learn about each other. We all bring different skills. This is an opportunity to build the relationship.”

Galiszewski said Baker County has a dive team; Umatilla has a drone program; the Civil Air Patrol, manned by the United States Air Force Auxiliary, brought in five planes from Portland, Salem, Eugene, Redmond and Washington, to be used for some of the exercises; and teams had K9 units to help with the missions. The teams who do not have those resources were able to use them and better understand how they work.

“We all bring a piece to help solve the puzzle,” Galiszewski said to The Observver at the Union County Fairgrounds toward the end of the second training today.

Just up the road on the Mt. Emily Recreation Area, several scenarios were being played out with pseudo emergencies.

At Indian Rock, one of the teams was attempting to find a married couple in their 60s who had run out of gas the night before. The mission started with three SAR members who attempted to look for the couple. Once they found the husband, they requested a K-9 unit to help find the wife.

The husband, played by a Union County SAR volunteer, said after they called 911 the night before, the wife decided to go on a walk to get in her step count for the day. She hadn’t been seen since.

The first goal of a SAR mission is to find the vehicle, if there is one. It’s easier to locate than a person and the hope is that the missing party knew to stay with the vehicle and not go out on foot. If the person is not found with the vehicle, the SAR members will look at the scene and get clues as to where the person may have gone.

The training exercise utilized the Civil Air Patrol to fly over the area to search for the wife, and a team with two K-9 units were brought in. The plane circled the area to try to find the missing wife, communicating closely with the ground crew.

After the mission, CAP Capt. Chris Taylor, out of Aurora, told The Observer his team of three searched the area from the air and was able to find the wife and direct the ground crew to her location.

Taylor said the terrain of MERA and the weather were the biggest challenges in the mission.

He said another common obstacle is that people don’t do everything they can to be found. Finding something with bright colors, building a fire, moving your body or using something shiny to attract the plane searching for you is key, he said.

“If you’re not trying to be found, then you’re not going to be found,” he said.

People need to be smart and think ahead when they’re going out in places they could get lost. For example, Nick Vora, SAR Lieutenant for Union County, said if you find yourself halfway into an emergent situation and your cellphone battery is low, you should call 911.

He said many times, people call friends or family instead of dispatch. However, if you are lost and cellphone coverage is spotty or your phone’s battery is nearly dead, it’s best to call dispatch right away, even if you don’t think your situation is dire.

“(Dispatch) can get your specific location and be that much more ahead (if you do end up lost),” Vora said.

He said people tend to avoid calling 911 because they don’t think it’s an emergency, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Other ways to ensure your safety include being prepared for the elements, staying where you are if you do become lost, and telling friends or family where you’re going.

Down the road from the missing couple, three mushroom pickers were reported lost.

Bill Potter, out of Wheeler County, was acting as the incident command of this training exercise.

Potter reported two of the three mushroom pickers had already been located — one was deceased — and the third was being searched for with an ATV and a drone.

Potter told The Observer getting CAP as a resource is a process and sometimes using a drone can be an easier and quicker way to search. The drone can travel up to three miles and has a 30-minute battery life. According to Bill Morris, who was reviewing the video footage coming from the drone, the team was getting about a mile and a half range and approximately 15 minutes of video. Sending the drone out farther than that would risk losing the drone in the wilderness.

Still down the road from that, at Fox Hill trailhead, the search and rescue team was wrapping up a mission for two young boys who had gone missing. One was a dummy, which was used for the younger of the boys. The other role was being played by the son of Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash, who was participating in the mission.

The focus of this mission was dealing with the young age of the boys and their irate parent who was lashing out at the SAR members.

SAR members use a guide book, a compilation of real-life search and rescue mission data that is organized by the type of person who is missing. Hikers, mushroom pickers, hunters and children each react differently to being lost. This information helps SAR determine how to conduct their search.

When children are lost, according to Vora, they’re mostly focused on finding their parents. Predicting the steps a young child takes is more challenging in that regard, and the exercise at Fox Hill was meant to show that. The addition of a parent who is worried about their children could be a significant obstacle to the success of the mission. Parents don’t always understand the process of a SAR mission and can get frustrated with their heightened emotions. SAR members need to be able to de-escalate the situation if need be.

There are many ways to be part of a SAR team — from active searching to providing administrative help. Whatever their roles, the team members consider their volunteered time as giving back to their community.

Exercises like the training this weekend strengthens the teams so they can be better prepared for real scenarios.

To learn more about SAR, contact the local sheriff’s office.