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Search and rescue: Weston CERT prepares for a likely scenario

Two friends walk into the woods after an errant dog at Bradley Park, 83 acres of woodlands and wetlands in Wilton. A third waits at the trail head at Oak Ledge Lane. After what seems like an unusually long time, the third friend, fearing the others lost or hurt, calls 911.

That was the basic premise of a four-hour search and rescue training exercise on Saturday, June 2, that involved Wilton police, fire, EMS and 89 CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members, including 12 from Weston, and the neighboring towns of Wilton, New Canaan, Fairfield, Westport, Stamford and Monroe.

The exercise was conducted as a real-life scenario, with stations set up to handle overall operations, the dispatch of search teams, an evacuation team, communications, planning, and logistics, to name a few.

As in a real case, the Wilton Fire Department was initially dispatched and firefighters conducted a preliminary search. Unsuccessful, they called in CERT, which assembled its members in preparation for an all-out effort.

The day began at 8 a.m. at the Wilton firehouse with a 90-minute classroom session led by Randy Ashmore of Tom Ashmore Enterprises Inc., a tactical training company that has trained rescue teams for 45 years. Mr. Ashmore is also the emergency management director in Woodbury. Saturday’s program focused on man tracking and compass and land navigation.

CERT’s previous search and rescue training focused on extricating people from damaged buildings that resulted from a natural or man-made disaster.

“This is individuals lost in the woods,” said Wilton CERT managing director Jack Majesky of what is probably a more likely scenario here. There were several such cases in Ridgefield recently, and Wilton CERT mobilized in March to help search for a woman who had left the campus of Silver Hill Hospital and was deemed to be a danger to herself. She was found by police before the search got underway.

“This is not an if, it’s a when,” said Mr. Majesky, who acted as public information officer Saturday. “We need to prepare ourselves before an event.”

Teams of four to five CERT members were assembled and sent out in shifts to search for the missing people. Participating was Will Taylor of Fairfield.

“It was very realistic,” he said. “It’s one thing to study and another to put what you’ve learned into action.

“We were told to look for any sort of evidence left by the victim,” he added. Mr. Taylor’s team found a booklet presumably dropped by the victim that listed his name and prescription drugs he took.

“Off the trail we found sunglasses, and we used that as a direction. Then we found a watch and noticed footprints in the mud.” That led Mr. Taylor’s team to one of the lost people — actually a mannequin dubbed Archie.

“We radioed ops and they sent in an extrication team,” Mr. Taylor said, referring to a team that included EMTs in case the person was injured. The group brought Archie out on a sled-like piece of equipment called a sked.

Heather Tietjen of Wilton was on another team. “It was pretty much what we expected,” she said of the search. “Our team leader suggested one of us go to one side, and one to the other” to search more effectively, she said. “We were all looking for clues.

“It felt real,” she added, even without the urgency of a real situation “we had a time constraint. We wanted to provide information to the next team.”

In addition to learning actual search techniques, the CERT members learned how to operate effectively as a group; how to plan, best utilize resources and equipment, how to keep track of who was where, and what areas were already searched.

Communication was one area where a few bugs need to be worked out.

“Part of what we’re doing here is learning our communication compatibility,” Mr. Majesky said, and it turned out there was some cross-town incompatibility. Although in some cases there was seamless communication.

Of their radios, Mr. Majesky said Wilton has a channel and New Canaan has a channel, and both towns also have a common channel.

Terrain can also be an impediment. If a search were conducted over a wider area, say a few square miles, the teams would turn to ham radios.

Before Mr. Taylor’s team found Archie, another team found the first victim — played by a human — who was brought back to the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps ambulance by an extrication team. There, EMTs examined him.

If they could treat a victim on scene they would, said corps president Ron Hitter. If he needed to be taken to the emergency room, they would leave right away and call for another ambulance.

Overseeing the operation as incident commander was Lt. Steve Bartek of the Wilton police.

During a debriefing at the end of the exercise, he told the CERT volunteers, “Judging on what I’ve seen, it’s all on the right track.

“This isn’t something the police department can do on its own. We rely on CERT … I appreciate the support you give us.”

CERT comes under the purview of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management & Homeland Security. The teams are composed of volunteers and receive regular training.

Among the services they perform are opening and operating shelters during emergencies such as last summer’s Tropical Storm Irene, traffic control during emergencies and planned events, and assistance at events such as flu clinics and parades.

Region 1 includes Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, Darien, Wilton, Norwalk, Weston, Westport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Trumbull, Bridgeport, and Stratford.

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