Search team puts holiday spin on sharpening skills
URBANA — If you think Easter egg hunts are just for kids, try finding a camouflage-painted egg stashed in a tree.
For the volunteer members of Champaign County's two-year-old Search and Rescue Team, this was training — with a holiday spin — to help keep their skills sharp.
Anybody can go out and look for a missing person, two team members say, but it's going to be a much more effective search with a trained team doing the job.
"There's a lot more to it than walking in the woods and looking around," says Ralph Kuchenbrod, a Tolono aircraft mechanic who is a search a team member, along with his wife, Ellen, a veterinarian.
The county's search and rescue team was launched in the spring of 2012, and its inspiration was a missing child in St. Joseph, says John Dwyer, who is coordinator of both the team and the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.
The child was found, he said, and county Sheriff Dan Walsh saw a need for a team of trained searchers ready for the next time a search was needed.
Since its start, the group hasn't been called out by local law enforcement to search for a missing person in Champaign County. But it did help with a search last year for the missing 7-year-old Willow Long of Watson, whose body was found by another volunteer team in Effingham County, Dwyer said.
Local team members are prepared to look for — and find — other crime victims, he says, but most often missing person searches in this area involve lost kids and wandering Alzheimer's patients.
Champaign County's team has more than 30 members, about two dozen of whom come regularly to monthly meetings and training sessions, he said.
Also an Air National Guardsman with a master's degree in public health, Dwyer says the initial team training involves about 24 hours of online learning and out-in-the field time, and there are monthly meetings and training sessions that take up an hour or two.
Members also get together every few months on a weekend day for training, he said. They learn such things as how to conduct a search, work together as a team, use equipment and find evidence without disturbing it.
Knowing how to look and what to look for makes a big difference in searches, Dwyer and Ralph Kuchenbrod say.
The ordinary looker might focus on one point straight ahead and move on, Kuchenbrod says. Trained searchers also look up and down. Then they repeat the process, turning at points in a circle, before they move on, so they don't miss anything.
Dwyer says search team members don't just look at something.
"You look over, under and in," he says.
Search team members are also trained to look for specific clues based on who is missing — such things as: A cigarette pack based on the type of cigarettes a missing smoker used, or the color gloves a missing child might have been wearing, Kuchenbrod says. They find items such as a soda can that might have significance that an untrained person might pass right by.
"It's very slow and methodical, and that's why we're very thorough," he adds.
It's a time-consuming process. It takes 20 people five hours to search a single square mile, Dwyer says.
Missing children can be especially clever about crawling into hard-to-find places to keep warm, and finding them can be even more challenging because warnings about "stranger danger" mean they don't necessarily respond to hearing their names called, "until they get hungry," Kuchenbrod says.
Alzheimer's patients, on the other hand, can walk oblivious to the elements until they reach a barrier such as a fence or a ditch, he says.
Dwyer says the volunteers on this team are largely involved out of a sense of service.
"They are a great group of individuals, and they are ready to help out," he says. The team is open to additional volunteers.
For those who might be interested in applying: Being physically fit and disciplined enough to keep your mind on the job during a search are good traits for team members, Kuchenbrod says. People involved in scouting may also be good candidates.
But you don't have to be so super-fit you're a marathon runner to be considered. There are also jobs for support people who are less able to get out in extreme elements, he says.
He was attracted to join this team himself because he's an outdoor type and former Boy Scout leader who saw a chance to help and learn new skills. He and his wife also serve on the Prairielands Boy Scout Council.
Kuchenbrod and his wife came up with the Easter egg training exercise, and they threw in a teachable moment for fellow team members by informing them the Easter bunny doesn't climb trees — though some of the eggs were hidden in trees, Ralph Kuchenbrod said.
When a family member tells you a missing person would "never" do a certain thing or go a certain place, you can't let that necessarily limit your search, he says.
"When the family tells you something, you kind of have to take it with a grain of salt," he adds.
Search and Rescue facts
— Champaign County's Search and Rescue team conducts a search for a missing person only when it has been called out by police authorities.
— The team can conduct a search on the ground or by air.
— The team welcomes equipment donations, and is now in need of more Garmin Rino GPS radio devices.
— If someone is missing: The most important thing to do is notify local law enforcement as soon as possible, advises the Illinois Search and Rescue Council.