Rescue team smooths rough edges
There’s a plane down in the Blue Lakes region south of Lake Tahoe. Immediately, Alpine County Search and Rescue snaps into action to find the crippled craft.
But there’s a problem. The search team seems a bit confused.
“Where’s Markleeville Peak?” asks one of the rescue personnel, who is huddled over a map with his four teammates.
“I think it’s 43 degrees that way.”
“No, that’s Jeff Davis Peak!”
“Is this true north or magnetic north?”
“Shut up, it doesn’t matter.”
“Flip the map over, you can see better!”
The occupants of the plane are doomed.
But that’s just the point of this exercise in the mountains on Saturday afternoon. There is no real plane crash – just a transmitter planted somewhere in the woods by a real Alpine County Search and Rescue team. Two search teams consisting of Douglas County School District students were using the scenario as a training exercise -taking to snowmobiles and using radio transmitters in an attempt to pinpoint the location of the fake plane crash.
Meanwhile, several other agencies were using the day as an opportunity to hone their search and rescue skills. Personnel from the Civil Air Patrol, California Highway Patrol, Alpine Search and Rescue and the U.S. Forest Service were all on hand to flex their rescue muscles.
The six students and two guides – Tony Galvez of Alpine Search and Rescue and Bob Brown of the Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Association – snowmobiled about 15 miles into the backcountry to execute their search.
The idea is to find high ground and record a series of transmitter signals that would be emanating from a black box in the tail of a downed aircraft. Called triangulation, two teams of rescuers try to pinpoint their own location at three or four different locations, then compare those readings with radio signals from an airplane circling the area. All that data leads the team to the approximate area of the crash.
Confusion ensued at the outset. During their first stop, the students had a bit of trouble figuring out where they were. They studied the map. They argued. Finally, Galvez stepped in.
“I’m just supposed to be an observer, but you only have until 12:30 to find this plane,” he said. “If you make a mistake, don’t dwell on it. Deal with it and move on. Focus on the task at hand.”
With that, the team settled down and soon had their bearings. They moved on to their next stop – about five miles down the road.
In winter, the roads into the Blue Lakes wilderness area are covered in snow, and groomed by the Forest Service for recreational use by snowmobilers. They also come in handy for search and rescue training missions.
In addition to providing training for future search and rescue personnel, it also provides practice for veterans such as CHP and Alpine County Search and Rescue veteran Ron Gleason, who was in charge of the training exercise.
“We started a little shaky, but we soon got straightened out,” said Ryan Griffith, a ninth-grader at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School in Douglas County. “The hardest part is using the direction finder, because the signal bounces off of trees and rocks and gives you false readings. But we figured it out.”
Brown, a former Civil Air Patrol pilot in Los Angeles County, volunteers his time for such training missions because he sees a need for rescue agencies to stay sharp.
“There’s a lot of people out in the mountains, and they tend to get into trouble sometimes,” Brown said. “I see it a lot just out on my snowmobile. Sometimes people don’t know their limitations.”
Alpine County Search and Rescue, like its El Dorado County counterparts, are volunteer organizations. They are made up mostly of fire, sheriff and police department personnel who take special training in backcountry rescue techniques.
As for Saturday’s training team – they eventually found the planted transmitter, albeit a little later than the assigned time.
“I don’t know if I want to do this in the future,” said Dwayne Summerhill, also a ninth-grader at Pau-Wa-Lu. “It’s hard.”
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