On a Friday afternoon in June 2011, members of the Niagara Frontier Search and Rescue team met in Allegany State Park for a combination training and trail-mapping weekend. That afternoon, team members paired off and hiked park trails carrying Global Positioning System devices. They were gathering data that could be used for a variety of purposes, including search-and-rescue operations.
By 9 p.m., some of the team members had returned from their assignments, each involving a hike of between three and seven miles. They were getting ready to call it a night and bivouac. Not on this night, however. Park police learned that two elderly adults, a man in his 80s and a woman in her 60s, had set out that day to look for old-growth trees. They had not returned.
The training session immediately turned into a real search-and-rescue operation. A group of six team members and three Park Police members quickly organized and set out to find the missing couple.
A tour of park roads turned up the hikers’ parked car and the search was focused on that area. From there the search team headed into the woods and up a small stream, but the gully it was following soon divided into three gorges. At that point, the searchers separated so that each tributary would be explored. The land in that area of the park is so uneven that communication between the search parties was soon lost. Finally, after another hour of searching, two of the search parties came upon the lost couple. The elderly hikers were seriously dehydrated. Although they were able to walk, both needed support to make their way out to the road and the man had to be hospitalized.
Although the hikers were not carrying all of the items people should take with them when they hike, they had done some things right: they let others know they were heading into the woods, they had a flashlight and whistle and, when they learned that they were lost, they stopped and stayed together to wait for assistance.
With the couple saved, the successful searchers had to find the other search team and return to park headquarters. Only by 3 a.m. were the search teams finally able to get some well-earned rest.
This story had a happy ending, and team members have told me about the tremendous satisfaction they receive from such episodes. Sadly, however, not all have such happy endings. A year earlier, for example, also in Allegany State Park, a man and his daughter became lost. The daughter found her way out to seek help, but her father was not found by search teams. His body was not discovered by hikers until almost two years later.
Who are these Niagara Frontier Search and Rescue team members? I hope this column will make them better known because they are, I believe, among the best of our neighbors. This all-volunteer organization (members even provide their own equipment) cooperates with public safety agencies and the Department of Environmental Conservation to carry out searches like those I described. Members are trained not only in search techniques but also in first aid, wilderness survival and map reading. And their training is ongoing. The local team averages about one search each month. Today the membership numbers 46 men and women. The group includes a postal worker, a surgeon and several business executives.
Searches for lost adults or children could easily get out of hand if a disorganized gang of people headed out into wildlands. Within a few minutes, there would almost certainly be still more people lost.
How then is the team activated? A recognized agency calls the Erie County Sheriff’s Office to request a rural or wilderness search. Available team members are then paged through a phone network. They report to the designated staging area and support the search effort with both DEC-certified searchers and team bosses. That call may come day or night, and the dedicated volunteers help whenever their services are needed.