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Search-and-rescue team nears completion of training

Gainesville team is the 4th largest in the state

POSTED: February 10, 2012 11:22 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Capt. Dale Yarck of the Gainesville Fire Department walks up a hill Thursday with Jager, a rescue dog in training, during wilderness rescue training as part of the Georgia Search & Rescue Council. The training taught firefighters from around the region how to search for clues in order to find rescue victims.

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The Gainesville Fire Department believes it is prepared for the next disaster in Northeast Georgia.

As the host department of a Georgia Search and Rescue team, it has all the tools and personnel necessary to conduct any sort of search-and-rescue situation that may occur in its 24-county region.

This week, the team has been conducting wilderness search-and-rescue training. It's just one aspect of the specially-trained group of emergency personnel that includes representatives from 10 local public safety departments.

"You get a diverse group of people that are trained in a lot of different areas and you bring them together and then you all train together," Gainesville Fire Chief Jon Canada said. "You get a lot of diverse backgrounds, a lot of experience from different areas of the fire service, which you need when you're putting a team of this magnitude together."

The process of implementing the team began in 2010.

Training its members and obtaining equipment has been ongoing since. Once the process is complete, the team will consist of 75 trained members and a 54-foot tractor-trailer full of nearly $600,000 worth of grant-funded equipment.

The team is split into two platoons, which rotate calls.
The Gainesville-based GSAR team is one of 14 in Georgia.

The teams are smaller versions of Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Search and Rescue teams.

The Gainesville team is considered a Type 3, which has about half as much equipment and manpower as a FEMA Type 1 USAR team. It is the fourth largest team in the state.

Ronnie Register, fire services manager for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said Gainesville was selected as a host department because of its urban status and prime location in Northeast Georgia.

"All of the departments that we have in the program are like Gainesville. They're larger-sized, so they have the manpower that can handle it and they have the budgets that can handle it," Register said.

Each team is strategically located to ensure a team can respond to any area in the state within two hours of an emergency, Register said.

The entire search-and-rescue operation is extensive and requires thorough command to ensure assignments are conducted efficiently and effectively. For the first 72 hours of a deployment, a team is required to be self-sufficient, finding their own food and water and a place to sleep.

"Going into a disaster area they may not have a hotel or place to sleep," Canada said. "You may end up in a school gym or you may end up sleeping in the back of cars."

Members must undergo hundreds of hours of training split into two different phases to gain certification. After completing the first phase last year, the team is currently completing the second phase, which is expected to end in April or May, Canada said.

The certification includes high and low-angle rescue, trench rescue, structural collapse rescue and confined-space rescue.

Training for GSAR teams does not typically include wilderness search-and-rescue training, but because much of Northeast Georgia is heavily wooded, the team decided to incorporate it into the program.

"Based on the area we felt like it was needed because this would likely be a thing we would get called for," said Capt. Skip Heflin of the Hall County Fire Department, who serves as a training officer and task force leader for the search-and-rescue team.

Members still must continue training each year after certification, however. The post-certification training is done in increments over a week.

"That's just keeping their skills up, and we're going to try to work that into one big exercise for the team," Canada said.

A K-9 dog unit is also being trained. There are three K-9 units on the state team, but only one for the Gainesville team.

Capt. Dale Yarck of the Gainesville Fire Department handles the team's K-9 dog, Jager.

"In structural collapses you potentially have a large area of debris and we send the dogs up and they can search a larger area much quicker than people can," Yarck said.

Membership on the team is voluntary. Each provides time to train and respond, and often must report to their normal work shifts after a day's training, Heflin said.

"Three out of every 9 are going to be on-duty today, which means instead of being on their truck at their station at their department in their hometown, they came here today for training," he said.

If a disaster is declared by the governor or the president, though, the departments will be reimbursed for the employees' lost time.

In 2011, tornados ripped through the state, causing extensive damage in several areas. Many of the GSAR teams were sent to those areas, including Ringgold.

The Gainesville team was in the middle of training when the tornados occurred.

"They were jumping at the chance to go to Rabun County, but they were in the middle of their training and we didn't have a truck," Canada said.

Instead the GSAR team from Augusta was sent to Rabun County.

When teams are conducting operations, they use a GPS system to identify areas that have been searched to avoid retracing their steps.

Gainesville Firefighter Eric Stover, a member of the team, said volunteering for the team presents an exciting opportunity.

"I enjoy technical rescue. That's kind of my specialty," he said. "I enjoy being able to assist everybody as far as technical rescue and broaden the horizon of what our department is capable of handling with other agencies."

Canada said the team members are well-qualified.

"When they finish their training, they're highly skilled, highly professional at what they do, very systematic in everything they do ," Canada said. "The skills they learn are advanced skills of all of these disciplines. These are not basic; they're the technician-type levels."

Register said the team will be a helpful addition to the state.

"They're a great group to work with," he said. "They're going to be a real asset to the program."

 



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