Friday, September 2, 2016

The Reasons I Volunteer for Land Search and Rescue

It's pouring rain outside and I just got home from work. We have a meeting I am hosting at my place in half an hour. A text comes through. I drop everything, throw together a pack and get changed into my waterproofs. I stick a note on my door "sorry, meeting postponed" and drive to the Police station. On the way to our job, I text my partner and ask her to arrange someone to feed the dogs, I text my boss and the people I am meant to be meeting at work the next day "called to a search. I may not be in tomorrow. If you haven't heard from me, assume I won't be there". We spent that night wading through waist-deep rivers before bunking down at a hut at 2am.

It's 11pm. I get a call from our SAR boss. Can I be at the station at 5am the next day for a search in Whakatane?... Damn right I can be... I repeat the above drill and arrive on site to find we are looking for a women and 4 children who have been out in the bush in the Winter for 2 nights already. The mood is sombre. Searchers have already been out all night and the family looks at us hoping that we might be the fresh blood that brings home their loved ones.

It's 10pm. It's my birthday and I've been out camping in the mountains for two days. I hardly slept and my back is sore from the 20kg pack I've been carrying. I've just sat down in front of the fire with a cup of tea and the phone rings... I haul my weary legs out of the house and arrive home at 4am the next morning. I go to bed for 3 hours then get up and go to work.

It's 2.30pm in the afternoon. I'm at work and a text comes through. A DOC worker has broken her leg in rough bush and a stretcher carry is required to evacuate her. Within half an hour, I've been home for gear, gotten changed and arrived at the Police Station ready for despatch.

I think you get the idea. It's been a busy couple of months... I often worry about what my boss thinks of me when I leave work to attend a search. I worry about inconveniencing people who look after my dogs or shift meetings. I worry about the tasks I don't get done when I drop everything to go to a callout. I have bought a set of clothes 2 sizes too big so that I have spare gear in the event that we find the lost party. And sometimes, people say nasty things about our search effort afterwards, or comment on things they don't really know about on social media... We don't always get it right, but we get it right with the information and resources we have at that point in time, if that makes sense?

This is the life of a Land SAR Volunteer... And I wouldn't change it for the world...
For every late night callout, every guilt-trip I place upon myself, every piece of work I have to squeeze in somewhere else, and every nasty thing some pundit says on Facebook, there is a "family" of people with whom I have an immense sense of cameraderie, there are fantastic opportunities for training and invaluable experience in the back country. We learn about navigation, satellite phones, radio comms, tracking, search techniques, rope rescue... All the cool stuff... And then, of course, there are the people who we return home to their families. Most of the time alive and well, and sometimes not... Even in those cases, it's purely the closure we provide that makes it all worthwhile.

I've been volunteering for Land Search and Rescue for about four and a half years now. I've spent the larger part of my life playing in the bush and at the time I joined up, it seemed like a great way to create purpose for myself, and contribute something meaningful to society... But it has been that and so much more. The team I work with at Rotorua Land SAR have become my "family" (I'm Australian born and bred, so my biological family lives a wee way away). I care deeply about them and I know they genuinely care about me, too. We go on adventures together, we share stories, knowledge and ideas. We "geek out" over weird shit like titanium camping cookware and we meet for coffee and dinner. There is nothing more heartwarming than feeling that you are a part of something very special, and the unique experiences we share when we go out on searches is one of the best things about being part of the Search and Rescue family.

Last night, we did a rescue job in the Mamakus. Four of us, plus a medic, ventured out along a rough trapping line, clambering over fallen trees and sliding down slippery banks. I was route-finding at the front for the first bit, Matt had the scoop (stretcher) over his back and whenever I lost the markers, Cliff and Checkles had my back and would take over. It took us nearly an hour to work our way through a kilometre of bush to find the injured party, but when we arrived on the scene, something genuinely amazing happened... Generally, we have a team leader on each search, but it was like we didn't need one... We all just fell into roles organically and got shit done. We hardly even had to speak a word to each other. It just happened. The medic and I tended to the lady who was injured whilst the other three scoped out a winch site for the helicopter and crashed a path down the steep bank. Then we worked together to haul the scoop containing our patient 50m up an embankment to the winch site the guys had created (50m doesn't sound like a long way, but trust me, when you are hauling a person over fallen trees and up muddy banks, it definitely feels like a pretty good workout!).

The helicopter arrived right on sunset. There are few things that give me goosebumps like the sound of a chopper ferrying searchers around to taskings, or in this case, the sound of the chopper picking up the injured party. For 15 minutes, we sat in the downdraft of the chopper preparing the patient. Trees threw themselves back and forth violently and the thunderous noise of the helicopter sitting just above the forest canopy drowned out everything else around us. Branches on dead trees broke off and fell down around us. Then as the downdraft abated and the sound of the chopper disappeared into the dusk, we all hi-fived and made our way out on foot in the dark. By nature, it is hazardous work, and sometimes, you go to these jobs knowing that you may also get injured, and on this particular job, a couple of our team members did, but there is reassurance in knowing that you have a good team of people around who have got your back. There's a special bond you form with people on a job like this... Even with people you didn't previously know, like the medic, and even the patient... It's a unique experience and difficult to describe unless you are a part of it. In fact, it's addictive... The combination of adventure, intimate camaraderie and knowing you are helping someone return home to their family that night... That feeling is euphoric.

Without a doubt, we made a real and genuine difference to someone's life last night... There is nothing more important or more worthwhile than putting forward my time, skills, experience and our precision teamwork to help someone who needed us most right at that moment in time... In a weird way, I guess it's kind of like boyscouts for adults... That's why I invest my time in volunteering for Land Search and Rescue... I genuinely love it... When it all boils down, there's nothing more rewarding than helping another human being get out of trouble. And even though I don't get paid to do it, you couldn't pay me to stop...

1 comment:

  1. My deepest thanks to you all, not that I have ever needed you, but you do a wonderful job.