CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — A 10-day search for a missing Appalachian Trail hiker highlighted the state’s need for greater numbers of search-and-rescue volunteers.
The search by air and foot for Geraldine Largay, 66, of Brentwood, Tenn., who was last seen July 23 on the trail north of Saddleback Mountain, yielded no physical evidence of the experienced hiker.
Lt. Kevin Adam, inland search coordinator for the Maine Warden Service, said the state’s search efforts received excellent support from other local and state organizations and the Sugarloaf ski area staff, where they based the mobile command post.
At one point Adam noted that daily bag lunches were being packed and provided for those working the search by some local volunteers and he didn’t even know who they were at the time.
But as the search stretched into its second week, Adam said there’s always one thing every search effort can benefit from, and that’s trained volunteers.
Adam hinted that it was frustrating to turn away people who wanted to help because they lacked the training to be placed on active search teams. More people would mean covering more ground faster.
“The people we have out there know how not to become an incident within an incident,” Adam said. “I would love to have a bunch more trained volunteers.”
And by trained Adam means those who have been certified by the Maine Association for Search and Rescue.
That certification includes ongoing training that covers everything from how to use a map and compass to emergency shelter and fire building. Certified search team members must also pass an annual fitness exam based on age that helps ensure those going into the field won’t become that “incident within an incident.”
Even so, things happen, and those search teams need the training to take care of themselves and to help other team members, if need be. One of the other minimum standards is training in First Aid and CPR.
“I would love to see the people — what I would call the untrained volunteers — take their energy and find a local search group and get trained so that on the next search we can use you,” Adam said. “That would be a great thing.”
Maine has 15 search-and-rescue teams. Collectively, they have only 130 volunteers, and only a few are fully certified under the standards, which mirror the standards required for U.S. Forest Service rangers.
Only a small number of trained volunteers can turn out for any given search. Most can only give up so many days of work on an extended search effort, said Steve Mitman, a teacher at Mt. Abram High School and a member of Franklin Search and Rescue.
Mitman said FSAR has about 30 members but only about 18 are active and available.
The search for Largay gained significant media attention and that has prompted a new interest, Mitman said. That’s a good thing because only one in two people who join a SAR team are able to stick with it, he said.
“We are always looking for people,” he said.
FSAR trains on a regular basis. Those involved in the organization have to be willing to train a lot. It’s just the nature of the work.
“You’ve got to be in this for a love of training and love of getting together with the team,” Mitman said. “Not for a love of climbing a mountain and hauling someone off in a litter because we only have a couple, three or four of those a year, and they may all come within a couple weeks in the summer.”
Mitman, who has a background as a volunteer firefighter, said SAR can be different type of emergency response. “One of the things about a search is it can go on for much longer than a structure fire or a 10-55,” he said, using the emergency responder code for a car accident.
He said the time commitment to train and the out-of-pocket cost to volunteers can add up. One training class Mitman is set to take later this summer on high-angle rope rescues will cost him $550, most of which he will pay for himself.
“It’s a huge commitment and you really have to kind of get bitten by the bug and really want to be a member of the team,” he said. “You have to want it pretty bad to stick with it.”
Ongoing training and maintaining standards are critically important, however, said Deb Palman, president of the Maine Association for Search and Rescue.
“Everybody gets together and agrees on what those standards are and how they are going to be tested and things like that,” Palman said. “So the local units have something to go by and the Maine Warden Service knows that when they call for somebody that’s certified, they’ve got a product that meets national industry standards.”
Palman said MASAR has been able to help with some of the costs of training volunteers, but like most nonprofit organizations, there is always a need for additional resources, both financial and human.
She stopped short of saying Maine needs more trained volunteers because it depends, she said, on each situation. “Whether it would save life and limb to have a few more, I can’t tell you,” she said.
She is certain, however, that Maine could grow its ranks with additional training resources and the possibility of reimbursing those who are trained and ready in some way when they are called out.
“There is definitely not enough financial help for search and rescue in Maine, for either the state entities doing it or for the volunteers,” Palman said. “If we had more money for education and reimbursement for volunteers, we would probably have more volunteers.”
Maine Search and Rescue organizations
Dirigo Search and Rescue, Orono, Dave Martin: 866-4606.
Franklin Search and Rescue, Steve Mitman: 491-2713.
Lincoln County Search and Rescue, email LCEMAplanner@ymail.com or 882-7559.
Lincoln Search and Rescue, Carl Stewart, 794-6393.
Mercer CERT Search and Rescue, Jesse Crandall, email email@example.com.
Maine Search and Rescue Dogs, www.mesard.org.
Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue and Mount Desert Island Technical Rescue, www.mdisar.org.
Maine Mounted Search and Rescue Statewide Mounted Search and Rescue, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pine Tree Search and Rescue, Scarborough, Bryan Courtois, email email@example.com or 284-3731.
Wilderness Rescue Team, Waterville, Joe Poulin, 653-6681.
For a complete listing of Maine search-and-rescue organizations and training standards and qualifications, visit emainehosting.com/masar.