THORNDIKE, Maine — Six search parties assembled Saturday morning for their mission: A NASA satellite crashed somewhere in northern Waldo County. Find it.
Dozens of volunteers and workers from myriad agencies gathered for the emergency exercise to test how the agencies work together, how they can communicate with ham radios and how to use GPS devices to find targets in the woods.
The fake emergency started with a crew of people hiking in various spots and hiding radio transmitters — which they pretended were parts of a fallen satellite. They then gave the coordinates of the transmitters to each of the search and rescue teams.
“Down the road when we really have to do it, it makes it much easier to work together,” said Syrena Gatewood, a volunteer with Waldo County Incident Management Assistance Team — one of at least 13 organizations in attendance Saturday.
Making up the majority of the six search and rescue teams were men from the Waldo County Search and Rescue — an all-volunteer organization. The 30 or so people in the group are mostly hunters and outdoorsmen.
Four of them, plus one ham radio specialist from the Waldo County Amateur Radio Emergency Service teamed up as Team Bravo on Saturday.
A man from the emergency headquarters handed Bravo leader Kerry Parker, 53, of Belfast a note, “44 degrees 28.74’, 69 degrees, 13.45’”.
With that, Parker and the rest of his teammates pulled out handheld GPS devices and started tapping the coordinates in.
“5.57 miles,” Parker said, turning to his teammate Peter Sanderson, 60, of Belfast. “We’re ready to go. You good?”
Sanderson poked at the numbers on his GPS.
“No,” he said, laughing.
With a bit of help, he changed his settings and found where his goal location was.
“Now we’re cooking,” Sanderson said.
The team checked in with headquarters, based at Mount View High School. There, people sat ready for the ham radio holders to give them information and to track each team, and some sat to evaluate the exercise, taking notes so they could later draw up a report about how well or how poorly the exercise went.
Parker strode up and told the officials his GPS was programmed and his team was ready to leave.
“What town are you going to?” the man sitting with a clipboard asked.
“We haven’t figured that out yet,” Parker said.
“Knox,” his teammate Bob Winslow, 62, of Belfast, chimed in.
“OK,” the man with the clipboard said.
On the way to Parker’s truck, Winslow whispered, “sure it’s not Monroe?”
With that, the team jumped in Parker’s blue Chevy pickup, filled with country music.
Before the group left the high school parking lot “MAN OVERBOARD” popped up on Parker’s GPS screen. Surely not a good sign.
“I guess I pushed someone overboard,” he said, changing the settings to get a map display.
In the car, each man looked down at his GPS and joked about being lost already.
Parker turned onto a dirt road. Soon, the packed dirt turned rugged and rocky.
“No vehicles allowed,” a red sign states.
Parker drove on.
“We’re on a mission,” he said.
“I think we’re supposed to walk the next mile,” Sanderson said.
“You want to get out?” Parker asked.
They laughed and the truck jolted down the road until Parker’s GPS told him the transmitter was 300 feet away. They’re right on it. He pulled over.
Amateur radio broadcaster Carol Inman of Monroe got out with her setup and called in the coordinates before the group could hike to the fake NASA satellite. After the people at the emergency center confirmed the team’s location, the four searchers and one radio holder headed up a hill full of raspberry bushes until they spotted a trail in the nearby woods.
“140 feet,” Winslow said.
After emerging into the woods, Parker immediately spotted a bright yellow radio hanging from a tree. Inman called in the coordinates again and headquarters told them to come back.
The men are supposed to practice emergency signaling to the Civic Air Patrol with a mirror. Sanderson shot a few beams into the air in vain. No planes were around and the emergency headquarters didn’t want to send the Cessna. They headed back to the truck.
It was a short adventure, but the men appreciated the training. None of them are experts with their GPS devices and they needed the practice. Sanderson and teammate Wyman Bunker, 47, of Swanville just bought new GPS devices and hadn’t used them before.
“Everyone needs to be comfortable with this,” Winslow said.
“Yeah. If there was someone lost in the woods, they’d give us these types of coordinates. Any GPS and woods training is valuable,” Parker said, while smoking a cigarillo.
“This is the first time I’ve used this in the field. It was great. I’m glad I’m doing it when someone’s life isn’t on the line,” he said.
That’s the point of this drill. Waldo County Search and Rescue, which all four of the men are a part of, does a lot of training. But according to the men, these days a lot of the training is on paper, not in the woods.
“This gives us a chance to apply our skills. We do a lot in classrooms, but you have to get out there. And if there are any shortcomings we can correct things before something actually happens,” said Gary Drinkwater who is part of the volunteer organization, but who stayed at emergency headquarters Saturday morning.
When Team Bravo arrived back at headquarters they settled down to pizza to learn that one of the teams, Team Delta, got lost and was driving back to headquarters. That team had GPS problems.