Search and rescue drill centers on children

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EAST DOVER — A search and rescue team is a good idea in an area surrounded by woods and mountains used regularly in recreational ways.

And a drill drove home the point on Wednesday. It had participation from personnel from the team, the West Dover Fire Department, the East Dover Fire Department, NewBrook Fire and Rescue, and Rescue Inc.

But instead of hikers or skiers, the exercise involved kids playing the part of two missing students who left a play at Dover School.

"We're going to do this like it's real time," West Dover Fire Chief Rich Werner told participants.

Drew Hazelton, chief of operations at Rescue, and Werner were acting as if they were in Las Vegas gambling so other responders would have to take the lead. Dover School Principal Matt Martyn looked at an emergency plan provided by the Vermont Agency of Education for guidance. The first step is to call 911 and report the missing children.

Martyn spoke with a student and then Andy McLean, Dover town clerk and firefighter who led the search team. The kids might be heading towards the Dover Hills, Martyn said. McLean wanted details about the kids' clothing. Custodian Dave Sheldon confirmed the school building had been searched.

Rescue personnel arrived, then firefighters from NewBrook, which serves Newfane and Brookline.

"Mutual aid heard and sent you help," Werner told McLean, referring to local dispatchers.

Martyn had the difficult task of breaking the news to parents.

"We let them come to this play," said Shannon Meckle, a parent and administrative assistant for the town of Newfane. "We thought they were going to be supervised."

The response could be a lot harsher, Werner advised.

McLean requested equipment from search and rescue team members. When they arrived, they were separated into several groups and sent to different areas in the vicinity.

"They're outside coming up with a strategy," Hazelton told school officials and parents inside the building. "They're going to launch a drone."

Hazelton said Steve Morlock, member of Rescue, wanted to send his drone up before it was too dark. Foliage limited the scope of footage being displayed from the drone on a smart phone, Hazelton noted.

On the use of drones, Hazelton told the Reformer, "It relieves so much manpower and gets a good feel for what's out there."

A fundraising effort is now underway for Rescue to purchase a drone of its own. For now, Morlock is helping. He had been part of the team looking for the plane that crashed in Winchester, N.H., in July.

A lot of departments are thinking about getting the technology, said Morlock, who has built his own drones but for the drill was using one he had bought.

"Only recently did we decide to try it," he added.

Martyn, not seeing anything in the AOE protocol for reviewing surveillance cameras, suddenly thought to look at the video. He said he will be revising the plan to include that step. Footage showed the direction the students were heading in and their clothing.

About an hour into the drill, the two children were located. A member of Rescue had been driving around on nearby roads and found them.

Members of the search and rescue team covering the Dover area saved three people in two incidents last year, according to McLean.

"That was our first year of being active," he said.

Werner could recall rescuing about five people in the last couple of years. He led a critique of the exercise afterwards.

"So it is a scenario, that children can leave the school," he said, noting that it has happened. He's also the chairman of the Dover School Board.

For the drill, Dover Road Commissioner Bobby Holland had driven the kids away from the building. Holland said they wanted to keep going downhill, which he called the "easiest" movement for people. The kids said they could not hear the drones; they were smashing sticks against trees.

Werner said he has seen crews find people by making noise and having them respond.

"I thought everybody, you included, did an excellent job," McLean told Werner. "It was a fun exercise and fairly realistic because of the folks involved."

McLean said he would like to spend more time learning about how to conduct searches with Werner and Hazelton.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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