Wythe County’s three search and rescue groups are teaming up to work as one. Called the Wythe County Search & Rescue Task Force, it is an all-volunteer team for water and wilderness search and rescue operations in Wythe County and surrounding areas.
The task force is a collaboration of three search and rescue agencies: Lead Mines Rescue Squad, Christian Aid Ministries Search & Rescue of Virginia, and The Southwest Virginia Mounted Search & Rescue. The highly trained task force members can be ready at a moment’s notice to respond to call of lost and missing people.
Randall Zook of the Christian Aid Ministries Search and Rescue of Virginia said the idea of a combined search and rescue team came in July 2019 when three-year-old Josie Burleson drowned in the New River.
He said his group, along with the Lead Mines Rescue Squad, was called to the scene.
“We got our heads together and decided that we need a task force for situations like this,” Zook said.
Jimmy McCabe, director of the Wythe County Office of Emergency Management, said some minor details are being worked out, but soon dispatch calls will go out to all task force members so they can respond.
“Right now, the Sheriff’s Department, the Lead Mines Rescue Squad and Christian Ministries have to be called via phone by another responding agency,” McCabe said. “The goal is to close the gap and have everybody called at one time.”
MaCabe said that having a task force called out at one time helps with incident command structure and allows the scene to operate more smoothly.
“It will streamline operations and make it easier for people to respond,” he said.
This year, task force member started cross-training with each other because each group has its particular strengths to share. The Christian Ministries team brings a wealth of knowledge, technology and experience to the group for both land and water searches. The Mounted Search & Rescue group offers a different vantage point from atop a horse, and Lead Mines has a swift water rescue team and boots on the ground for searches.
Stephanie Whitlow, co-coordinator of the Mounted Search & Rescue Team, said horses are an asset during searches because they can sense things that people cannot.
“The horses have really good senses and they will notice stuff that we don’t,” she said. “You just learn to watch your horse, their reaction to something, how they tense up or starting looking in a particular direction. They may sense something that we don’t notice. You become a partner with your horse. You can feel them tense up or watch their body language to know.”
Also, because team members are on horseback, they do not wear themselves out as quickly as searchers on the ground, she added.
Whitlow and other task force members said the Christian Ministry search team is top-notch and great to work and train with. The ministry team is recognized by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and respond to searches anywhere in the state.
Chuck Parnell, captain of the Lead Mines Rescue Squad and search team member, said the task force creates a more highly trained response to incidents.
Some of the training this year has included looking for clues like socks or anything a missing person might drop or leave behind, and how to identify tracks left behind. There has also been 16 hours of classroom work that included information on subjects like how to tie knots and clue awareness, along with mock search and rescue operations.
Parnell said the task force helps searchers because they know more help will be available during searches, including a command trailer with mapping and radio communication and a boat equipped with sonar from the Christian Ministry searchers.
“They are extremely well-funded and they are a great asset to the group, and they are a great group of individuals. They are extremely knowledgeable and very highly trained. The county is blessed to have that crew,” Parnell said. “When something happens, they are Johnny-on-the-spot.
He added that the Lead Mines group is working to get recognized by the state department of emergency management like the Christian Ministries group, but it takes years of training to achieve. Two years ago, the Lead Mines group did not have any swift water swimmers to help with searches; now, it has six.
Parnell said task force members appreciate the support from county supervisors and administration.
“They have backed us 100 percent and got it going more than anything else,” he said. “We have to have their backing to move forward. And it doesn’t have to be monetary support; words of encouragement go a long way.”