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Search and Rescue Interview: Harrison Ripps, CMSART

 Central Massachusetts Search and Rescue Team - 2


I met Harrison Ripps a few months ago in a professional context, where I learned that he was a member and Treasurer of the Central Massachusetts Search and Rescue Team. Since then, Harrison and I have kept in touch, and he's helped me understand two important things about becoming a SAR team member which I didn't know before. The first is that you can become involved in a SAR team even if you have a full-time professional job. While there are time requirements for participation, it is entirely possible to juggle them around your day job. The second is that the additional training you can receive as a SAR team member is an attractive reason to become involved. You can develop specialized skills that can carry over to your other recreational activities and that the time spent training and practicing counts toward your team membership obligations.

Before we get to the interview, I want to encourage you to donate (paypal and credit cards accepted) what you can to Harrison's SAR team. Like SAR teams everywhere, the Central Massachusetts Search and Rescue Team is a self-funded, volunteer organization that finances itself. They perform a unique and high risk community service, and we should support them. You never know: someday they may save your bacon.


Philip: Can you tell a little about yourself and how you got involved with Search and Rescue?

Harrison: Professionally, I'm a software engineer. Personally, I think I'd describe myself as an avid gamer and an outdoorsman. I'm a husband and father, too; that trumps the other stuff.

How did I get involved? Looking all the way back, my dad took me on canoe trips starting when I was ten, and we've regularly done outdoor activities like river running, fishing, and the like ever since. More recently, I served with the National Guard; this was an amazing experience, but after I started a family I wanted to get involved with something closer to home. Search and Rescue was a perfect fit for skills that I learned through military service and my own lifetime outdoor experience.

Philip: I know you are a member of the Central Massachusetts Search and Rescue Team. How many team members does CMSART have and how long has this group been in operation?

Harrison: Right now our roster has around 40 active members. The team became an officially recognized not-for-profit organization in 1992, so we're sixteen years old. I'm not sure if that makes us the oldest volunteer SAR organization in MA, but we're probably close. Ron Bruchman, the original team president, still serves as an adviser, and a few other long-timers also serve as ongoing contributors to the team.

Philip: Can you tell me a little about the other members of your team? What are their age ranges, work backgrounds, and areas of expertise?

Harrison: The minimum age to be on the team is 17, and our most senior active member is in his mid-seventies. (I sure hope I'm fit enough to do this sort of thing when I'm in my mid-seventies!) Everyone else is pretty evenly spread out between those extremes. Career-wise, we're all over the map. Collectively I think just about every kind of work is represented by someone on the team. We've got computer folks, real estate agents, lawyers, welders, self-proclaimed soccer moms, medical folks, cooks, students, and public safety personnel, just to name a few.

Philip: Are there any common personal qualities that you find among SAR team members?

Harrison: Our active members love being in the outdoors, regardless of conditions. We take team safety seriously, but people generally don't go missing when the weather's warm and the skies are clear, so you have to be okay with rain and cold. Also, people who stick with the team long-term are less interested in glory and more interested in being thorough. Our active members are easy-going team players–when you are on a search and time is of the essence, you have to be able to check your ego at the door.

Philip: What local and regional organizations call out your SAR team for assistance?

Harrison: We can be activated by any municipal or state agency. Historically this has meant the MA State Police, town fire departments, joint municipal safety organizations, and out-of-state entities as well. What we don't do is respond to calls from individuals. Individuals who believe that someone has become lost are encouraged to call their local police or fire department. If you've heard about us and think it would be useful to tell your local public safety services about us, please do, but understand that we must be activated by an official agency in order to participate in a search.

Philip: How many other SAR teams are there in Massachusetts?

Harrison: There are a couple of flavors of civilian search and rescue teams, and this state has a few teams of each flavor. We have done joint training missions with mounted teams, dog teams, mountain bike teams and high-angle teams. Our team can train and certify individuals to the standards set out by NASAR, which sets the national search and rescue training guidelines. Consequently, we do a lot of the initial SAR training for the other teams, and then each team adds their own specialty training.

One thing I want to point out is that none of teams are regionally bounded. CMSART is, by name, based in Central MA, but we have been activated to participate in searches as far south as Rhode Island and as far north as Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. Similarly, our team members come from all over. You don't have to be an MA resident to be on our team.

Philip: How often is your team called out to assist in search and rescue efforts?

Harrison: It really varies: 2006 was a quiet year with six standby notices, only two of which resulted in searches. 2008, by contrast, has featured nine notices, eight of which resulted in searches. These are in addition to our regular drills, so this has been a very busy year. As an aside, we are never called to participate in searches for people who are known to be armed and dangerous; our searches are strictly for missing persons.

Philip: What kinds of rescue efforts have you personally been involved in?

Harrison: There are three kinds of searches: evidence searches, rescues, and recoveries. Sadly, the searches that I personally have been a part of have largely been recoveries. It is hard to be upbeat about a mission that ends with the discovery of someone who has deceased, but I think that the families of those people would rather have that closure than to be left wondering. This kind of illustrates why being a glory seeker doesn't really fit with our team.

To briefly touch on searches and search tactics: evidence searches are the kinds you most often see on newscasts. When you see searchers in a close-interval line, it's because the area has been deemed a high-probability area for evidence; scraps of clothing, fragments of bone, etc. This tactic is called a "line" or "grid" search. The pace is slow and very methodical, and the clues are expected to be very small.

For rescues and recoveries, the search pattern varies according to a number of conditions. Hasty searches, which can be performed by different kinds of assets (horse riders, cyclists, ground pounders) are used to quickly investigate areas around well-defined trails and waterways.

Sweep searches, which are the core skill of ground-based SAR teams like CMSART, are used to efficiently cover large sections of forest with relatively small numbers of people. This requires sweep teams to have excellent navigation skills and to be very self-sufficient in the field.

Philip: What kind of personal time commitment is required? Are you on call all the time?

Harrison: In our team, as long as your combined attendance between monthly drills and actual call-outs is more than twenty-four hours each calendar year, you've fulfilled your minimum obligation. The monthly drills are a one-day commitment. Staying active is pretty easy to do.

As far as being activated goes, once you get through the training and go on the roster as an active member, you will be part of the 24-7 call rotation. When you get called, you have to decide whether or not you can respond. Some folks work four day weeks or have flexible work schedules and can respond almost any time. Others of us are in professional roles where popping out for a twelve hour search isn't really going to sit well with our employers. You do what you can.

Philip:  Why do you belong to a SAR organization? What motivates you to provide this kind of community service?

Harrison: I ended up on a SAR team because while there are a lot of meaningful ways to serve the community, I wanted to do something that not everyone would be able to do. Anyone can work in a soup kitchen, and I have plenty of respect and appreciation for people who do. But not everyone can do search and rescue. I am fortunate enough to have the skill and I believe that donating that skill serves a greater good.

As a side benefit, the monthly drills are a built in reason to get outside and do outdoor activities at least once a month. Otherwise, it might be too easy for me to make excuses about how I don't have the time.

Philip: There must be a special bond that you form with other members of your SAR team? Can you describe it?

Harrison: I think that if you it stick out and become an active member, you can feel proud because you've really earned something. Our team has a great rapport with each other, we keep things light and easy going, and when it comes down to business, we put our game faces on and do good work. Through our professionalism and our dedication to continued training, we've earned the respect of every public agency we work with. Once you realize that it can't just be an individual effort, you start to really appreciate the team we've built on a completely different level.

Philip: What kind of training is required to become a SAR team member? Is there a certification process that new members need to go through?

Harrison: I've alluded to this a couple of times, and the answer is a definite yes. In order to be on our team's active call-out list, you must be trained to a skill level that NASAR calls "SAR Tech Responder II". This level of SAR training encompasses FEMA's Incident Command System (ICS), basic land navigation, search tactics, gear requirements and a handful of other skills. On top of that, we train on crime scene procedures, GPS, night land navigation, and basic tracking. At the minimum, it take a year for a new member to get all of the necessary training to become active.

Philip: Do team members have the opportunity for additional training? Can they develop specialty skills?

Harrison: We are always training, and always looking for new training opportunities to bring to the team at large. In addition to the classes we offer regularly, we've been fortunate enough to get subject experts from a number of different backgrounds to come in and talk with us over the years.

As far as specialty skills go, we give a lot of encouragement to members who want to sharpen their skills as navigators and flaggers, two core roles in a SAR team. We also give members opportunities to lead SAR teams during our training operations. While we are not able to certify members in every kind of relevant coursework available, we are occasionally able to cover part of the cost of specialized training classes run by other organizations.

Philip: What kind of gear is a team members required to have? Do they have to provide all of it by themselves or is some if it donated by other private or public sources?

Harrison: The NASAR 24-hour pack is the basis for our equipment list. We have some team gear for individual use, and we do occasionally get gear as donations, but the responsibility for gear purchases lies mostly on the individual team member. Because this can add up to a lot of money in a hurry, we encourage new members not to buy everything at once, and to talk to more experienced members before they do buy. We get group discounts at some local stores and through NASAR, so in particular we try to get people together on more expensive items like GPS units so that everyone can save some money.

Philip: If someone is interested in joining a SAR team, what could they do to get a better idea about what is involved?

Harrison: We try to keep our web site updated with the drill schedule, but when in doubt, fire off an e-mail to our board of directors at [email protected] to find out when the next drill is. That's the best way to see what we do and see if you like it. Don't go crazy buying gear ahead of time. Just bring some snacks, some water, and dress appropriately for the weather: no jeans, no sneakers.

I strongly encourage all of your readers to think about getting involved with wilderness search and rescue. If you love the outdoors and want to donate some time and talent to your community, I think you might really enjoy being a part of our team.

One comment

  1. Great stuff! I'm always interested to hear about other SAR teams. I've learned through corresponding with other Search & Rescue volunteers and paid professionals that teams around the country and around the world can vary widely in their practices and membership requirements, not to mention the sizes of the teams, the avg. number of call-outs per year, and, of course, the types of missions they usually participate in. (ie. our team sometimes responds to more than 100 call-outs per year; between ground and mounted we have about 100 members w/ some overlap b/w the two; our Basic SAR Academy is a month long–once completed, a member receives a pager and is considered active.)

    Thanks again for a really interesting interview.

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