by Janie Shelswell-White
This is a summation of what I brought home with me from a moving, humbling presentation that Emily Smythies, my Red Mountain Search Dog Association team mate and I attended Friday night (pictured above with her K9 Brie). To me there are some important lessons for SAR teams as well as civilians in general. I encourage you to visit Jared Reston’s page, The Reston Group, to read his story. He tells it far better than I ever could or would dare attempt.
Jared was shot multiple times, including in the jaw, by a suspect involved in a shoplifting incident. Not many people outside of law enforcement or military can relate or have any idea how we would respond. It’s perhaps a level of trauma we, but for the grace of God, will never know; not just being shot but having to shoot someone else. I know a few officers who have gone through this but every situation is different. And every officer is different. Even though much of what he said was directed toward the officers sitting in that room, the lessons Jared imparted are important for anyone to hear.
Life interrupted. Abruptly interrupted. The line between what is real and what you could never imagine is suddenly blurred. Whether by accident or by the hand of someone else; an unknown path in the woods or an unknown assailant on the street. How do you prepare? And equally importantly, how do you react during that moment and afterwards?
When I served as a Stephen Minister, we were trained to counsel people going through trauma and I’ve seen first-hand how varied people’s responses can be. Now as a Search and Rescue Tech on a K9 team and also working so closely with law enforcement, I realize how important it is to continue growing in my understanding and preparation for helping someone in crisis. What is going through their mind during those hours we’re searching for them? Based on what people know about them, will they be clear-headed or likely to be disoriented or panicked? How will they respond to help? And what of an officer who goes through something traumatic? What if we are called out to search for another first responder?
Emily and I signed up to go to Jared Reston’s presentation Friday night hoping to gain some more insight and perhaps answer some of these questions. But we left discovering so much more that we can take with us, relating to our law enforcement relationships, our work with SAR, and even as a civilian living in a world where terror attacks are all too real a possibility. Here are just a few of my personal take-aways from what he said.
1. Don’t assume anything about the call or suspect simply based on past experience or what the situation appears to be. He was responding to a shoplifting incident at a mall. Shoplifting. Sounds routine, right? Nothing to indicate that it would escalate to such a violent encounter. But it did. While we’ll never know what caused the suspect to take it to that level, it would seem he was worried about more than a shoplifting charge. There’s no way to know.
For SAR: This is a critical thing to remember when we’re called out on a search. We may experience many “lost hiker” scenarios but each one has to be approached independently of what we’ve seen before. Each person is going to react differently to being lost and even to being found, depending on their personality, mindset, how long they’ve been out, or even why they were out there in the first place. We can only attempt to gleam what we can from what we’re told about the person/situation when we’re briefed by the IC but always keep in mind that a person who is “normally calm and wilderness savvy” may not be by the time you find them. Which brings me to point #2:
2. “Witnesses” or family/friends may not always remember things clearly. In Officer Reston’s case, you hear three different 911 calls and each person had a different ability to recall detail or even communicate. One caller swore she saw the suspect run off after the shooting when in reality he was dead on the ground. Another caller, while well-intentioned, couldn’t even talk when dispatch asked him questions. Even wandered around the scene aimlessly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. All because his mindset didn’t match his desire.
For SAR: When we receive a description of a victim; be it what they were wearing, what they look like, or which way they were going; the witness or family/friend may not necessarily be remembering clearly because of stress/adrenaline. It’s not that they weren’t paying attention but when panic or worry kicks in, memory can become clouded or distorted. So it’s important to keep in mind while searching. For instance, if the friend they were hiking with says they were wearing a grey flannel shirt and you saw a scrap of red flannel snagged on a bush, you don’t want to think, “oh, that’s the wrong color” and disregard it. Of course, for those of us with K9s, we have the advantage of relying more on our dogs noses than our sight. They will follow the scent regardless of particulars like color or fabric. This is where our motto “trust your dog” has to come in to play.
3. Mindset. This can be a game changer more so than physical strength. In Officer Reston’s case, his mindset was one, not of “surviving” but winning. Surviving is merely getting through it. Winning means defeating the threat. Much of that mindset comes through training; putting yourself in that scenario and thinking through what you would do. My mom used to advise the same thing when I was nervous about public speaking. Imagine yourself up there and giving your speech. Picture it a dozen times. Then by the time you are up there, your mind will “recognize” the situation and it will feel familiar.
For SAR: While we hope that we will not face a threat while searching for a victim, there is always the danger of becoming frustrated, weary, doubting ourselves, or simply physically tired. So what is our mindset going into the search? We may not be able to say “we’re going to win” since there are so many variables that determine success. But regardless of the chances, we must approach each search with confidence, clear thinking, following protocol, trusting our training, and being willing to not be the ones who find the victim. This is important for our K9s as well because they can sense when we’re nervous, unsure, etc. Especially if they are on leash. Every emotion we have travels down that line to our dogs. We must also be ready to face a threat if it happens during a search and do so with confidence. How? Point #4:
4. Training, both physical and mental, is paramount. During his encounter, Officer Reston remembered his training even in the midst of life-threatening chaos. This came from years of not just going to the range and shooting at targets but doing tactical training and practicing such real-life scenarios. He does combative training (martial arts, weapons defense, etc.) which served him well during this event. It also served his partner, who, upon finding Jared, still kept his training in mind and made sure there was no additional threat before rendering aide. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing and will save your life. And face it, the brain is a muscle that has to be exercised as well. Train, rinse, repeat.
For SAR: We can’t get complacent in our training either. For most of us, weekly training includes running the dogs on a victim (a.k.a. search decoy/dummy). Pretty cut and dry as far as following them through the woods and eventually finding the victim, give or take the occasional obstacle or distraction. And when the victim is found we have a big party and the dog is rewarded. And that’s an important part of training the dog to “want” to find the victim. You have to give them that motivation. BUT, what happens on a real search if the victim is not so happy to see the dog/team? What if they’re under the influence of drugs or afraid of dogs or violent from being disoriented/dehydrated? How do we approach? How do we keep our dogs safe in that situation? How do we keep ourselves safe? This goes for unexpected hazards along the trail as well. Snake bites (either to us or the dogs), a fall, a broken bone, etc. Do we, as a team, know what we’re going to do in those situations? Do we have a plan?
And yes, we have to incorporate physical training. I know some don’t want to hear that. But when you consider the kind of exertion we put ourselves and our dogs through, especially in wilderness SAR, fitness can’t be left at the base camp. And that goes for the dogs as well. We have to be able to search in extreme temperatures (both heat and cold). We have to be able to follow a 2 year old Malinois up hills or down a steep incline. And there is always the possibility of unplanned encounter with someone on the trail, so training combatives/self defense is a smart addition to your arsenal. Adding some fitness and nutrition (personalized to each person’s ability) to training will enhance your team’s performance on a search. Not to mention it’s great team building.
5. Communications between you and your partner/team. Jared talked about how in retrospect he wished he and his partner had called in the foot pursuit sooner. He also mentioned how they had trained the habit or checking in with each other during such an event so they were always aware of where the other one was, what was going on ahead of them, and if the other was in need of assistance. Sometimes it was as simple as just repeating their partner’s name and the partner repeating back.
For SAR: How often do we communicate on a search, whether while training or on a real search? It’s easy to get into the habit of radioing when we start a search and when the mission is complete. But what about the time in-between? If you have someone at base camp recording your start and finish, get in the habit of checking in during the course of the search, especially if you change directions or have reason to adjust the search plan. Also, even if it’s not over the radio, as a team check in with each other, especially flankers to the handler and make sure they’re doing o.k. or if they have any concerns. Practice letting them know if you see something they might not have because they are focused on their dog. And simply remember that the team member to your right might be feeling tired or mentally worn. Check in with each other along the way. And afterward, which brings me to this.
6. Accept that you won’t be the same after an event. Accept that it will change you. For Jared, he learned to recognize both the physical and emotional changes, and accept them, adjust his response, and learn how to function with this new reality.
For SAR: After a search, whether successful or unresolved, you will be changed. You will experience highs and lows. You may not know how to feel. Accept that. Face it. Embrace it. After all, if it didn’t affect you then you wouldn’t be human. And don’t expect all your friends to understand. Often when I talk about our SAR training, combatives training, and CrossFit, my victories and personal revelations can be met with glazed eyes and looks of “what is she talking about?” It makes what your feeling no less valid; they just can’t relate. So be sure to have people you can talk with who have been there in some way.
Thanks to Curt Carpenter with Hoover PD for bringing Jared to share his story and giving us, regardless of profession, some poignant things to consider next time we are out in the field.