News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

DCSO showcases deputies, drones, dogs

One of the best search and rescue teams in the nation is ready to respond within minutes - unless you're a climber stuck between a rock and a hard place in the middle of winter on the South Sister.

The rock, in this case, was a band of rock amid a wall of ice - the hard place, nearly 10,000 feet up the north side of South Sister - preventing an ice climber from reaching relative safety.

"He called from that spot, and I remember telling him, 'Get comfortable. You need to be there for several hours before we can get to you,'" recalled Deputy Shane Zook, assistant search and rescue coordinator. "He said, 'I have one toe on ice, one toe on rock, my ice axe is hanging onto a ledge on a piece of rock, and I can't move.' I said, 'You need to stay calm because you may have to hold this position for three to four hours.'"

While Deschutes County Sheriff's Office has a stellar Search and Rescue Team (SAR), depending on the location of a person in need, it may take a while for SAR to reach that person.

"Airlink (Critical Care Transport helicopter) flew three of our people to the top of the mountain and dropped them off. One of the folks down-climbed the rock that he couldn't climb up, hooked into him, harnessed into him, and helped him climb up. Once they got him up through the rock band, onto that snow, a Black Hawk (helicopter) from Salem came out of Army National Guard Headquarters, plucked him off there, and then flew him here to the Sisters Airport, and dropped him off," Deputy Zook said last Thursday in Sisters.

What happened next during that 2021 rescue may explain why so many volunteer for SAR.

"How'd you get the volunteers down?" asked one of the dozens of attendees at the Sheriff's Office Community Academy in the Sisters-Camp Sherman Fire District Community Hall.

"They skied off the top ... in the dark," Zook said. "How they navigated down through there on skis, I have no idea. That's just a lot of crazy, to me. I remember they stashed their gear and skied down without it, then went back the next day with a team of people to climb back up to get the gear, because they didn't want to be in the dark trying to get down off of there with the gear."

Incredible people doing incredible things. It's no wonder why SAR has so many volunteers.

The team consists of 133 highly skilled people. SAR Academy training attracts over 100 applicants each cycle, but only about 20 are selected. It's a very competitive process.

"It's really staggering how many really good qualifiers we have to say 'no' to every time we have one of those processes," Zook added.

SAR operates across diverse terrains and conditions, using various vehicles including: all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) like side-by-sides; off-highway vehicles (OHVs) equipped to transport patients from remote areas; the Sheriff's Posse and Horse Team; Marine Patrol and Swift Water Rescue jet boats, drift boats and kayaks; Dive Team specializing in underwater searches, often in challenging conditions such as under ice; snowmobile patrols funded by the Oregon State Snowmobile Association; a snow ambulance; and a PistenBully SnowCat Tracked Rescue Vehicle (TRV), used this past March to rescue a family of four and their three dogs from a pickup stuck in three feet of snow on China Hat Road southeast of Bend.

Effective collaboration among specialized units and the use of advanced technologies enhance SAR operations. AuxComm, for example, provides a robust ham radio network for disaster scenarios, replacing the previous ARES system. SAR Air Operations features specialists navigating helicopters and a drone team equipped with advanced technology like FLIR infrared and the EagleEye system for video analysis.

"Basically what this does is, as we fly over an area, we record a video. After we're done flying, if we don't see anything, we come back, we download all of our video to this program, and it will go frame by frame, scanning every pixel on the screen, looking for any pixel of color that doesn't match its surroundings. For instance, we had a mission on the North Sister, where we were looking for someone and had not been able to find them. This program was able to pick up three pixels of blue, then we were able to use the coordinates off of the video to provide to the next aircraft that went up to that spot with blue, and it was the person. Three blue pixels in that screen, and this thing detected it, so it's incredible. We've been using it more and more, and I think it's going to be super valuable going forward," Zook said.

The SAR medical team is the largest in the state, and includes doctors, nurses, paramedics, and EMTs. They undergo retraining to adapt their medical skills to wilderness conditions, and are critical in almost every mission, providing essential care.

K9 teams consist of five handlers and seven certified dogs, trained in "live find" and cadaver searches, with rigorous weekly training sessions. Sherman, a water dog, assists with search missions, especially around water. Sherman is known for his enthusiasm and success in locating people, sometimes leaping into the water from boats upon detecting a scent.

Patrol dogs, such as Belgian Malinois K9 Delta and German Shepherd K9 Vinnie, are "trained to find things with human odor, and find people and also bite them," said Deputy Nautique Simpson prior to a demonstration featuring Deputy Keith Slater wearing "their favorite toy in the entire world" - and getting pounced on.

The sheriff's office also has a bloodhound named Copper for tracking people in need.

"He's different than our dogs," Simpson said. "He won't bite people. He's trained to find one specific person and trail that scent through wherever they go, and when he finds that person, he jumps on them and licks them. He's what we'll use for a runaway kiddo, like a 2- or 3-year-old who has wandered off and is lost, or an elderly person with dementia who gets lost."

The presentation in Sisters underscored the dedication, specialized skills and equipment of the SAR teams, their reliance on volunteers, and the importance of community support in maintaining and improving their operations.


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