The Eyes and Ears of Search & Rescue

Comm team doing communications and mapping on a SAR mission. 

by Kevin Machtelinckx
The news stories about search and rescue operations that happen every summer in Oregon, from overdue hikers and climbers in the national forests to missing persons in urban areas, often focus on the K-9 units and front line searchers. Much less in the spotlight are the men and women of the support units who act as the lynch pins of all those operation. One of these units that help search and rescue organizations function more effectively is a communications group. Russell Gubele, president, board member, and command officer of Mountain Wave Search and Rescue gives us an insight into this critical backbone of his organization.

What is the role of the comm (communications) team in Mountain Wave SAR?
The role of the communications team is to provide communications, coordination, documentation, situational awareness, and technical support to search and rescue operations.

What goes on in the comm truck during a mission?
During a mission, the communications team is actively monitoring and communicating with field SAR teams, aircraft, 911 centers, law enforcement, the military, and any other agencies involved in the search. They also would be issuing satellite trackers to team leaders, radios and GPS units to those that need them, and providing any needed technical support. They are also tracking teams, making missing person flyers, mapping, tracking clues, social media, downloading GPS units and providing overall coordination for the mission.

Com 4 setup and ready for a training mission at Timothy Lake.
Do all SAR organizations have a communications truck/team?
No, most don’t.

How crucial is this team to the searchers in the field?
Communications is one of the most critical parts of any SAR mission.

How did you personally get involved in this role?
After being involved with dozens of incidents where communications was a problem, and always hearing at mission debriefs that the biggest problem on a mission was communication, I got involved because I felt I could help make this situation better.

What equipment do you use?
Too much to list! The short list is radios that can communicate with almost everyone, computers, phones, GPS units, drones, satellite trackers, and more.

What makes Mountain Wave’s comm truck special or unique?
Our rig is unique because it has the ability and equipment to communicate with all agencies; local, state, and federal and not just our agency or a local agency. It is built to be highly functional and able to handle any type of SAR mission or large scale event or disaster.

Com 4 being setup on a SAR mission for a
missing climber on Mt. Hood. 
What technical skills or qualifications does one need to be a member of the communications team?
A background in electronics, public safety communications, and computer technology is very helpful. Being a Ham radio operator is also a plus.

Many times SAR organizations work in conjunction with the sheriff or other local authorities. What is the communication team’s role with these local authorities when out on a mission?
Search and rescue operations in Oregon are the responsibility of the County Sheriff. That is who calls Mt. Wave and the other SAR teams out on missions. Our role is to provide communications and documentation for all the teams and agencies working on the mission.

Are there situations that require more involvement of the communications team/truck than others? Why?
Yes. Larger incidents are usually very active and require more resources and equipment. There are lots of communications from many sources, and a large amount of documentation. For example, the recent search for Kyron Horman at times had more than 400 searchers in the field in addition to state and federal agencies involved. At times, we had 40 people involved and 3 communications rigs deployed.

What would you say are the biggest challenges in this role?
The biggest challenge is to be able to communicate with everyone all the time. There is often little or no communication infrastructure in the rural areas where most searches occur. Our challenge is to setup an infrastructure quickly so everyone can communicate.

What are the most rewarding challenges?
When everyone can communicate and we play a role in bringing the missing person and all the searchers home safe.

Do you have any notable rescues or moments as part of Mountain Wave and the communications team?
The Kelly James search on Mt. Hood in 2006 comes to mind. Our team was able to pinpoint his location in a snow cave near the summit by tracking his cell phone. It was the first time this had been done and caused cell phone tracking to be used in almost all searches.

What do you do for a day job?
I work as an I.T. and communications manager for American Medical Response.

What about the other members of the comm team?
We have current and former public safety first responders, teachers, software developers, nurses, office managers, pilots, truck drivers, and many other occupations.

Who might find this kind of position interesting and how can they get started if interested in volunteering?
Anyone that has an interest in communications and technology and wants to use these skills to help missing and injured people can go to our web site at www.mwave.org for more information.