FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Oct. 3, 2018) -- Nearly 45 Fort Drum firefighters completed a search and rescue course in September, instructed by forest rangers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

NYS Forest Ranger Howard Thomes said that the course provides a short history of search and rescue operations in the state followed by basic level wildland search techniques that firefighters will later employ in a field exercise.

"In the classroom, we go through the techniques for finding lost persons or injured persons, and then we go outside and simulate that using a grid search," Thomes said. "The searchers move in an oblique angle through the woods and then come to what we call a bump line where they turn around and come back. They're constantly looking up, down, all around for clues as to where the lost person might be."

Thomes said that clues could be anything from a fresh footprint to articles of clothing or a candy wrapper. Sometimes, he said, not finding anything could be a clue that the lost person has not been in the area being searched.

Course completion of the basic wildland search skills training provides volunteers with the skills required to assist in search incidents. NYS Forest Ranger Jennifer Snyder explained how the DEC has legislative authority to conduct search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, and that forest rangers have been the subject matter experts since the 1940s.

"Part of the reason for that is because our job is in the woods ... we know forests and how to survive and be safe in the woods," she said.

Snyder said that forest rangers have more experience than other agencies at search and rescue that last for extended operational periods, and they are well-versed in incident command procedures. Still, Thomes said that there are not enough forest rangers in the state to conduct intensive searches on their own, and that's why volunteers are crucial to their operations.

Snyder said that 90 percent of searches are conducted in less than ideal environments and weather, so it is important for search crews to keep a positive attitude and always assume the missing person is alive and can be found.

Coincidentally, the first group of firefighters went through the final field exercise during a heavy rainstorm and still found all the clues in the search.

"They were troopers out there and did a good job," Thomes said. "Normally, we aren't looking for lost people in great weather. They're not lost until the weather starts getting bad, it's dark and things like that. So, with the pouring rain, that was a good scenario to practice in."

Fort Drum Assistant Fire Chief Jeffrey Spellman said this was the first time the NYSDEC course was provided at the fire station. Search and rescue is one of 27 capabilities of the Fort Drum Fire and Emergency Services.