Central Piedmont Search and Rescue
A few days ago when the search for a missing Georgia woman began in Swain County, members of the Central Piedmont Search and Rescue were asked to help locate her. Two members of the nonprofit, all-volunteer group searched through mountains and a ravine with K-9 Deacon, a German Shepherd who is a certified cadaver dog.
Twelve members make up the search and rescue team. Eight are active. The members reside in multiple counties throughout the central portion of the state. The team employs other tools to help search for missing people including all-terrain vehicles, mounted horse and rider units, still-water search and recovery units as well as K-9 units.
“Our main reasons for doing what we do and being a team is to help families of the missing,” said K-9 Coordinator Samantha Smith.
Samantha Smith and her husband, Jamison, are both members of the rescue team. Jamison is a K-9 handler and ground support for the group.
Samantha said the goal of the team is to bring a resolution to those who’ve lost loved ones. She said it doesn’t matter if the person has been missing a short time or long time, “it is a loss, and the families need help and to feel supported — that’s what we are here for.”
The team formed as a division under the Cabarrus County Rescue Squad. When that organization folded in 2012 because of budget cuts, some of its members formed the nonprofit search and rescue team.
“All of us still wanted to do something,” said Team Leader Rusty Starnes.
Starnes and team member Doug Bickerstaff had been tossing the idea for a search and rescue group around for some time before the rescue squad closed. In 2011, the conversations turned from, “what-if?” to “making it happen.”
The organization was incorporated in February 2012 and received its nonprofit status in March 2012.
The team does not charge families to search for the lost or missing and does not charge other agencies that call for search assistance. The nonprofit operates solely on donations, fundraisers and recently received a grant. The nonprofit operates on a budget of less than $3,000 a year. The team members put personal money into getting the nonprofit off the ground, and have continued to pay for most of their own training and dog care needs.
The handlers attend workshops and receive training with their dogs on tracking, searching and scent recognition.
Starnes said a lot of the way the dogs track is instinctual. Couple that with added training like detecting human remains, and the dogs can find a person several miles away by their scent and a person whose been deceased for a few hours to several years.
Handlers also learn to preserve a crime scene, render first aid, read a map and compass, as well as learn the incident command system.
There are a mix of dogs on the team including coon and bloodhounds, a German Shepherd, a Belgian Malinois/hound mix and a golden retriever/basset hound mix.
All of the dogs are certified through the N.C. Police Dog Association, Starnes said.
Team member Jamison Smith traveled to Okeechobee, Fla. in April to assist in a search there. Florida is the furthest any team member has traveled, but team members can volunteer to go on as many searches as they want. Many team members have full-time jobs and are business owners, but often head out to a search after hours on the job.
The team has gone on several search missions with Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons, based in Wilmington. Community United Effort relies on volunteers and mutual aid agreements with area search and rescue teams to help find missing or deceased people.
Starnes said Central Piedmont members are notified via phone tree or text about searches and reply if they can join. There are a number of law enforcement agencies that contact the team to assist. The Swain County Sheriff’s Office called the team on the search for the missing Georgia woman. In some cases, the families of the missing will contact the team directly.
Not all members are K-9 handlers. Some, like Michelle Adams, search for clues themselves. Adams is called a “ground pounder,” or ground tracker, meaning she is not armed with a dog but with a stick that measures foot steps and a person’s stride. She reports what she sees, while a dog senses what he or she smells.
“The training is really intense,” she said.
The stick measures a person’s stride, it can also be used to tell if the person is injured based on the weight on one foot or if the person drags their foot.
“There’s always a job on the scene. There’s a place for everybody,” Jamison Smith said.
When there are opportunities for training and workshops, the team members participate in as many as they can. The workshops train both K-9 and handler. Samantha completed a training exercise where the instructors hid an arm from a cadaver in the water to test whether the dogs would alert to the scent.
Deacon, who is Samantha’s K-9, kept running to the back of the boat, she said, as the boat passed over the cadaver.
The team and the dogs get excited when they find a missing person alive, although in many cases the team isn’t there to rescue someone, but to find their remains.
The team meets the first Thursday and the third Saturday for training. Team members meet at various locations throughout the region including members’ houses, the Rowan County Rescue Squad, Stanly County Rescue and the Stanly County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Salisbury Kennel Club building. Members have even conducted training sessions at the Stanly County Airport, Dan Nicholas Park and in the Uhwarrie National Forest.
Samantha said it’s important to train in different locations so the dogs don’t become familiar with an area. Members also train the dogs in scent recognition using adult teeth extracted from dental patients.
The team conducts several programs throughout the year including the Hug-a-Tree and Survive program, designed to teach children what to do if they get lost in the woods. The principle behind the program is if a child is lost, they should stay put and hug a tree until help arrives. Another key piece of advice members tell parents during programs is to collect a “scent article” of their child in case they become lost.
A scent article can be a sweatband, a handkerchief or a piece of gauze that contains the child’s sweat.
Starnes recommends parents wipe their child down after a long day of play and place the article inside a freezer bag with the date on it. The scent can be used by search and rescue if the child were to go missing. If a parent has more than one child, the team recommends obtaining scent articles for each child and placing them individually inside a freezer bag with each child’s name on them.
Team members also speak to Boy Scouts who can earn their search and rescue badge through the groups’ programs. They’ve even trained with the military, Rusty said.
Although the organization has been around for a short time, team members were recently awarded the Keeper of the Flame Award, given by CUE Center for Missing Persons. The award is given to search crews, law enforcement, community and volunteers who’ve worked on missing person cases. Jamison and Samantha Smith were awarded individual Keeper of the Flame awards.
The Salisbury Kennel Club recently presented the team with a $3,000 grant from the American Kennel Club’s Canine Support & Relief Fund. The team holds at least four fundraisers a year to help offset personal costs. The team buys its own equipment and pays for its training and dog care needs.
The members and honorary members of the team are Team Leader Rusty Starnes, his wife, Charley, Jamison and Samantha Smith, Michelle Adams, Jennifer Sterka, Bob Webb, Martha and Joey Collins, David Brown, Dan O’Brien, Darrell Burgess, Doug Bickerstaff and Christian Minarik.
For more information about Central Piedmont Search and Rescue, visit www.cpsar.org or call Rusty Starnes at 980-521-4549.