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WINSAR members ready to answer the call for missing persons

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In southern Manitoba, members of Winnipeg Search and Rescue (WINSAR) remain vigilant as they assist in finding a missing Manitoban.

“Forward,” said Barbara Hewitt, President of WINSAR, addressing the team during the search and rescue mission.

A small team of volunteers lines up in formation and proceeds to walk into a forest maneuvering past each tree and through thick brush. A volunteer spots a person lying on the ground in need of help.

“Hold,” said Doug Larcombe, a WINSAR member.

Larcombe and his crew have reached the individual and begin to ask questions as to the wellbeing of the person. While this is a training dummy, it’s exercises like these that sharpen their survival skills to respond in a moment’s notice.

This month’s Hometown Hero focuses on three of the volunteers who are helping lost Manitobans be found once again.

“I’m really thankful that I have been given the opportunity, it’s pretty rewarding,” Larcombe said.

Larcombe has volunteered with WINSAR for four years. He joined the group semi-retired coming from a farming background with limited outdoor experience from hunting and canoeing. With no formal search and rescue experience, he quickly took to training and learned what he was signing up for.

'You can’t just say well I was going out to the bar tonight and I’m going to skip this, that’s not an option if you really want to commit to it'

“There is a high level of commitment because you know Friday night you just sat down to dinner with your family and your phone goes off and five minutes later you’re packing up your gear and you’re going to be spending the night looking for someone,” Larcombe said.

“You can’t just say well I was going out to the bar tonight and I’m going to skip this, that’s not an option if you really want to commit to it.”

Larcombe was recruited by Hewitt through friends of family. There is a rigorous process to become a member and training is at the forefront of the work.

“We let them hit the ground running,” Hewitt said.

The first time an aspiring member comes out to train with the team, they train with everyone at their base near the edge of Assiniboine Park Forest.

As the year progresses, WINSAR runs a full weekend, 30-hour course called Ground Search and Rescue Basic, registered by the Manitoba Emergency Services College.

“Our members have to go through that weekend of training, then they go to what’s called a call list,” Hewitt said.

In addition, the Manitoba Emergency Services College runs a weekend in January of winter survival training out in the Brandon Hills. Hewitt said all members are asked to take that training before they are able to join in a real search where they are mentored in the field by senior members.

“Once you commit to it, the organization commits to you,” Larcombe said.

“They provide a lot of valuable skills. The training WINSAR provides to people, that’s a benefit to us as volunteers.”

WINSAR members complete twice monthly training drills at their Assiniboine Park facility. These include practising how to build emergency shelters, navigational and compass skills, patient transport and administering first aid.

The team assists RCMP, Winnipeg Police and Parks Canada when an individual goes missing. When a call is placed for assistance from the fire commissioner’s office, members will meet at one of several rallying points in the city and be ready to deploy within two hours.

“Every time we go out, it’s a mystery and sometimes the outcome is determined before we ever get called,” Hewitt said.

“But where we find people injured who need help, that’s the best outcome. That’s they couldn’t get back on their own, and we were instrumental in getting them back to their families.”

WINSAR members have a significant coverage area in the province where they may be deployed. This includes east from Winnipeg to the Ontario border, south from the city to the American border and at times, have assisted RCMP with fly in searches in The Pas and Thompson

The Westman area looks to the Brandon Regional Search and Rescue Association which covers southwestern Manitoba.

Randy Antonio, Operations Officer of WINSAR founded the organization in 2005 with a group of off-duty police officers. In the early 2000s, Antonio was involved in a number of missing persons investigations where searches were conducted.

Over time, he felt there were better ways to improve upon how these searches were conducted and he established contact with investigators on these cases while he was on the force. Antonio had experience with Search and Rescue Manitoba and the Manitoba Emergency Services College and decided to form a trained team.

“From there I did some casual recruiting, we weren’t a formal unit for many years after that,” Antonio said.

“Primarily people I knew on the job, most of us were ex military so we came with a lot of outdoor skills and survival skills already. Because of that we were able to quickly get up to speed with the search and rescue skills with the assistance of the province and their training.”

Almost 20 years later, WINSAR now has 38 members. The now-retired police officer said the searches themselves become a blur, but the emotional aspect carries with him and the team.

“They’re not always happy endings for us,” Antonio said.

'Search and rescue generally isn’t a convenient thing for us, it doesn’t come at 2:00 in the afternoon on a nice warm Saturday'

“I remember many of those as well. Where we go home, having brought closure to a family but not necessarily the outcome that we wanted. It’s kind of a balancing act for me, there’s lots of positives but there are also some outcomes that are less than positive for us and stick with you for years.”

Antonio said WINSAR has already responded to five calls this year at the time of publication. In a given year, the organization will respond up to as many as 30 calls with two dozen serving as an average.

“Search and rescue generally isn’t a convenient thing for us, it doesn’t come at 2:00 in the afternoon on a nice warm Saturday,” Antonio said.

“It’s generally late at night, it’s generally during poor weather, Christmas time, holidays, we tend to get more calls those times of years as well.”

“Sometimes it can be really challenging, if you’re on day three and you’ve been pushing through heavy bush and swamp and stuff like that but you can still go away from it knowing that you’ve tried your hardest to help someone,” Larcombe said.

Hewitt has been a member for seven years and joined WINSAR after attending a session on survival skills at Fort Whyte Alive. She recalled the group helping a woman known as ‘berry picker lady,’ as a standout moment.

“She was lost down towards the US border, the search went for about three days and it had just been called off,” Hewitt said.

“Everybody was starting to come in out of the field already because we thought this senior could not have possibly made it through dense bush for three days.”

Hewitt said that the woman heard a noise in the bush as people were leaving from neighbouring search and rescue groups. While it wasn’t WINSAR that found the individual specifically, the collective effort helped the woman return to safety after an extensive effort.

“She bounced back within a couple of days, she was in hospital for a bit they asked her what she wanted for her first meal and she said she wanted a cold beer, so that was kind of fun, that was a very memorable search,” Hewitt said.

“Probably the best part about this is knowing that this organization saves lives. It’s not something that a lot of people could get involved in and have that kind of impact.”

Larcombe works with grade school students for WINSAR’s AdventureSmart program. The focus on the program is to educate kids with safety lessons as to what they need to do to be safe should they get lost. It’s a program positioned to help young people get out of a situation where they should not be.

“I think that’s really rewarding because if you can prevent searches from happening in the first place that’s the best thing we can do.”

More information on recruitment and becoming a WINSAR member can be found at winnipegsearchandrescue.ca

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