U.S. Search and Recovery Rescue Corps team adapts to modern obstacles

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 11:42 p.m.

In the four decades since Ron Wisbith founded the U.S. Search and Recovery Rescue Corps, the need for expertise in searching for missing people has changed and increased.

“Alzheimer's disease afflicts many people and often causes people to wander. Another big problem is autism. Rates of autism are much higher than they were,” said Wisbith, 78, leader of the Beaver Falls-based U.S. SARR.

The group's success is dependent on training and practice, which its volunteers did on Sunday in a simulated training search for a missing man in Beaver Falls. It took the 15 volunteers about 90 minutes to find the man.

“It went well. We learned a lot,” Wisbith said.

Wisbith started the group with three fellow Boy Scout leaders who wanted to do more with the outdoor skills they were teaching and demonstrating.

“He is a great guy. He knows more about search and rescue than just about anyone. It's his life,” said Mike Beach, a volunteer from Steubenville, Ohio, and a professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh.

The group has responded to between 400 and 500 missing-person searches, disasters and other incidents, including seven cases of child abduction. It responded to an Armenian earthquake, mudslides in Puerto Rico, a missing college student caught in a flash flood in Texas, flash floods in Petersburg, W. Va., and a tornado in Beaver County.

The group's members served with the American Red Cross in Waveland and Pearlington, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. SARR covers Columbiana, Mahoning, Jefferson and Summit counties in Ohio, along with Lawrence and Beaver counties.

The group relies entirely on volunteers, although Wisbith said that term is almost a misnomer.

“Everyone here has been through a lot of training. They are really professional volunteers,” Wisbith said.

Getting people to volunteer is not always easy, he said.

“It's a big commitment that only certain people are willing to make,” he said.

The group's training takes two years, after which time search, rescue and recovery technicians can get specialized training for tasks such as dog-assisted searches.

“You have to be professional and rely on your training to do this,” said Kathy Adamle, a volunteer from Kent, Ohio, and a professor of nursing at Kent State University.

Adamle is the owner of four search-and-rescue dogs. She said urban searches like Sunday's are often more difficult than searches in more remote areas.

“There are so many places to look for someone in a built-up area. It's also harder for dogs. Hard surfaces do not hold odors very well,” she said.

No two searches are ever alike, said Beach, who has been a volunteer since 1991.

Although looking for people with mental impairments is a challenge, Beach said searching for people who are suicidal is even more difficult.

“They know what they are doing and usually do not want anyone to find them,” he said.

The Justice Department's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System tracks as many as 100,000 active missing-person cases at any given time. Each year, 4,400 unidentified human remains are found.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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