Operation Night Track

Back in April we had our first opportunity to meet and work with Rampart Search and Rescue, based out of Adams County.  They did a good job at the exercise and in conversations later we thought it might be fun to hold a joint training.

No two response teams are alike in how they are structured, how they operate or how they train.  We’re similar in many ways and we perform like tasks, but at our most fundamental level we are all different and when it comes to training and becoming better, these underlying differences are key to evolving best practices and improving our skill sets.

And so a couple of months after Operation Snake Eyes we decided to hold a joint exercise and, to make it a little more challenging, we decided to do a night time simulation out in the wilderness.  As a departure from our traditional full scale disaster and mass casualty scenarios, this was going to be more of a search and rescue operation for people lost in the wilderness.  The scenario was fairly straight forward.  Three seniors went out for a hike in an urban wilderness interface park.  They were supposed to be back by noon.  When they did not show by 6 PM, their families became worried and called the police.  Through internal routing, the call went out to Rampart and O.M.E.GA.

Great.  We just needed an open space area that could pass for an overgrown wilderness.  Piece of cake.  We got a hold of Aurora Parks, Recreation and Open Space and asked if we could use the Sand Creek wilderness area on the Adams County/Arapahoe County boarder.  The answer was yes, but we still needed to file paperwork for an event permit.  We did that and everything seemed good, but at the last minute the answer came back as a no, due to eagles nesting in the area.  That almost derailed the whole exercise.

We pushed the date back and talked to Cherry Creek State Park about using their facility.  Once again we received an enthusiastic yes for an answer, but there was still paperwork involved.  And because this was going to be at a reservoir, we needed to receive approval from both Colorado State Parks and from the Army Corps of Engineers.  We started the process over, but this time we were approved.

The date had to be agreed upon by all parties and we settled on Saturday, September 24.  It was the day after Operation Mountain Guardian and we knew that a lot of us were going to be pretty tired coming into Operation Night Track.

The day of the exercise we set the scene.  It was an hour before sunset when Jennifer Scott and I arrived at the park.  Our biggest worry now was the weather, but the day turned out to be beautiful and the temperature at sunset was still hovering around 70ºF.  By midnight it was expected to drop into the high 50s and the only environmental protection participants would need would be a light jacket.

Rose Lynch, the NCR moulage artist, came out to meet us at the park, along with our role players, Carol Brodzinski and Jerry Drake.  Carol and Jerry are our “fall down artists” when it comes to injury simulation.  They are a fixture at almost all of our exercises, adding a healthy dose of realism to the injuries.  Our third victim was a 200 pound mannequin from the Disaster Management Institute.  We picked him up the night before, at the conclusion of Operation Mountain Guardian, and he needed to have all the blood and gore washed off him before we could moulage him again.  Rose expertly fixed up our three patients in a matter of minutes and headed out to enjoy her evening, leaving us with three “bodies” to place.

The actual story for the scenario remained the same — three senior citizens out for a hike, six hours late, and probably in trouble.  They went off trail for their hike and ran into problems.  Arthur, the mannequin, slipped on debris and fell, impaling himself on some old rusty rebar sticking out of the creek embankment.  Carol and Jerry knew that they could not move him, so Carol stayed with Arthur and Jerry went for help.  In his rush to find help, Jerry made it only a quarter mile before tripping and falling down a hill, resulting in a broken jaw and a broken leg.  Carol continued to wait as Jerry lay unconscious in the forest.  Her role also involved diabetes and after a lengthy period without her medication, Carol became disoriented and wandered off.  Arthur, unconscious and bleeding, died.

Park Ranger Grant Brown came out to look at our setup and chuckled at the scenario.  He had a late shift in the park and would remain in the park office, if we needed anything.

Shortly before sunset, two of O.M.E.G.A.’s members arrived.  David Cox and Eileen Flynn were going to manage the staging area and perform credentialing and demobilization tasks.  We left them with all of the equipment and lost person information.  Names and pictures, provided by worried families.  As Jennifer and I departed the trailhead lot, we saw vehicles from Rampart SAR beginning to roll in.  The hunt was on!

Jennifer and I served as the role players’ angels.  In the SAR world an angel is a controller dedicated to the safety of a single individual.  Because Carol and Jerry trusted us with their lives, we needed to provide a safety element for them to be alone in the woods, in the dark, waiting for a bunch of rescuers to come and find them, evaluate them, place them on backboards and take them to a pretend waiting ambulance at the trailhead.

The exercise was a small scale simulation, involving only twenty-three participants, although the permit allowed us to have a response of up to forty individuals.  The responders came from Rampart SAR, O.M.E.G.A. and a handful from Aurora and Arapahoe County CERT teams.

After the teams briefed, they ventured out with search dogs.  Rampart has a canine search team and even though there was little in the way of scent to follow, this was their first attempt at searching for the lost hikers.

As the search continued, the search strategy evolved.  Reliance on dogs was scaled back and people driven grid searches were implemented.  This was aided by exercise injects from fictional individuals hearing about the search on the news and calling in to tell about things that they saw in the park while visiting it earlier in the day.  The clues were designed to provide more information for the responders to retrace the path of the lost hikers without giving anything away.

Operation Night Track

Responders carry out one of the victims in the exercise at Cherry Creek State Park. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Carol was found first.  She was scraped up and confused, unable to tell what happened, but her location gave the responders an opportunity to refocus their search.  Arthur was next to be found and having found him dead and impaled on a piece of rebar, the responders immediately thought the worst – there was a killer on the lose in the park.  That was never the intent in planning the exercise, but added caution never hurts (although it does add to the duration of a search).  Jerry was found last, moaning in the forest, unable to speak and unable to walk.  It was after 11 PM that he was finally brought back to the trailhead, ending the exercise.

Everyone was wiped, but it was a good simulation of what can happen.  No one was more than a quarter mile away from the trailhead, but the thick vegetation and the darkness (the moon was waning with only 11% of the disk illuminated) contributed greatly to the length of the search.  This is a great reminder that in the wilderness, after dark, all bets are off.

Operation Night Track accomplished the goals we had in mind when planning the exercise.  We wanted to bring together teams that did not have much experience with one another, integrate them and allow them to learn from each other.  The late night and the hard work were well worth the end results.  We are looking forward to further cooperation with Rampart Search and Rescue and hopefully another joint exercise come 2012.

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