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Winnipeg Search and Rescue is ready to find missing Manitobans

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In southern Manitoba, members of Winnipeg Search and Rescue (WINSAR) remain vigilant as they help search for a missing Manitoban.

“Forward,” Barbara Hewitt, president of WINSAR, told the team during the search and rescue mission.

A small team of volunteers line up in formation and head into a forest, past every tree and through thick undergrowth. A volunteer discovers a person lying on the ground who needs help.

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

Larcombe and his crew have reached the person and begin asking questions about the person's well-being. Although this is a training dummy, it's exercises like this that sharpen their survival skills so they can react with lightning speed.

This month's Hometown Hero focuses on three of the volunteers helping to find lost Manitobans.

“I’m really grateful to have been given the opportunity, it’s really rewarding,” Larcombe said.

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

“You can’t just say I went to the bar tonight and skip this. That’s not an option if you really want to commit to it.”

“There's a high level of commitment because you know you were just sitting down to dinner with your family on Friday night and your phone rings and five minutes later you're going to pack up your gear and spend the night looking for someone,” Larcombe said .

“You can’t just say I went to the bar tonight and skip that. That’s not an option if you really want to commit to it.”

Larcombe was recruited by Hewitt through family friends. 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.

When a prospective member trains with the team for the first time, they train with everyone at their base on the edge of Assiniboine Park Forest.

During the year, WINSAR runs a 30-hour weekend course called “Ground Search and Rescue Basic” which is registered by the Manitoba Emergency Services College.

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

Additionally, the Manitoba Emergency Services College hosts winter survival training in the Brandon Hills in January. Hewitt said all members are asked to complete this training before they can participate in a real search, where they will be supervised on-site by experienced members.

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

“They teach a lot of valuable skills. The training that WINSAR offers people is a benefit for us as volunteers.”

WINSAR members complete training exercises twice a month at their facility in Assiniboine Park. This includes practicing emergency shelter construction, navigation and compass skills, transporting patients and administering first aid.

The team assists RCMP, Winnipeg Police and Parks Canada when a person goes missing. When the Fire Commissioner's Office is called upon for assistance, members meet at one of several assembly points around the city and are ready to respond within two hours.

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

“But if we find injured people who need help, that is the best outcome. That means they couldn’t come 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 in which they can deploy. This includes east of Winnipeg to the Ontario border, south of the city to the American border and has at times assisted RCMP with flight searches in The Pas and Thompson

The Westman area relies on the Brandon Regional Search and Rescue Association, which covers southwestern Manitoba.

WINSAR Operations Officer Randy Antonio 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, conducting searches.

Over time, he came to the conclusion that there were better ways to improve the way these searches were conducted and, during his time in the field, he established contact with investigators on these cases. Antonio had experience with Search and Rescue Manitoba and the Manitoba Emergency Services College and decided to form a trained team.

“From then on I recruited staff occasionally, after which we were not a formal unit for many years,” Antonio said.

“Mostly people I knew at work. Most of us were ex-military, so we already had a lot of outdoor and survival skills. This allowed us to quickly become proficient in search and rescue capabilities thanks to the province’s support and 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 sustains him and the team.

“It’s not always a happy ending for us,” Antonio said.

“Search and rescue operations are generally not a comfortable thing for us, they don't come at 2:00 in the afternoon on a nice, warm Saturday.”

“I remember a lot of them too. Where we go home after bringing closure to a family, but not necessarily the outcome we wanted. It's a bit of a balancing act for me, there are a lot of positive aspects, but there are also some results that are not exactly positive for us and that stay with you for years.”

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

“Search and rescue operations are generally not a comfortable thing for us, they don't happen at 2:00 in the afternoon on a nice, warm Saturday,” Antonio said.

“Generally it's late at night, it's generally bad weather, Christmas time, holidays, we tend to get more calls during those times of the year too.”

“Sometimes it can be really challenging when you're on the third day fighting through thick bush and swamp and things like that, but you can still know that you've done your best to help someone,” Larcombe said.

Hewitt has been a member for seven years and joined WINSAR after attending a survival skills session at Fort Whyte Alive. She recalled a standout moment when the group helped a woman called “Berry Picker.”

“She strayed toward the U.S. border, the search lasted about three days and has just been called off,” Hewitt said.

“Everyone was already starting to leave the field because we thought there was no way this senior could have made it through thick brush for three days.”

Hewitt said the woman heard a noise in the bush as people from neighboring search and rescue groups walked away. Although it was not WINSAR that specifically found the person, the collective effort helped the woman return to safety after extensive efforts.

“She recovered within a few days, she was in the hospital for a while, 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. “,” said Hewitt.

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

Larcombe works with elementary school students for WINSAR's AdventureSmart program. The focus of the program is to teach children through safety lessons what they need to do to stay safe if they get lost. It's a program designed to help young people get out of a situation they shouldn't be in.

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

For more information about recruitment and WINSAR membership, visit winnipegsearchandrescue.ca