After exhaling a huge sigh of relief and having time to process the events, Penticton Search and Rescue volunteers are saying they learned valuable lessons in the search for Kienan Hebert.
The community of Sparwood was turned on end last Wednesday, after the Hebert family awoke to find its youngest member, three-year-old Kienan, missing. Police and Sparwood Search and Rescue jumped into action to find the boy, who initially was believed to have left the home while sleep walking, but was later alleged to have been abducted.
The Kootenay town pulled out all the stops, including calling other communities for mutual aid. Penticton Search and Rescue was paged Thursday night, and three team leaders were flown out by PEP (Provincial Emergency Preparedness) Air Friday morning.
Penticton SAR search manager Cindy Smith said they were in charge of “convergent volunteers,” or people from the community who decide to help out.
“That can be a very big job, especially in a community like Sparwood, where almost everybody, because of the nature of the search being a lost child, wants to help because they’re such a close-knit community. There were hundreds upon hundreds of convergent volunteers.”
Overseeing civilian volunteers is a pressing task, Smith said, because people must be given a crucial sense of purpose at a difficult time.
“If you’re not using them and giving them a job, then they can head out and try to do things on their own, which can sometimes hamper the search,” she said. “You want to give them jobs that are productive and make them feel like they’re helping, but also can be useful to the command team.”
Search managers decided to embark on what’s called a “closed grid search,” which requires volunteers to line up shoulder to shoulder while moving along through a specific area at a very slow pace.
“You check pretty much every square inch of earth and just move along, looking for clues,” Smith said. “That type of search is very seldom done in a search and rescue task, because it’s very labour and resource intensive.”
The only other time closed grid searches are conducted, she explained, are when the RCMP call in SAR members to help comb an area for evidence.
Sometimes the magnitude of the task got to the volunteers, and search managers used their training to help others focus.
“Everybody’s very passionate and very emotional being out there. They’re not accustomed to being in that situation, so sometimes it’s a little bit harder for them to be out there and it can be tough for them to be objective,” Smith said.
“We found the volunteers to be fantastic. They worked very hard. They listened to what they were told. They trooped on. It was a pleasure to work with them. I can’t say enough about how much that community chipped in to help out during the search.”
As time wore on, Smith added, SAR members tried their best not to worry.
“For us, as a search and rescue professional, you sort of push those personal feelings in your back pocket because if you’re going to do an effective job, you can’t constantly be thinking that there’s someone’s baby out there,” she said. “You just go out and do the job.”
Each night, SAR members returned to the Mormon church in town, where cots had been set up for rescuers to get rest. It was early Sunday when a rumbling in the hall woke them up.
“We woke up to the wonderful news that he had been located safe. That was a very good morning,” she said. “It had gone on for such a long time that in your heart you’re starting to believe the outcome isn’t going to be good.
“But I can tell you, as soon as we heard he was OK, all those feelings came to surface. We were a very, very, very happy group of people.”
PEP Air flew volunteers home, and Smith said Penticton SAR is reviewing how best to apply the lessons learned to potential problems that could arise locally.
“We found the organization of the search and rescue command in Sparwood to be fantastic, and the community support to the teams and overall search effort was second to none. It was very effective, very well done, and we’ve come back with lots of ideas of who to approach in our community to help us out in the event of the unfortunate circumstance if we found ourselves in that situation,” she said.
“We’re very happy to have him home, and we were honoured to be part of the search and to do our bit.”