Pickett Memorial Conservation Corps Memorial State Park, Tenn. --
A Blackhawk from the 1-230th Assault Helicopter Battalion touches down in a bare field in Pickett Civilian Conservation Corps Memorial State Park. Nearby, groups of Tennessee Army National Guard soldiers gather with members of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and representatives from the Tennessee State Parks, plus ten other state and local agencies, with one mission: finding lost hikers.
Every year, nearly 2,000 people are reported as lost in the wilderness across the United States. Most are found with small, local-run search and rescue operations. Occasionally these become more involved, turning into multi-day events that call up a variety of local resources.
Once or twice a year, these operations in the Tennessee State Parks require more resources, and assistance is requested from the Tennessee National Guard (TNG).
Lt. Col. Dallas Clements, Deputy Director of Military Support for the TNG, served as the military liaison to the Incident Command.
“It’s always important for us to maintain those relationships because in a crisis situation people are going to gravitate to people they’ve worked with in the past,” Clements explained. “We’ve been doing search and rescue exercises with the state parks since 2016.”
Mike Dobis, the Chief Ranger for Tennessee State Parks, described the type of emergency that might lead to this mass generation of resources.
“The question we asked in the planning phase is: 'when would we actually implement this mass involvement?' And it would most likely be in a natural disaster, when we would be searching for large amounts of people in some very rough terrain.”
The scenario, as described by the rangers before they divided over seventy soldiers into search teams, was especially relevant due to recent weather patterns. Tennessee has relatively mild winters, but a few weeks ago there was a severe drop in temperature leading to extreme danger for hikers caught outside unaware. In this scenario they had several groups of hikers that were overdue to return and needed to be located swiftly due to the dangers of rapidly changing temperatures.
“It’s really important for us to be involved in exercises like this for a couple of reasons,” Clements said. “One, it allows us to develop a skill set that we don’t routinely pull on. Yes, soldiers are used to navigating and communicating in a woodland environment, they’re used to calling for a medical evacuation. But they’re not used to communicating on a civilian radio system or working with unmanned aerial systems from search and rescue. We have brought our own UAS, the Raven, and they’ll be in support. It’s a great opportunity for the raven operators too. Normally in the state of Tennessee, they fly within our training areas. Here they get to work in an environment they’ve never flown in before, they get to actually look for folks in the wood line using their infrared sensors, and then radio that information to the searchers in an effort to help steer the search in the right direction.”
The soldiers worked in teams with rangers and members of TEMA to search difficult terrain deep in the park. Once ‘remains’ were located as part of the exercise, the search teams called in the medevac team from the 1-230th AHB. The helicopter hovered overhead while two members of the TNG descended, retrieved the stretcher containing the ‘remains’, and lifted both members of their team before departing.
Sgt. Duncan Lowenthal, a flight medic with the 1-230th, appreciated the opportunity to practice his skills in an exercise scenario.
“Any time we get to do these multi-agency trainings, it gets us ready for any time an actual disaster happens,” Lowenthal explained. “Even though it’s good training for us, it really benefits everyone in the state.”
The 1-230th AHB is often called upon to assist both state and federal parks with retrieval of injured hikers. With the Great Smoky Mountain National Park alone welcoming over 14 million visitors annually, the availability of the Tennessee National Guard to assist with search, rescue, and retrieval, can mean the difference between life and death for outdoor enthusiasts who find themselves in dangerous situations.
Clements explained, “It’s important for us to do exercises like this because we’re the National Guard, that’s what we’re known for. ‘Always Ready, Always There’. We’re not the first call you’re going to make, it should be your local assets, your state assets. But after all of those are expended, we want to be here as a partner to help assist and see the issue through to the end.”