Not many years ago when people went missing in the Wanganui hinterland a large group of volunteers would be summoned to search for them. These days searches are much more professional and rely on a small group of well-trained and highly-motived personnel using up-to-date techniques.

Search and Rescue Wanganui Inc is one of 61 LandSAR groups, with over 3500 volunteers throughout New Zealand. Chair of the local group, Alex Loggie, answered questions posed by the Wanganui Chronicle about its operations.

Q: How many callouts do you get in an average year?
A: As a member team of the Central North Island Alliance we belong to one of the five recognised search and rescue hotspots in New Zealand. While the lead teams in these operations are usually Taupo or Turangi, we work closely with them to maintain operational capability as well as responding to more locally-based searches.

A recent Mountain Safety Council report on tramping incidents stated the Central North Island has the highest number of search and rescue incidents. High profile searches such as one last year in the Kaimanawas which went over an extended period of time required Wanganui send multiple 3-5 person teams over multiple days.

Remember this is a volunteer organisation. Members are undoubtedly committed as are the many employers who make their staff available. In the last quarter our group completed well in excess of 700 hours for searches and training and the business side of managing our group.

Wanganui search and rescue's only field member married couple Adayne (left) and Kerry Margison on a search for a missing forestry worker in Whanganui National Park. He walked out after getting lost.
Wanganui search and rescue's only field member married couple Adayne (left) and Kerry Margison on a search for a missing forestry worker in Whanganui National Park. He walked out after getting lost.

Q: What form do callouts take?

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A: Not all searches are in bush or wilderness environments and this is a common misconception of what we do. Many searches are for lost vulnerable individuals in urban type environments. These can include children, confused elderly or the despondent.

All require specific skill sets and an understanding of characteristic lost person behaviour of the particular demographic such as a despondent person behaves very differently from a five-year-old child. An obvious statement, perhaps, but one which factors into the search methodology employed.

Q: How often do you exercise?

A: Our group has an annual training plan. Individual members develop their plans through the competency framework which helps inform whether their training requires national or local level training. We can host annual training events.

For example, our advanced outdoor first aid certification lasts for two years and will expire for most of our group late this year. For that reason we will be a host for this event with external providers offering the necessary training to ensure we continue to meet our operational requirements.

Training is environment-specific. For example, urban search training occurs in urban environments, so it`s important to realise that the many facets of search and rescue lend themselves to more than just the super fit. We deploy individuals based upon their skill sets.

An annual search and rescue exercise is run over a weekend and is an opportunity for other teams to join with us in a search exercise aimed at replicating likely scenarios. This is also a good opportunity to practice and put together an extended skill set over a prolonged period in a safe manner.

Backroom activity during an operation. Equipped with good basic typing and IT skills, these personnel support field-based members on searches.
Backroom activity during an operation. Equipped with good basic typing and IT skills, these personnel support field-based members on searches.

Q: You have some 30 members, what are requirements age-wise etc to join SAR?

A: Personal requirements for members are listed on the website. As we now have broader roles available than field-based personnel, it is important to remember this as the backroom staff are an essential part of our team. LandSAR is an integral part of New Zealand's search and rescue capability and we require good people with the right attitude to help get everyone home safely.

Q: Describe your present status as far as numbers and morale are concerned.

A: Our group is in good shape with a healthy intake of new members over the past 2-3 years. We work hard to maintain a positive, supportive, professional environment with an active membership. As an example we have with a high quality new member induction programme that one of our group has spent a lot of time and effort developing.
This means that prospective new field members have a clear pathway from attendance of initial meetings to gaining relevant field-based skills to enable them to function professionally and safely. I believe the LandSAR culture and environment is well suited to a lot of people and this is reflected in our group having a stable long term membership with several members serving over 20 years as well as the newer influx.

View from a chopper of Hipango Park, on the lower Whanganui River, during a search for a man. He was found the next day after a cold night and walking some distance from where he went missing at the park.
View from a chopper of Hipango Park, on the lower Whanganui River, during a search for a man. He was found the next day after a cold night and walking some distance from where he went missing at the park.

Q: What are your present needs?

A: Current needs vary from team development, the ever-present need for new equipment and the ever- changing and evolving environment of search and rescue.

In consideration of the evolution of search and rescue, LandSAR NZ has adopted a search management software programme called SARTrack. New Zealand is one of the leaders in the use of software programmes to support search and rescue capability.

Our group, due to a willingness to adopt new technologies as well as having the relevant IT expertise, is at the forefront of running SARTrack at an operational level. Among other functions SARTrack permits live GPS tracking of teams while operational.

The adoption of SARTrack does mean we need equipment and team members to support the implementation and ongoing use of the technologies.

In consideration of equipment, we need GPS enabled radio microphones which cost approximately $250 per unit as well as a cradle point device which allows internet connectivity in more remote environments. These cost approximately $2000 plus data usage costs.

Personnel-wise we require upskilling of members who support the backroom running of operations. This includes people with good basic typing and IT skills who will then form the management support unit. As with field-based members, we provide training and support for these roles.

Personal protective equipment always appears to be on the needs list. Our current Swazi rain jackets are great pieces of kit and while they continue to serve a purpose, at over 14 years of age we could benefit from new ones. However, at replacement costs of over $600 per jacket these are big ticket items.

Q: How are you going about meeting these needs?
A: Group training needs are identified through an annual review process. This allows us to focus on specific needs and identify plans to address these.

LandSAR NZ has adopted a competency-based training programme to ensure everyone is safe and professional in their practice. All field members have to undertake and complete such training. This ensures that anyone requiring LandSAR services is guaranteed to receive the best service available.

Due to the variety of roles including the non-field aspects which covers typing, radio communications etc we have individuals who lead on the development of these specific roles.

Funding is always an issue as we are a non-profit organisation. As we have no income aside from a quarterly administration grant, we rely entirely on fund-raising and supportive benefactors to maintain our group. Nationally there has been an appointment of a funding position and within our group we have new members who are willing and interested to spend time developing this area. A Givealittle link is available on our website wanganuisar.org.nz

Preparing to stabilise and retrieve an
Preparing to stabilise and retrieve an "injured" mountain biker during a joint exercise in Tongariro National Park. According to the scenario, the patient was illegally biking on a walking track, fell down a bluff, hit her head and wandered into a rugged river system.

Q: As an example, explain how you were able to purchase down jackets.

A: Thanks goes to the funding and grants monies we periodically access to purchase the previously referred to big ticket items. This requires we submit funding applications. Purchasing personal equipment is often very expensive as a result of some of the very difficult and extreme conditions we sometimes have to work in and what we demand of our equipment.

We were fortunate enough to be successful in a funding application to Four Regions (formerly Powerco Wanganui) Trust last year for $15,000. That enabled the purchase of 20 specialist waterproof down jackets manufactured by Earth, Sea and Sky.

We are extremely grateful for this funding as it helps ensure members have the best available gear on the market. With that in mind we are also lucky to have two of the best manufacturers of outdoor gear in the world in our backyard in the form of Earth Sea and Sky and Swazi. Great gear made by great people.

Q: How important is your website?
A: Given the digital age in which we live it made perfect sense that we joined it. We have been fortunate to have a member who does website design and has developed one for our group. This means we can put out accurate information to answer most questions as well as publicising our work and keep everyone informed.
Information on what to do if people want to join, meeting times and venues are all there. As funding is an ongoing issue there is a Givealittle link. Anyone interested can visit our site wanganuisar.org.nz We can also be contacted at info@wanganuisar.org.nz

Q: Who would you like to thank?

A: The finance issue leads our group to recognise and thank the many people and organisations who have and continue to support us. Without their generosity our viability as a local search and rescue unit would be questionable. There are too many people and groups top thank individually but special mention must go to Balance Chartered Accountants do our annual audit of accounts for a nominal sum. Whanganui Insurance Brokers who have kindly provided us with insurance cover when this was required and Safemode who allow us to use their premises for training and meeting purposes.

Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) Wanganui provides a search, rescue and recovery service to people who encounter difficulty in the Whanganui region. It is an professional, unpaid, not for profit, volunteer-based organisation made up of some 30 members. Personnel cover the area up to the Patea River, Waitotara, up to Taumarunui, around a part of Mt Ruapehu, and some of the Ruahine Ranges. LandSAR Wanganui is a part of the Central North Island Alliance which includes Ruapehu, Turangi, Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation, Taupo and Taihape. It also operates in any other region throughout New Zealand as and when required. Teams provided a complete search and rescue service specialist skills in the field to base staff for running operations. Search and rescue specific training and ability to perform in almost any weather can make the difference. Most operations involve a successful outcome but on occasions the group is tasked with recovering bodies. In the year ended March 2018, New Zealand had 495 search and rescue operations, which required 42,191 hours searching and involved 4,778 trained LandSAR volunteers. Of these searches, 23% related to those with cognitive impairments such as autism or dementia. As well, 108,200 hours were spent on non-operational matters, which included training and administration.