It doesn’t happen with great frequency, but when a person goes missing in Centre County, it’s usually not due to nefarious circumstances. Rather, a hiker or a hunter might get turned around on one of central Pennsylvania’s myriad wooded trails. Sometimes it’s intentional, as when a teenager runs away from home. Occasionally, an Alzheimer’s patient may wander from a long-term care facility and become disoriented.
Whenever an incident like this occurs, there is a local team comprised mainly of volunteers that are ready, willing, and well-trained to aid in the search.
The Centre Region Emergency Strike Team, or CREST, is the wilderness search and rescue/specialty disaster support division of Centre LifeLink EMS Inc. CREST was founded in 2006 when participants in a CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training program wanted to continue training and do more with their skills, according to Rose Stover, who has been a CREST member since its inception.
Those special skills include things like compass and map navigation, wilderness rescue techniques, basic first aid, understanding lost person behavior, and much more. CREST members must train for at least 100 hours and get certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) before they can be deployed into the field on a search operation.
Ongoing training is a big part of being a member of CREST. The team meets on the first Tuesday of each month at the Centre LifeLink building on Puddintown Road in State College. At these monthly meetings, the team discusses administrative items and does some continuing education, working on skills like rope-tying techniques or radio protocol. One weekend each quarter, the team members practice their skills outdoors through simulated searches and rescues.
“One weekend we did night navigation. We had to find five different points that someone marked on a map,” says Jean Moore, communications director for CREST. “We were given longitude and latitude, a compass, and a map. This was 10 at night, it was dark, we were in teams of two, and we had headlamps and flashlights. We were bushwhacking our way through the thickness of Black Moshannon trying to find a general location based on the markings on a map.”
Team members often choose to participate in specialty training opportunities, she says, like hazardous material catastrophe response, water rescue, and large animal rescue. CREST serves Centre and neighboring counties, and sometimes responds to statewide and national call-outs.
CREST is activated when law enforcement or emergency service departments call on them to supplement their services. Members are expected to be available to go at a moment’s notice, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in all kinds of weather.
Moore has been involved with CREST for two years. During that time, she’s participated in several search missions.
“My very first call was for an individual who had gone out for a trail run in the woods. His wife was supposed to pick him up at a certain location after an hour. Two hours went by and she hadn’t seen him or heard from him, so she called the police,” she says.
CREST arrived on the scene, got information from the police, and prepared to mobilize, when the missing runner suddenly emerged from the trees.
“I was the one that saw him first, and I just pointed and said, ‘Look, there he is!’ So now the joke is, all Jean has to do is show up, and they walk out of the woods,” she laughs.
Moore also participated in a recent search for a missing Alzheimer’s patient in Lemont.
“The gentleman had wandered off at 8 p.m., and our team was called out at 3:30 a.m. We searched the Lemont area, using a variety of different tactics that we’ve learned. We study lost person behavior, which considers things like a person’s age and their medical condition, what type of weather it is, and if they have dementia,” she explains. “We searched from 3:30 a.m. until he was found safe at 9 o’clock in the morning, almost five miles away from his last known location.”
What made this particular search stand out for Moore was the fact that it happened in mid-March, soon after the pandemic began.
“We were all wearing our N95 masks because the pandemic was so real, and we’d already gone over our protocols of what to do when you find someone, like handing them a mask, putting on your gloves before you approach, that sort of thing. So that made it interesting,” she says.
Of course, not all searches have a happy resolution, but even a sad ending provides an important service, according to Jason Tartalone, the special operations coordinator at Centre LifeLink in charge of CREST.
“I’ve been involved in several rescues across the state where we have brought closure, and sometimes that’s the best thing we could have done for the family,” he says. “To provide that closed-ended circle for a family – it’s an amazing feeling when you’re able to do that for someone.”
Tartalone has been the CREST supervisor for six years, but he has 20 years of experience doing search and rescue. He says he has seen the field change in several ways over the years.
“Search and rescue has traditionally been an under-researched aspect of rescue. It’s always been kind of a niche,” he says. “But recently there has been a lot of research into lost person behavior, and there is a lot more emphasis on using that research in order to search for people more efficiently.”
The availability of new technology has also changed a lot about search and rescue, he says. For one thing, with the emergence of cell phones with GPS capabilities, fewer people are getting lost, but when they do, technology makes finding them easier and less expensive than ever. For example, drones are often able to be used in place of helicopters, saving money and manpower. Technology also can pinpoint the position of a 911 caller, track searchers, and allow for direct communication with them in the field.
Stover believes that fewer people getting lost is a very positive thing, but she has some concerns that having fewer missions makes it more difficult for CREST to retain volunteers. The team currently has 26 members. Ten years ago, it had more than 60 members.
“We used to get called out quite frequently, but the call-outs have gone down over the past five to seven years. It can be hard to keep volunteers interested in something you don’t do on a regular basis,” she says.
Although search missions may have decreased in number, CREST members serve the local community in many other ways.
“We often do fire response for the fire departments,” says William Kenyon, a CREST field team leader. “If there is a fire that goes into a second alarm, we’re called out as part of a rehab crew. We set up a safety station for first aid for the firefighters, so we’re checking their vitals to make sure they’re safe to go back into the fire after they come out the first time.”
Sometimes, CREST is summoned by local law enforcement to help search for evidence, rather than for a person.
“When you’re trained in search and rescue, one of the first things you’re taught is, you’re not necessarily looking for a person, you’re looking for clues,” Kenyon explains. “We’re regularly trained to look for things as well as people. So we’ve been called for evidentiary searches by the police department. For example, we did one a few years ago, when the police were looking for a weapon that had been discarded in the woods.”
CREST also looks for ways to educate and make the community safer. For example, Stover says, “Before they put the signs up on Mt. Nittany, people would often get lost up there. Our team actually helped with getting the trail signage up there because we were getting a lot of call-outs for people lost on Mt. Nittany.”
CREST members often provide safety education to the public, such as through the NASAR “Hug-a-Tree” program that teaches kids (and often their parents, Stover says) basic hiking safety tips, such as wearing the right shoes, the importance of staying in one location if you are lost, and always telling someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.
Members of the CREST team range from young professionals to retirees from a wide variety of disciplines. Moore is a marketing consultant; Kenyon is a theater professor; Stover is a Penn State retiree with a background in zoology and veterinary science.
“What I’ve always liked about the CREST team is we pull in people from all walks of life,” Stover says. “It’s a wonderful group of people to be involved with. If it wasn’t for the search and rescue team, I probably never would have crossed paths with 90 percent of the people on this team.”
“It’s an interesting and fun group of people, and I think that if people are interested and willing to train and get certified, it reaps rewards beyond what they can imagine,” says Moore. “For me, the sense of being able to go to a scene and help out, to put someone’s mind at ease knowing their loved on is being looked for – there’s just something in me that thinks that’s exciting and thrilling. I really love it.”
Anyone who enjoys the outdoors has the potential to join CREST, Kenyon says. “If you have an interest in being outdoors and if you have an interest in helping people, that’s really all we need to start. We have the ability to train everybody for everything else.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.