LEESBURG, Ga. -- Volunteers with the Lee County Community Emergency Response Team showed up at the property of a south Lee County resident recently to help search for Opal Sharpie, an elderly woman who suffers from dementia.
The volunteers scoured fields overrun with tall grass, ventured into thick woods looking for clues and set up a command post from which they worked with other emergency personnel in an attempt to find Sharpie.
The search, as it turned out, was an exercise put together by Lee CERT Team coordinators Bobby Spencer and Kyle Lentz on Lentz's property as a practical way for volunteers to utilize skills that were part of their training. But that didn't diminish the importance the CERT team leaders placed on the outcome of the exercise.
"I had an obituary printed up for Ms. Sharpie," said Lentz, a firefighter for both the Lee and Albany fire departments and assistant coordinator of the Lee CERT team. "I wanted them to know that if they failed to find this woman, this grandmother, (the obituary) would be the end results."
The Lee Community Emergency Response Team, formed in the wake of 9/11 to include members of the Lee Volunteer Fire Department and a local volunteer dive and rescue team, is 50 strong with about half that number actively involved in monthly training and area rescue and recovery efforts. Created by Homeland Security as a way for community volunteers to get involved in neighborhood emergencies, CERT team members are taught proper response techniques so that they can help first responders react more efficiently to emergency situations.
"There are several different levels of CERT participation: the fire core, which is the training firefighters go through, land search and dive team search," Spencer, an LFD captain and the CERT Team's coordinator, said. "These volunteers do everything that we as firefighters and other emergency personnel do with one big difference: They aren't paid a dime.
"And it doesn't matter what part they play in response to an emergency situation, what they do is just as important as what we do. They're not there looking for recognition; they just want to give back to their community."
Lentz knows what that's like. He was a self-employed businessman before a family tragedy convinced him to follow in his father's footsteps and become a firefighter.
"I came to realize that doing something good for the community is much more important than chasing money," he said. "The guys here supported me, and they helped me get through the training to get certified.
"That's what being on the CERT Team is about. It's about people who want to help their community."
Lee Fire Chief James Howell, who is emergency management director for the county, said the volunteers on the CERT Team play a significant roll when there are local emergencies.
"I can't say enough good things about these people," Howell said. "They give of the time that they could be with their family and friends without complaint. If you call them, they come, and it's people from all walks of life.
"When you have events like the '93 tornado or the floods in 1994 and 1998, emergency personnel's resources can be overwhelmed quickly. And while we appreciate the help that many people offer, we often end up having to spend time looking after the volunteers. (CERT Team members) know our program; they know what to expect. They work with us."
The Lee CERT Team responds to requests for help from all who call. Its members helped with recent missing-person searches in Tifton and Valdosta and were among the first to show up on Christmas Eve 2009 when Fannie Corley was reported missing in Albany.
"Christmas is about families, and our team is made up of men and women who have families," Spencer said. "But when the call went out for volunteers to help look for (Corley), within an hour there were 15-20 of our folks there on Christmas Eve. They missed time with their families because one of their community members was missing."
Lentz was one of those volunteers.
"Sure, I wanted to be with my family," he said. "But I knew I was needed. I fixed our traditional family breakfast and a short while later I was in the water."
The recent exercise in which volunteers searched for "Ms. Sharpie" was not dreamed up randomly. It is becoming an all-too-familiar scenario in the region.
"We chose that drill because in the last three or four months, three people with dementia have gone missing in this area," Lentz said. "The results of all three is that the people were found deceased. We want to be prepared, to have a team that can work through the chaos and find people's loved ones before it's too late."
Lee CERT Team volunteers meet on the first Tuesday of each month to discuss specific training techniques and strategies. Drills like the recent search-and-rescue scenario, which came on a Sunday at the end of 20 hours of weekend classes, are held twice a year.
"One of the things I ask our volunteers during every class is why they come," Spencer said. "In just about every case, I know the answer. They all want to give back. These are people who are willing to give up everything for you -- someone they don't even know -- and they're willing to do it for no pay and no recognition.
"It takes a special person to do that, and that's what we have on our CERT Team. These are special people."