Albany-Dougherty Search and Rescue team members B.J. Boyd, left, and Mike Gonzalez replenish
supplies recently in Albany.
ALBANY -- They can often be seen at an event responding to a medical emergency when Dougherty Emergency Medical Services (EMS) can't be there. They may also be found conducting land or water searches for missing people, whether it be an Alzheimer's patient or a deer hunter who has lost his way.
They are the Albany-Dougherty Search and Rescue Team.
Organized in 1970, the all-volunteer, non-profit community service organization operates under and in conjunction with the Albany-Dougherty County Emergency Management Agency (EMA). The purpose of the team is to aid and assist any government agency with emergency communications, emergency care and assistance at local charity events.
Jim Vaught, deputy director of the EMA, refers to the team as a "force multiplier."
"They are hometown heroes," he said. "They bring something to us that we don't have.
"They are a great group of people. They make things move smoothly."
Members of the team come from all walks of life and are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They receive no reimbursement for their services, nor do they receive funding from federal, state or local offices.
"We work under the direction of the EMA, but we are not on anyone's budget," said Team Commander Chuck Mitchell.
Vaught said he stays in touch with Mitchell daily to be sure both parties are in the know regarding what is going on within the region.
"The EMA is nothing more than a coordinating agency," Vaught said. "(The area's public safety agencies) all know Chuck. They will call him and he will mobilize (the team). If the call comes to me, I will call Chuck."
Other than communicating with each other regarding the team's individual missions, the group is also included by the EMA in disaster or emergency full-scale exercises conducted in the area, Vaught said.
Aside from monetary donations, Mitchell said the team's biggest need right now is an automated external defibrillator (AED) -- a portable device used to shock a person's heart back into a normal rhythm -- of its own to use.
Ideally, they would like to have more than one AED, but they are willing to take what they can get.
"Usually we borrow one on the fire department truck, but we would like to have one of our own," Mitchell said. "We could actually use a three or four because with two or three events in one weekend, we have to stretch the team out."
Depending on the type of unit, the cost of an AED can range from $1,200 to $5,000, Mitchell said.
Mitchell came onto the team in 1983. A family friend already on the team influenced him to join, but ultimately it was the birth of his son that got him on this track.
"I wanted to take CPR in case he got hurt," he said. "I got hooked on it and have been in love with it ever since."
Those coming into the team receive the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills necessary for certification in basic rescue, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid -- in turn allowing the more experienced of the group's members to sharpen their skills.
For this, the team has certified instructors who teach rescue, first aid, first responder, CPR, crash victim extrication, communications, diving, rope rescue, hazardous materials and radiological monitoring.
"All of our volunteers are trained in CPR and AED use," Mitchell said. "We constantly train and keep our skills up. Luckily, we have EMTs (emergency medical technicians) that volunteer their time."
Many of the team's members have gone on to become certified first responders, EMTs, paramedics and registered nurses, Mitchell said.
DUTIES ARE VARIED
Most of their duties involve emergency medical treatment and communications during events in town including the Exchange Club Fair, the annual Christmas parades, events at Chehaw, BMX bike races, the Albany Marathon, Albany's Mardi Gras festival, Fourth of July activities, among others.
At such events, the team's job is to provide care in those situations so that EMS can respond to calls while the event is ongoing. The Albany Police Department serves as the team's "eyes and ears" and alerts them to signs of trouble while the group provides immediate assistance until EMS personnel can arrive, the team's commander said.
"We are mainly considered a volunteer medical team," Mitchell said. "If someone comes in with a serious enough condition, we assess them and get the patient an EMS transport.
"They usually have to have a medical team on site. Dougherty EMS is a good team, but it is hard for them to take a truck out there and leave it while responding to calls. We radio them (EMS) with the patient's condition, and EMS picks them up and takes them (the patient) to the hospital. We work real good with them."
Another big part of the team's job is underwater rescue and recovery. Members of the group specialize in "black water" diving operations, and while working under the EMA and local authorities, team divers are responsible for recovering objects of evidence as well as numerous victims of water accidents in the region.
"We have people that are trained as firefighters and police officers, but we don't have a scuba team," Vaught said. "They (the team) can stay on site and can help and not tie up other assets."
On occasion, the team will work with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help get its job done. They also coordinate with public health officials for training exercises as well as in situations in which a disaster the team responds to might pose a health hazard, including illness concerns that might arise as a result of rising floodwaters.
In the event of a disaster elsewhere, the team can be called out to other counties that might need assistance, officials say.
The equipment the team uses is all stored in a fenced-in area behind one of the Albany Fire Department stations, with some of it in an ambulance that was on the auction block before it was donated to the group. A lot of their supplies have come from the emergency kits of the individual team members as well as whatever can be paid for out of pocket.
That's what makes donations all the more important.
"We need donations to restock supplies," Mitchell said. "It's been harder and harder to come by donations. We don't take money for time or services.
"Over the last couple of years, money has been tight. It's also been difficult to keep volunteers on the team because they have to concentrate on (keeping themselves afloat)."
Currently, there are 42 people serving on the team. While turnover has been high, Mitchell said the group can usually keep an average of 40 people.
"I can depend (highly) on about 20 that are hard-core, but at some point, they all come in to help," Mitchell said.
YOUNGER VOLUNTEERS NEEDED
Vaught emphasized the need to get some new blood into the team.
"Anytime you have an organization like this, it is primarily older people who are retired," he said. "We are looking for newer people to replace (some older people that might be leaving). It is important to keep a young base."
There are places on the team for those who are not medically trained, as the skills to help can be learned. There is also room on the team for those who may fear the sight of blood.
"We usually have those people working generators, radios or paperwork," Mitchell said. "We're surprised how many folks want to help.
"It's rewarding. It makes you feel good to help the community. There is no financial gain. It just feels good to help out."
While monetary donations and an AED are the team's most immediate needs, canopies, a small backup generator and ice chests are among the items that could also be useful, Mitchell said.
"We will take anything that can be used," he said. "We usually don't go begging, but we need an AED. It's important."
Potential team members must be 18 or older and be willing to undergo a background check. Those wishing to participate in GEMA and FEMA-related activities will be expected to take CPR, first aid and rescue specialist courses.
"We offer (these courses) to the professionals, but we offer it to these folks as well," Vaught said.
The group is sponsored by the Albany Fire Department, which supplies radios for the team to use. There is also National Incident Management System (NIMS) training available to those on the team, Vaught said.
The team meets on the second Monday of each month at Phoebe North, located at 2000 Palmyra Road, beginning at 7 p.m. For more information, Mitchell can be contacted by calling (229) 669-0290, or sending an email to chmitcheppmh.org.