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Training for the worst

Roughly 200 search-and-rescue volunteers discovered new skills and new tools Saturday in the back country south of Ashland.

With cables draped over a cliff near Howard Prairie Lake, teams of eight rope rescue volunteers from Southern Oregon and northern California learned to use Jackson County's all-titanium rescue litter with an Arizona Vortex, a tripod-shaped piece of equipment used to precisely guide the rope.

Jackson County Search and Rescue Manager Chris Duran said the litter, which weighs only 16 pounds, is an expensive piece of equipment that not all search and rescue agencies in the California Oregon Regional Search and Rescue network have, and the exercise is an opportunity to get familiar with it. Before the litter began its ascent to the top of the cliff, Mark Unger used a video feed from a flying drone to check on the rescuer at the bottom and the person inside the litter.

The rope exercise, taught by an instructor from Bend-based Crackerjack First Response Specialists, was one of many classes available at the annual CORSAR Summer Exercise, which had exercises for 4-wheeler search-and-rescue teams, paramedics, canine and horse-mounted teams. Participants represented eight counties, including Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Klamath, Curry and Coos counties in Oregon and Siskiyou and Del Norte counties in California.

The event was an opportunity for vendors to introduce new technology to rescuers for consideration. In an exercise where rescuers needed to extract a sunken boat from Hyatt Lake, San Jose-based Deep Ocean Engineering demonstrated its Phantom T5 underwater drone. John Bergman and Raul Pena, vice presidents of Deep Ocean, showcased the capabilities of the drone,  which is designed for waters that may be treacherous or difficult to see through for human divers. the drone can mark areas of interest and can run autonomously so searchers can focus on the camera feed.

"They don't have to find the boat by Braille," Bergman said.

The volunteers hoped to lift the boat, which was free of fuel and chemicals, out of the water. Technical dive instructor Tim Erwin of Klamath Falls-based Underwater Technologies encouraged the dive volunteers to practice slowly because the exercise was a recovery rather than a rescue. The diver's safety is a higher priority in recovery operations, Erwin said.

CORSAR was born out of tragedy a decade ago, after San Francisco TV personality and technology reporter James Kim died in December 2006, when he left his stranded car to seek help for his family after they took a wrong turn onto an unpaved BLM logging road in Josephine County.

Others at the event have experienced similar tragedy. Kirsten Becker demonstrated the proprietary belt and training of her large Newfoundland dog, Lou, for Portland-based nonprofit Autism Anchor Dogs. The dog is trained to lie down when a child tethered to him begins to wander too far away from the child's parents. 

The idea's inspiration came when she lost her 8-year-old son, Sam, who was on the autism spectrum, after he went missing near Crater Lake in 2006. He was never found.

She said her son had only wandered off a handful of times.

"It doesn't have to be very many times, it just has to be dangerous," Becker said.

Also at the event was search-and-rescue volunteer Alan Foster, who worked as a special agent for the National Park Service when Sam went missing. Foster has since retired, but volunteers with Jackson County Search and Rescue.

Foster and Becker delivered an emotional presentation Saturday about the different perspectives in a missing persons search. As a parent, Becker said she was very grateful for the search-and-rescue community.

"Even finding a body is better than not knowing," Becker said.

—Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Search and Rescue rope team volunteers train during the CORSAR region summer exercise near Howard Prairie Lake on Saturday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch