Chol Hamoed Pesach. A family was enjoying a hike in Kakiat Park, a county park in Rockland County, when they inadvertently wandered off the path. They found themselves lost in Harriman State Park, which at nearly 50,000 acres is the second-largest state park in New York State. It had started to rain and Yom Tov was approaching.
The story has a happy ending. The family was rescued by members of COMMSAR (Community Search and Rescue), a non-profit, all-volunteer organization based in Monsey that saves lives through prevention, professional expertise and collaboration.
COMMSAR was founded in 2014 by Mordy Neuman and Jay Schwartz after a search and rescue in the community turned into a search and recovery mission. Its mission was to become a highly trained organization able to execute professional SAR missions backed by national training and top-notch technology. An integral part of this endeavor included sharing its passion and expertise with other Jewish organizations to facilitate the common goal of successful search and rescue missions. It likewise set the goal of teaching hiking and outdoor safety to individuals, families, camps and community groups.
Neuman, a lifelong nature enthusiast and licensed clinical social worker, credits his grandparents for his love of the outdoors. Soon after he began hiking on his own in his late teens, a friend introduced him to formal hiking trails. “I never looked back—no pun intended,” he said. He taught himself how to read topography maps and researched Harriman’s trails.
About 15 years ago he was approached by members of the local Monsey community organizations who were concerned about the then ad-hoc nature of search and rescue response. While at that time he did not feel qualified to teach search and rescue, he was ready to share what he called “what not to do.” He started teaching hiking and survival skills and together with a few like-minded friends, assisted in the occasional rescue mission.
Over time, as more members of the Jewish community turned to hiking as a form of recreation, the number of lost hikers grew. Both Schwartz and Neuman recognized the necessity of creating a formal Jewish organization dedicated to search and rescue on a professional level.
Like Neuman, Schwartz described himself as a “lifetime outdoors person” who takes great pride in COMMSAR’s recognition as an official search and rescue agency. To stay current on the latest advances, members of the organization train on a regular basis as a group and with law enforcement and other community organizations. Recently, he said, “we had a ‘patient packaging’ training on carrying an injured hiker out of the woods. We have our own rescue baskets that can be hoisted manually or by a helicopter. We also keep our skills sharp by helping law enforcement on cold cases and participating in search and rescues in the general community.”
After perfecting its mode of operation over several years, the 27-member COMMSAR is achieving its goals and is well respected by the Jewish and general community. It has conducted dozens of successful searches, works hand in hand with law enforcement and local organizations and enjoys a close working relationship with the NY-NJ Trail Conference as well as other local and national professional outdoor organizations.
COMMSAR has also conducted seminars for other rescue agencies, exhibited at community fairs and camp expos and written and published dozens of safety articles. It maintains some 10 miles of trails in Harriman State Park and Kakiat County Park.
According to Neuman, COMMSAR is typically contacted in one of three ways: by the lost person(s) himself or by family members of lost hikers; by a community organization who feels the need to escalate to a more advanced team; or by law enforcement who are either not trained in complex wilderness searches or need more manpower and expertise. COMMSAR also fields calls from the families of teenage runaways or concerning wandering seniors with dementia.
Its easy-to-remember phone number, IAMLOST (preceded by 845 or the toll-free 833) facilitates communications. Two dispatchers, trained to gather information in a sensitive manner, are always on call.
Callers are asked a series of questions designed to narrow the search area and expedite rescue. These include whether the callers know the name of the park in which they are lost, if they are alone or in a group and whether there are injuries.
Lost hikers who use smart phones to call COMMSAR automatically receive a text message with a link that once clicked provides the dispatcher with the caller’s GPS coordinates. Using preloaded topography maps on their phones, the dispatchers can often walk the person out of the woods on their own.
When the exact location of the lost party is unknown, search and rescue becomes more complex. Using a variety of methods, COMMSAR determines the park to be searched and the search radius, which could be hundreds of acres. There are two possible responses.
The “HASTY” team response is based on the assumption that the lost person is near the trail on which they were hiking. Rings are then drawn around the point of the last known whereabouts of the hiker. Using national statistics on the probability of area, such as an adult in good shape in mild terrain, rescuers estimate how far he has hiked off the trail and where he will be found. COMMSAR members walk the trail, repeatedly calling the hiker’s name, until he is located.
If the “HASTY” response doesn’t yield a positive result, the search section in broken into small grids that COMMSAR members canvass section by section for clues. “We’re trained on tracking and finding clues—there could be dozens—other people might miss. Footprints, brush pushed back, a kosher candy wrapper. If a clue is found, we will concentrate on that area.
“If no clues are found and we need to cover a larger area, we create a grid formation. We line up a couple of feet away from each other and walk in a straight line searching for clues. This requires a lot of practice. One person walks with compass to create the straight line. Sometimes we follow a stream. Our job is to find a clue, any clue.”
Neuman is quick to point out, however, that the majority of searches don’t require a grid. “Most of our search and rescues are achieved via phone or through HASTY responses,” he noted.
With the summer hiking season just ahead, COMMSAR recently began publishing weekly newsletters that include timely safety tips and interesting facts about search and rescue.
A big part of COMMSAR is its emphasis on prevention. Members are available to speak at community fairs, camp expos and to interested groups. New volunteers are always welcome.
To learn more about COMMSAR visit its website at www.commsar.org or call 845-IAMLOST (426-5678).
COMMSAR is a member of National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), NY Federation of Search and Rescue (NY-FEDSAR) and the SAR Council of New Jersey, and is a Member Club of the NY-NJ Trail Conference.
By Sherry S. Kirschenbaum